About 30 - 35 years ago, when I was still a relatively new PI, working out of an office on lower Broadway, in Manhattan, someone near and dear to me declared "The internet is going to put you and all other private investigators out of business. All the information anyone would need will be at their fingertips." Yet, here we all are. In Massachusetts there are currently 770 individuals and agencies licensed to conduct investigations.
To be sure, the internet and computer technologies has altered how we obtain information. But the information, documents, evidence we seek has not changed. Oftentimes but not always, instead of picking up the telephone to call a tax appraiser to determine if someone owns a property, we look it up on-line. In some states, instead of calling the DMV office, or mailing a written request for a driving record, we order it on-line. Still in others, we must stand in line with everyone else at the RMV. Instead of searching the lien index for UCC filings using a large mechanical rolodex, that when it jammed you were out of luck that day, they are now available on-line. Instead of having to go to the reference section of the public library, we can often search through thousands of periodicals, professional journals and newspapers directly from our office.
Beginning in the late 1970's technology allowed database companies to purchase in bulk, public records from local, county, and state governments as well as a few federal agencies, and private sector consumer marketing data and header records to consolidate the information into searchable databases. For a fee they provide access to the information to private investigators, collection agencies,and law firms. As the database companies improved and expanded their offerings, use of these services by private investigators soared to the point that agencies hired full time employees whose sole job was to conduct databases searches. The importance of these databases as tools to the private investigator cannot be over emphasized. However, there is a great deal of variation between the states as to what is considered a public record, and what they will sell in bulk. Some states have realized that although they are required to provide access to records in situ, making them available on-line can be a great source of revenue and require researchers to open accounts with that state government before on-line access is granted. The importance of on-line sources, particularly social media cannot be minimized, it has opened avenues of inquiry that were previously impossible. However, there are still many important sources of information that are unavailable on-line, that require field work, interviews with witnesses, surveillance and site visits. Frequently people confuse the tools investigators use with the investigation. It is our ability to gather impartial evidence that allows our clients to make the correct decision, answer their questions or alter an outcome.