Have you ever wondered what the life of a private investigator is like? Some of us were big fans of the 80s television show Magnum P.I. Tom Selleck played the part of Thomas Magnum, an ex Vietnam veteran who became a private investigator, who solved cases on the gorgeous beaches of Hawaii all while driving a Ferrari 308 GTS.
I met with Sean Callahan of Vancouver P.I. to find out what a private investigator actually does. Is it similar to how we see it on TV or is the life of a local private eye way less interesting than that? Sean sat down with me and a pint of Guinness to answer my hard hitting questions.
So your job – do you get to drive a Ferrari, chase down criminals and cavort with rich women?
(Laughed) Everyone asks that and I understand that my job is not a normal career choice and there seems to be this major misconception out there that we live this crazy life. I get asked all the time is it like Magnum P.I. or The Republic of Doyle? It’s not. Sorry. To be honest the life of an investigator can be pretty boring and tedious. I spend long hours sitting in my car or in front of a computer monitor. You know those movies that depict police officers sitting in their vehicles for long hours downing three cups of coffee? That pretty much sums up my job for ya.
That completely just kills it for me. Thanks. We can end this interview.
(Laughed) Yeah I know right. I just wanted to make that clear right off the hop. There are days where my job is pretty cool though. Whether it is going to parties or night clubs to make sure someone is behaving themselves or following people who have faked injuries and are scamming the system, the job can have its moments of excitement and pleasure.
What do you mean by making sure people are behaving themselves? Cheating husbands?
And wives. Yes that is a large portion of our work. Some investigators will say it isn’t, or they refuse to work on those types of files, but that stuff is what keeps good P.I. firms busy. Sure we do corporate and legal files too, but we wouldn’t be as busy if it wasn’t for good ol’ fashion infidelity.
Why do some investigators not like doing that type of work?
When you are constantly watching and reporting on cheaters it can become rather dull. Its gumshoe type work. I can see why firms don’t like to deal with those types of files. Usually the client is very emotional and can sometimes be hard to work with, and to be honest, it’s like seeing the same movie over and over again. Through this job I see the world in a dark and sometimes sad state. A lot of families are having their lives turned upside down. It can be depressing…especially when kids are involved. I don’t like to see it. But I have come to accept that there are a lot of people who look outside of their marriage or relationships.
Is Vancouver full of cheaters?
Believe it or not Vancouver is below average compared to the rest of North America. According to one of the biggest dating websites on the internet that is devoted to married people hooking up, Ashley Madison, Vancouver is ranked ninth or tenth as far as cities in Canada go for infidelity. But don’t let that ranking fool you because it’s still very prevalent in this town. I think most people won’t be surprised but Ottawa has the most cheaters in the country.
Besides cheaters what other type of files come across an investigator’s desk?
We will do a lot of people finding. For many different reasons a client will want to try and find someone like an old girlfriend or boyfriend, maybe a long time family friend, or someone who has just disappeared. Sometimes we need to find someone on behalf of a law firm so that he or she can be served with legal papers.
Is it easy to find someone?
No. Not in Canada. In the US their privacy laws are a tad bit more relaxed compared to our country. We have our ways to help us in digging and looking for someone. What we need is as much information as possible from the client and we can usually find a paper trail or some sort of starting point – but nothing is guaranteed. I always try and tell people that. I don’t like selling potential clients on a bad bill of goods. I’m always honest and upfront. Nothing is guaranteed. I feel I need to tell people that because I don’t think they fully understand how things work.
That must be hard when someone is plunking down a good amount of money, expecting results and you can’t deliver sometimes.
Definitely man. People think we have a magic wand or a super high tech database that we can use and Poof! Things will appear and answers will be found. It doesn’t work that way. Every file takes a life of its own. If someone doesn’t want to be found, they will do their best to make sure they are a ghost. I will say this, Facebook and other social media sites have made most investigators jobs a lot easier.
People post all kinds of things on social media not thinking that they are publicly announcing, to whomever views it, their daily habits.
Not only that… their location! I can go onto someone’s Facebook page and find out where they are from, what they had for breakfast, who their kids are and what school they go to. Some people don’t really have to post much because their pictures tell the story. For instance if you are, let’s say, “over playing” an injury so you can cash in on disability or to get a big insurance settlement, and you are posting comments or pictures of you snowboarding, mountain climbing and playing ice hockey; I don’t think you are going to win your case. An investigator like me will just take that evidence which usually has a date on it and include it in my file. Social media is a Godsend in the investigation industry.
Have you worked in big cases that involved murder or scandal?
Actually I have worked on a murder investigation. I won’t go into detail but it was a high profile case. I was new to the industry and so I was mostly along for the ride, but I got to be a part of a large scale investigation. It was one of the saddest and most eye opening cases I ever worked on.
Did you find the killer?
All I can say is we came very close. Maybe too close. But I won’t divulge anymore.
Have you ever feared for your life?
I worry sometimes. We deal with a lot of “interesting” people. I have been in an altercation before and I was able to get myself out of it. There are people out there who are vindictive and so it’s really important to be discreet and blend in. To be honest I try very hard not to put myself in a position where I would fear for my life. We are also careful in the type of files we take on.
So when you aren’t finding people, bagging cheaters or solving criminal cases what else does an investigator do?
Drink. (Laughs) Oh and we work with parents who have troubled teens; which is actually becoming a bigger business segment for us. We also install cameras and proper security in homes and offices. Our parent company, which is Arbor Investigations, do a lot of the corporate and legal work and they are starting up a new division that will focus on computer forensics. We also get a lot of people who think their homes, vehicles, computers or phones have been bugged and we provide bug sweeps that will tell them whether or not their privacy has been compromised.
You must have some cool high tech toys?
We have some cool little cameras we can use. We have a lot of great tools, but not like Batman type toys. I wish I had a grappling hook sometimes. We have an IT department that we can call upon to make sure people’s computers and phones are secure and no key logger or spy software has been installed, and like I said we are also getting more into computer forensics .
Spyware on phones and computers? How does that work?
Oh yeah it’s very common. It isn’t easy to get software onto a phone. To do it properly one would need the phone for a period of time and in today’s society good luck in getting someone’s phone long enough to install high-end software on it. Key logging software on a computer is very common and we find that people become worried for whatever reason and feel they are being watched or monitored. We live in an age of paranoia so our services can come in handy.
What do you tell someone if they are interested in hiring you for your services?
Well before I really say anything to a new client, I always listen first. Once I hear their story I can give them better advice. A lot of times I feel like a councilor. Some people vent and they want an outside person to hear their story. I’m not a trained councilor but I have got pretty good at calming people down and talking them away from the proverbial ledge.
Once we get past the emotion, I tell people to be specific in what they are looking for. It’s a lot easier for an investigator to deal with a specific goal. The more information you can give us the easier it can be. We formulate a plan, take a retainer and go forward with an investigation. Sometimes we will uncover something other times we don’t. Nothing is guaranteed but my firm and I do our best to try and win.
Has the job changed your perspective on society?
It’s not easy to be an investigator. A lot of times we have to deal with the underbelly of life. I have to listen to a lot of very sad and heart wrenching stories. It has turned me into a harder person. Sometimes I find myself becoming bitter – this job will do that to anyone.
I want to help everyone but over the years I have had to learn to keep my personal feelings and emotions out of it because if you can’t do that, this job could burn and turn you out quick. I find my solace in my family. When I get home I turn it all off. Beer also helps! I thought there was a great line in Harry Potter when Sirius Black said, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on.”
*End of interview*
After talking to Sean it is very apparent that he doesn’t run around with a gun while driving a sports car. In fact Sean is a regular looking guy who blends in and his work seems a lot more detailed and professional than what we see on television. We live within the information age and private investigators are here to dig up intelligence whether that be for business, families or legal firms. In the end, it’s an important service that many people are starting to utilize. Major thanks to Sean Callahan of Vancouver P.I. and Arbor Investigations for putting time aside to talk about his adventurous career choice.
Photo Credit: Utah Photo Journalism