The raw, hard-boiled PIs we’re used to from film and TV almost always work for some shady businessman or blondes with long lashes and dark secrets. And even when we think of real PIs, we usually think of insurance fraud investigators or divorce case specialists,
But the largest single employer of private investigators is actually the government.
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) are responsible for rooting out fraud, waste, embezzlement, and mismanagement in all sorts of federal agencies. There are 73 inspectors general in the federal government, who have teams that investigate everything from the Government Printing Office to the Peace Corps.
The Inspector General Act of 1978 established these offices and, originally, they relied primarily on investigators to root out waste, fraud, and corruption. However, with the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, many of those positions became jobs for special agents with sworn law enforcement authority.
But cutbacks that can be traced back to the 2011 sequester deal have hit government investigative agencies hard. A $100 million funding cut has left many vacancies unfulfilled and restricted the scope of investigations. At the Department of Transportation, the number of open investigations dropped by almost half between 2011 and 2013, and it wasn’t because all their contractors suddenly sprouted halos.
So investigator positions, which are less costly to staff than special agents, are making a comeback—although the January, 2017 hiring freeze announced by the Trump administration will also have an impact on the hiring of investigators.
Fraud and Financial Investigations for Government
Total social services spending in the United States is somewhere in the vicinity of $2 trillion, which is a lot of scratch floating around to tempt our inner demons. All those programs require qualifications of some level or another, and inevitably, some folks fake those qualifications to get money that should be going to the truly needy.
Although the numbers are fuzzy and vary according to specific programs, most people agree that around ten percent of social service expenditures are lost to fraud. That’s around $200 billion, which justifies shelling out quite a lot of money to investigators to track down and stop fraudulent claims. The kind of investigation undertaken depends on the program.
A lot of investigators working on social insurance programs, like Medicare, Medicaid, or in workman’s compensation, won’t find life any different working for the government than for any private insurer. Establishing the facts of the case comes down to tailing the target and documenting their daily activities, so that adjusters can determine if they are consistent with the medical claims in question.
Working with creativity, a camera, and a car, these investigators follow and document the daily activities of claimants to gather evidence to prove or disprove the extent of their injuries.
Contract and Tax Fraud and Corruption
It’s not just social services that are susceptible to fraud, though. The government as a whole spends a lot of money on external contracts, everything from toilet paper to tanks, and every once in a while some contractor has the bright idea of cutting a few corners and lining their pockets with some unearned shekels.
And sometimes there are folks on the inside of these agencies that get tangled up in sordid bribery deals, scams, or just flat-out waste of taxpayer dollars that need reigned in, too.
Investigators working fraud and corruption investigations need to have comfortable chairs, because much of their work is paperwork—sitting at a desk, auditing records and checking for discrepancies.
They also have to be skilled interviewers, able to talk with both government and private industry staff to get both sides of the picture on suspicious transactions. And every once in a while, they have to get out of the office and burn some shoe leather on old-fashioned surveillance work, too, seeing who is talking to who and when. Because they are working in places of business, many surveillance privacy restrictions that plague medical claims investigators don’t apply, and contract fraud and corruption investigators can pull out all the stops to use high-tech recording and video surveillance devices.
At the federal level, the IRS uses sworn special agents for criminal tax fraud investigations, with internal auditors providing logistical support. But some state revenue agencies employ conventional investigators in this role.
Background Checks for Security Clearances
More than five million Americans hold government security clearances, according to the Washington Post, and they don’t hand those out like candy. Someone went around and talked to old friends, neighbors, bosses, and co-workers for those five million folks; someone laboriously checked DMV records, credit records, occupancy and employment records.
Those someones were investigators working for the Office of Personnel Management or the Department of Defense, the two agencies that share responsibility for issuing most federal security clearances. Some state and municipal agencies also run background checks on potential hires, such as police agencies and fire departments.
The process of conducting a Single Scope Background Investigation, or SSBI, is one that all applicants for Top Secret, Secure Compartmented Information, or Department of Energy Q clearances have to undergo. They fill out an OPM Standard Form 86 questionnaire which goes into laborious detail about their personal history.
Then that SF86 gets handed off to an investigator, and the real work begins. Every reference, every address, every job listing, for the past ten years has to be confirmed. Spouses and neighbors will be interviewed, criminal and other public records will be pulled, and educational records confirmed.
There is a lot of paperwork and interviewing in background checks but the investigator is expected to do more than just checking off boxes; instead, they are looking at the story of the subjects life. Does it all fit together? Are the interviewees consistent, and do their answers fit with the subject interview answers? Background check investigators need serious people skills, both to get interviewees to open up, and to read between the lines of what they are saying.
Legal investigators work on both sides of the courtroom. Defense attorneys often suspect that the cops don’t dig too hard to find exculpatory evidence on their clients and feel a need for some investigative muscle in the ring. But prosecutors sometimes need additional investigative work performed, too. The police collect evidence necessary to prosecute a criminal case but may not have the time to go in-depth on all witness interviews or the legal training to build a strong case. Legal investigators working for district attorneys bridge those gaps.
And not all cases involving government are criminal. The government can and does sue people and corporations in civil actions to pursue settlements. In these cases, there is no expectation of law enforcement assistance, and it’s down to lawyers and investigators to collect evidence, interview witnesses, and build a case.
Legal investigators perform a lot of interviews and are expected to have a solid familiarity with the law. Many have either trained as lawyers or paralegals and bring those particular skillsets to bear in their investigative process.
How to Become a Government Investigator
There are as many routes into government investigations as there are agencies who use investigators, which is good news. If there is a hiring freeze in one agency, chances are another will still have some openings.
One thing that every agency likes to see is credentials, though. A degree in criminal justice or a related field is a way to shine up any resume you send in for an investigator position.
Some investigator roles in government have specialized requirements, of course, such as fraud and tax investigators. A CPA or a degree in accounting can give you a real leg up if you’re looking at such jobs. For legal investigators, a Certified Legal Investigator (CLI) certificate from the National Association of Legal Investigators can help you stand out from the crowd.
And since you’re on the side of the good guys, you should have a clear idea of:
- Ethical and legal considerations for government investigations
- A solid understanding of legal and regulatory processes
- Proper forensic procedure
These are all things you’ll get in a reputable CJ degree program.
You’ll also want a squeaky clean background if you want to work for the government. Enforcing the law is job number one for this outfit. If you’ve got a record, you’re going to have some explaining to do.