Longform

The Case of the Missing License

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Public safety may be DORA's chief concern, but the advocates of licensing have other agendas, too. "I operated for twenty years without a license," Pezolt says. "Now, there's probably more need for it. But we're not protecting the public. The biggest reason we wanted it is to control the competition. You want to make sure the guys you're working with have gone through the same vetting process you have, that they're not convicted felons."

There are plenty of practical reasons some P.I.s want to be licensed. Insurance would probably be cheaper for licensed P.I.s who are required to have thousands of hours of investigative experience and to keep current on changes in technology and law. Discouraging amateurs, who don't have the required experience or the moxie to get it through an apprenticeship with a licensed P.I., would be another bonus. And there's the issue of reciprocity -- numerous law-enforcement, corrections and other agencies in other states won't deal with P.I.s who aren't licensed. Colorado investigators often obtain a license in Kansas, New Mexico or Arizona if they expect to be operating out of state.

"I once had a sheriff in Nebraska ask for a copy of my P.I. license," Pezolt recalls. "When I told him I didn't have one, he said, 'I wouldn't let the sun set on you in this town tonight.'"

The most pressing issue, though, is access to credit reports and consumer databases compiled by companies such as ChoicePoint -- all those Social Security numbers, dates of birth, last known addresses and other goodies that are the essential tools of the trade for a gumshoe in the computer age. Pending federal legislation could restrict data companies from peddling such information to anyone except for a narrow range of banks and finance companies, law-enforcement agents, attorneys and other credentialed professionals. Without licenses, a lot of Colorado P.I.s could be shut out of the data harvest entirely.

"Some private eyes don't understand that information you can access today, you may not be able to access tomorrow, so you may not be in business," Johnson says. "If the feds don't do it, the data companies will."

Several data vendors have already taken steps on their own to restrict access, truncating Social Security numbers and beefing up internal security in an effort to ward off identity thieves. Earlier this year, ChoicePoint paid $10 million in penalties to the FTC after admitting that personal financial records of 163,000 consumers had been compromised because of lax security measures; the company also agreed to "ensure that consumer reports are provided only to those with a permissible purpose."

The increasing obstacles to getting data alarms P.I.s on all sides of the licensing issue. "The country runs off dates of birth and Social Security numbers," says Cinquanta. "Most of what you get now is worthless. They're crippling us with all this bullshit. You know who wins when they do that? The bad guys: deadbeats, criminals, con men."

Investigators use the data services on a variety of legit jobs, from tracking assets in a divorce case to locating witnesses in a personal-injury lawsuit or a criminal defense. Sometimes the information is used to find identity thieves or uncover employee fraud, cases that the police might decline to pursue unless the evidence is handed to them in a gift-wrapped package.



"The nightly news and Hollywood constantly portray our profession as a bunch of crooks," sighs Eddy McClain of NCISS. "Legislators watch television, too, and they begin to believe that stuff. They think private eyes are out there doing domestic work, spying on spouses. That's such a small part of what we do. We work for corporations. Insurance companies. If you shut down what we do, it would have a tremendous effect on commerce -- not to mention the civil and criminal-justice systems."

Yet the same data the P.I.s use to keep commerce humming can, in the wrong hands, drain bank accounts, supply stalkers with their victims' vitals and ruin lives. The current pressure to restrict access through legislation stems partly from the data companies' own security lapses and partly from the ingenuity of the pretexters employed by data brokers -- several of whom operate openly in Colorado. At congressional hearings in late June, lawmakers got a primary education in how easy it is to hoodwink the guardians of such personal data as credit-card numbers and cell-phone records. Their instructor was none other than James Rapp, the ex-P.I. whose prosecution for interfering with the Ramsey case marked one of the first successful investigations of the pretexting business.

Rapp told DeGette and other committee members that he'd learned a little bit about finding people while in prison in Cañon City on a probation violation in the early 1980s. As a favor to other inmates, he'd contact utility and phone companies and trick them into divulging the whereabouts of the cons' ex-girlfriends or family members. After he got out, he and his wife launched a lively business tracking down deadbeats and their assets on behalf of creditors.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast