Scott Catron’s days of hiding in a hatchback for days or being chased by dogs or wild animals to catch a criminal in action are over thanks to social media. Catron is the co-founder of Social Detection, a private investigation service that investigates fraud via social media.
Catron and fellow private investigator Michael Petrie created Social Detection with the knowledge that people are addicted to social media, and even those committing crimes can’t help posting on these platforms. Now the private investigators use a keyboard instead of binoculars to uncover fraud via social media.
“If there is fraud, it will be found, provided there’s a web presence,” said Petrie.
Social Detection’s main objective is to stop fraudulent insurance payouts. It seems to be hitting its objective because it has saved employers and insurance carriers more than $7 million in payouts in less than six months. Insurance fraud is one of the single greatest costs to insurance companies, with estimates running into the billions.
Catron explained that Social Detection delves deeper into the layers of the internet to find public information that detects fraudulent claims. “There are a lot of sites that don’t let Google index their database. So you need to know what sites to go to,” he added.
The company formed in 2015 and has grown to employ 14 people. Their clients include insurance companies, law firms and other private investigators. Jamie Kuebler, an attorney from New York said that Social Detection’s services are so valuable he uses them on every bodily injury case. Kuebler had an insurance claim for more than $8 million and had tried social media searches on his own but came up emptyhanded. Social Detection found the claimant’s aliases and turned up hundreds of photos of the man enjoying an active, uninjured lifestyle. “The case settled for peanuts,” he said.
After more than a month long search, the body of a missing Oregon woman was found by a volunteer group that searched relentlessly for her remains. Thirty-five-year-old Cheryl Hart was last seen on August 4 in Eugene, Oregon after she embarked on a road trip with boyfriend Jeremy Milutin. Hart’s family frantically searched for her along with the local police but there were few clues to her whereabouts until a Tennessee private investigator stepped in to help.
Jaymie Frederick, a retired Tennessee law enforcement officer used her new career as a private investigator to help find the birth families of adopted men and women. Frederick was in Oregon visiting family when she met Hart’s aunt who immediately asked her for her help with her missing niece. She decided to offer her services at no cost and began sorting through the facts.
Frederick knew that Hart and boyfriend Milutin visited Chiloquin just a week before she was reported missing and she had the details of Milutin’s comings and goings on the day after the suspected murder. She concluded that Milutin gave himself only enough time to hide her body as he traveled between Eugene and Klamath.
After setting up a tip line, Frederick sorted through the calls that came in on her private cell phone. She filtered the information and passed on relevant information to Hart’s family. One tip cracked the case wide open when a tribe employee said he remembered seeing a car fitting the description of Milutin’s speeding on Forest Road 44 near the 9.5 mile marker on the day of the suspected murder. “The time of day he thought it was, I knew right then that what I believed was true; I believe he saw the suspect that day,” said Frederick.
A volunteer group dispatched to the area and recovered Hart’s body. Milutin was charged with Hart’s murder and is currently awaiting trial. Frederick credits the search team for finding Hart with a little help from her.
Bob Meinert has had a career as a private investigator for more than 50 years. The 77-year-old is co-owner of CSI, a private investigative firm located in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Meinert, who was a patrolman in Arizona where he headed the county’s homicide squad, has stopped searching for criminals and instead now focuses his skills on finding runaways.
Meinert is the senior investigator at CSI which he co-founded with Louis Gentile, who was also formerly in law enforcement. The grandfather of 14 has teamed up with Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families (CYF) system to assist in finding runaways. His caseload now mainly consists of CYF cases and his team has successfully closed almost 100 runaway cases since May, 2015.
Meinert says that some of the children he has found have runaway as many as four times. A girl he found three times finally decided she was done running away. Shortly after, she called Meinert and thanked him for helping her get her life on track. “That made me feel great,” Meinert said. “They’re definitely at risk for a lot of things – sex trafficking, drugs, gangs, two girls were beaten up pretty badly,” he added.
Most of the runaways are found locally in Allegheny County with a few found in nearby counties or other states. Some of the female runaways he found were victims of sex-trafficking and he is currently trying to find another young girl that he suspects has been victimized in the same manner.
Meinert says runaways who aren’t found in the streets are often found with a friend or a relative. In some cases the adults housing the runaways have been criminally charged for interfering in the custody of a child.
At 77, Meinert doesn’t seem to be contemplating retirement, having recently changed his hours from part-time to full-time.
In 2004 Daniel Pelosi was convicted of murder in the bludgeoning death of Wall Street financer, Ted Ammon. Now, nearly twelve years later, Pelosi has hired a private investigator to search for evidence to substantiate his claim of innocence.
While working as an electrician Pelosi had an affair with Generosa Ammon, wife of Ted, who hired him to renovate her townhome. Pelosi was given 27 ½ years to life for murdering Ammon at his East Hampton beach home in October 2001.
