Pittsburgh's detectives are going back to basics


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In an age of increased cybersecurity, Pittsburgh’s more than 700 private detectives are resorting to old-school methods.

“All I need is your name and date of birth, and I can get your Social Security number for 50 cents,” says Colleen Waskowitz of home-based Specialty Private Investigators Inc., one of 74 detective agencies advertised in the Pittsburgh Yellow Pages.

At rates ranging from $50 to $150 an hour, private investigators are hired by insurance companies, law firms and the well-to-do to surreptitiously procure sensitive information. That includes following a spouse to verify his fidelity, conducting a background check on a daughter’s new boyfriend, searching for a child given up for adoption and chasing after subpoena and bail evaders.

“My daughter calls me a professional creeper,” said Ms. Waskowitz. “I have a license to stalk.”

That can include chasing down everyone from a long-lost heir of a multi-million dollar inheritance to an elderly woman suspected of insurance fraud with alien-repellent aluminum foil fixed to her head.

The advent of the Internet has generally made detective work immeasurably easier. Private investigators can easily turn to the Web to locate their targets — particularly by collecting basic profile information or tracking activity on social media sites such as Facebook. No matter a subject’s privacy settings, a comment on a friend’s photo or “liking” the local gym can provide a lead.

However, major hacking revelations have ushered in a new awareness of cybersecurity and online privacy. Coupled with the growing online presence of tech-savvy millennials, and the work of private detectives has recently become harder.

“People are getting smarter,” says Ms. Waskowitz. “They give a fake address and a fake date of birth. The younger kids automatically change their settings to private.”

Old-fashioned surveillance methods, it seems, will die another day.

Parts of the trade may be reminiscent of scenes out of a James Bond movie, but frequent 12-hour stretches of unfruitful, sweaty surveillance in a sweltering car are a far cry from a 007-brand of style and glamour.

“It’s not like on TV,” says Mike Haberman of Specialty Private Investigators. “We don’t have Ferraris.”

They do, however, have infrared cameras, laser camcorders, GPS trackers, and bugs that serve as listening devices.

They also have restricted access to Department of Motor Vehicle and criminal databases by virtue of a license for private investigation, issued to applicants with a minimum of three years of investigative experience by a county judge under under the Private Detective Act of 1953. Pennsylvania law also places restrictions on license-holders, including a prohibition on wire-tapping.

There are the tried-and-true strategies used by detectives, such as frequenting the local liquor store, paying a visit to close relatives, and gossiping with friends and neighbors — particularly the elderly.

“The older the person, the more excited they are to speak to somebody,” says Ms. Waskowitz, whose partner is often approached by perceptive seniors who have scoped out the investigators and are willing to serve as informants.

Private detectives also may plan reconnaissance missions around occasions that promise to draw out targets. Fourth of July picnics, Memorial Day, Black Friday and birthdays are particularly popular.

“Valentine’s Day is huge because of all the running around,” says Ms. Waskowitz, noting the months of October through December seem to be plagued by fewer instances of adultery than the rest of the calendar year. “Maybe people remember that they have a family over the holidays.”

There are occasions, however, that an overwhelming majority of private detectives will treat as sacrosanct, including Sunday church, funerals and weddings.

“There’s a misconception that there are no morals or ethics in our industry,” says Joe Becker, a former insurance adjustor and current owner of Becker & Co. in Carnegie. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”

Perhaps this unwritten ethical code is grounded in the background of private detectives, many of whom are retired law enforcement officers and criminal justice advocates. Perhaps it is as simple as an underlying empathy for the human need for privacy.

“What I do for a living pays my bills,” says Ms. Waskowitz. “But I still have to live with what I do.”


Rocio Labrador: rlabrador@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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