Jay Salpeter is the private investigator hired by Pelosi to find evidence to help overturn his conviction, After meeting with Pelosi, Salpeter admitted that Pelosi’s moral character is not one of an angel, but added that he didn’t believe he was a murderer.
This is not Salpeter’s first involvement in a high-profile murder. In 2008 Salpeter helped overturn a murder conviction for Martin Tankleff who was accused of killing both his parents in 1989. He uncovered evidence connecting another man to the murder which led to an appellate court repealing the conviction. Prosecutors in the case decided against a retrial against Tankleff, who remains free.
Salpeter has already begun laying the groundwork with the claim that someone other than Pelosi murdered Ted Ammon. His theory states that Ammon had accidentally left his wallet at Generosa’s townhome after returning their two adopted children to her care. Inside the wallet contained a picture of Ted Ammon’s girlfriend and their child.
Salpeter contends that because Generosa was unable to have a child of her own, the photo enraged her and within 24 hours after leaving the wallet, Ted was murdered. While not specifically naming Generosa, now deceased, as a suspect, Salpeter believes he knows exactly who murdered Ted, but added that there’s still great deal of investigation that needs to be done.
Normally, when looking for people on Facebook, the subject needs to have an account and be using their legal name, per Facebook’s terms of service. However, a Montana private investigator has figured out how to use the social media service even if he can’t find the person by name.
Charles Pesola owns Moonlighting Detective and Security Services in Kalispell, Montanna. Pesola has helped create new security standards in other countries and has just been appointed to Montana’s Board of Private Security, which works to develop security standards for the state of Montana and define different security positions.
Part of why he was placed on that advisory board is his creative capacity as a private investigator. Pesola talks about a time that he bailed out a man who promptly skipped town before he paid back his $30,000 bail fee. Like any good private investigator, Pesola asked around town to see where the man went. He found out that the man quickly traveled to the other side of Montana, too far away for Pesola to do any detective work.
Pseola jumped on Facebook and couldn’t find the man by name, so he used Facebook’s advertising platform to post ads in Sidney and Miles City, Montana, where he was told the man went. He posted a picture and a phone number to call should anyone have any information on the man.
Pesola’s phone was ringing for days after posting the ad. People called in with tips about what the man was wearing, where he was visiting, even what food he was buying at local grocery stores. All that was left for Pesola to do was drive to Sidney and arrest the man, which took a little less than 10 hours, including travel time. He attributes the success of the advertising ploy to the general curiosity people have about criminals and catching them.
An Al Jazeera documentary entitled The Dark Side: The Secret World of Sports Doping alleged that Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was one of several star athletes who had used performance-enhancing drugs. To fight these allegations, Peyton hired the former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer who now works as a crisis management consultant.
The Washington Post reported how Manning’s lawyers hired two PIs to look into the source of these allegations—one Charlie Sly. This pharmacist has since recanted his allegations that Peyton and other athletes took banned substances. Sly claimed that Al Jazeera recorded the accusations without his knowledge.
The PIs went so far as to show up at Sly’s house and talk to his parents who initially had their daughter called 911 about the strange men at the door. Once they understood the situation, the Slys let the men stay until Charlie Sly got home.
Sly’s lawyer Travis Cohron claimed that everything Sly said was a fabrication meant to impress the undercover reporter who he thought was a potential business partner. Cohron claimed that Sly’s comments were “pure puffery.”
However, there was a grain of truth in Sly’s comments according to Fleischer. The institute he was involved with had shipped medication to Ashley Manning. Fleischer claimed privacy issues and refused to identify the substance.
All of the players denied the claims that they took illicit drugs, and the baseball players Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Howard sued Al Jazeera for libel.
The Slys were only vaguely familiar with Al Jazeera, thinking it was only in the Middle East, so they thought the whole episode was a scam until the PIs showed up at their doorstep. Although the investigative report aired, Charlie Sly recorded a public statement disavowing the claims attributed to him.
While the truth of the scandal is not entirely clear, it appears that the claims against Manning and other athletes are far from rigorous.
Private investigating is not like it used to be. Popular media shows private investigators in old trench coats, snapping sneaky pictures of a cheating husband, or digging dirt up on a forest floor to find mostly decomposed bones in a cold homicide case. Perhaps private investigating was never so interesting, but it leaves London PI Paul Hawkes in a funny spot. Classical British literature compares Hawkes to Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, although they aren’t very similar at all.
Instead, Hawkes finds himself existing in an age where much of what people would typically hire a private investigator to find is now easily found on social media. No need to pay a PI to log into Facebook. He also finds that much of what a PI would put in their tool kit is now cheaply found on the Internet. Anyone can own a pen with a microphone in it if they want.
One part about the public perception of a PI that rings true is the number of times Hawkes is hired to investigate a marriage for infidelity. Before a PI goes out, they don a handful of gadgets to assist them: the aforementioned spy pen, glasses with a small video camera, and sticky facial hair of various kinds. If it seems silly, it’s because you might expect something like that in a children’s book, but sometimes all that a PI needs to blend in is a pair of glasses and a little bit of facial hair.
Before Hawkes goes out to catch a cheating husband or wife, he offers a baiting service to potential clients to see if their significant other is actually capable of cheating on them. Hawkes sends out an agent to flirt with the spouse at a bar, trying to give them a phone number or invite them home. If the gambit fails, it gives the suspicious party a peace of mind. If not, a full investigation launches. All in all, it’s not as dramatic as Hollywood wants us to think, but it’s not a boring job either.
Imagine being on a camping trip in the forests of Idaho, enjoying a sunny July day with family and friends, when you realize you haven’t seen your child in a while. You begin looking for them, and you can’t find them. You panic, calling their name, but they aren’t returning.
This happened to the Kunz family in July 2015, and they’ve been searching frantically for 2-year old DeOrr Kunz ever since. This sparked a manhunt on foot, on horseback, and on vehicle down the Timber Creek Reservoir. No sign of DeOrr was found.
The Kunz family looked into hiring a private investigator, to get the ball rolling in the search for their son. They hired a private investigative firm out of Texas, and hosted a fundraising dinner to cover the initial $20,000 fee and subsequent $5,000 fee per month.
Once the private investigator was hired, they seemed to quickly return results. They ruled out all possibilities but two: the boy was either abducted or killed by a wild animal. However, this is not a concrete statement about whether or not the child is dead, and even then, there is no word on whether or not the death would be intentional or accidental.
The investigators said they believe the case to be solvable, but they need room to perform their investigation. The case has received a lot of attention on social media, which has resulted in unrelated users posting hurtful comments on the investigator’s Facebook page. Strangers are accusing Kunz family members of abducting the child, even though the investigators have vetted and cleared all family members and secondary parties in the area at the time of the disappearance.
The investigation has been very emotional for both the investigative team and the Kunz family. The family members lament the loss of their son, who they were unable to celebrate Christmas with. DeOrr would be 3 years old during Christmas.
A St. Louis private investigator is trying to reopen a 33-year-old murder case in hopes of proving that the murder was committed by a serial killer that had been in the area during 1982.
JoAnn Tate was viciously murdered in front of her two young children, aged four and seven. Melissa Davis was the seven year old who survived to testify against the man she believed murdered her father. Davis pointed Rodney Lincoln out in a photo lineup shortly after the murder occurred and helped seal his fate to serve consecutive life in prison sentences.
Now Bill Cutter, a private investigator is trying to get the case reopened. Cutter believes that Lincoln was wrongly convicted. He also believes he knows who actually committed the murder. Tommy Lynn Sells was a serial killer who was executed in 2014. Sells was convicted of killing a 13-year-old girl in her sleep but had also claimed responsibility for dozens of other murders across the United States.
Cutter believes that a partial bloody fingerprint on the murder weapon will match up with Sells’ fingerprint. He also says that Sells can be placed in the area when the murder occurred. “We identified over a dozen cases where the m.o. is identical to this case where Rodney Lincoln was convicted,” he said.
Cutter pointed out that despite the DNA all over the crime scene, nothing at the scene pointed to Lincoln’s guilt. The only evidence against Lincoln was the testimony of a seven-year-old girl. Melissa Davis stands by her testimony more than three decades later saying that she has no doubt at all that Lincoln was the man who killed her mother.
The case was reviewed by the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office who said that the partial fingerprint is not large enough for any comparison.
Cutter refutes the decision, stating that he has an expert who can verify the fingerprint but needs a court order to retrieve the fingerprint for comparison.
Mississippi legislature turned down a bill last month that would have codified the role of private investigators while helping to better legitimize the profession within the state. Mississippi is one of only four states left in the U.S. that have no laws on the books regulating private investigators, and lawmakers claimed that they do not believe crooked PI’s are enough of a concern for the people of Mississippi to warrant regulation.
Richard Brooks, third term president of the Mississippi Professional Investigators Association (MPIA), believes that the Mississippi legislature is dangerously wrong. Brooks has spent the past 15 years assisting law enforcement as a PI, and has licensing in Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. Having worked for years on a variety of successful cases, Brooks knows the PI business inside and out.
“There are many PI’s who only work in Mississippi because they can’t get licensed in another state for whatever reasons,” said Brooks. He cited a story of a convicted felon that was refused licensure by the state of Alabama that was currently working as a PI in Mississippi. He believes that by allowing unregulated PI’s to work in Mississippi, the integrity of PI’s is undermined across the state.
Under Brooks, the MPIA has made a successful effort to license and approve PI’s. It currently has 50 active licensed members, mostly in Southern Mississippi. Brooks and the MPIA spearheaded the legislation attempt, pushing the bill through the House of Representatives, but it was stopped in the Mississippi Senate.
Brooks intends to redouble efforts for future legislation, believing that complex issues like the use of drones by private investigators will help show the Senate the need for official PI licensing. The MPIA’s efforts could make a huge impact on private investigating throughout the entire gulf coast region as Mississippi PI’s gain legitimacy.