4 Things Textbooks Can’t Teach You about Investigation


Brian Willingham, CFE
President, Diligentia Group Inc.
Brewster, N.Y.

I am a private investigator — not the “snooping” type who sits in a car, drinking black coffee, smoking cigarettes and chasing unfaithful spouses. Gone are the trench coats, “secret sources” and back-alley handshakes. I am a 21st-century PI who gathers information, analyzes it and then turns that information into something useful. My job is to find information legally and ethically. Keeping up with ever-changing technology is just as much a part of my everyday life as understanding how to get audited financial statements from a broker-dealer. (In case you are wondering, in the U.S. you can send an FOIA request to the SEC for the X-17A.)

There are no textbooks for what I do. I make it up as I go along, and I have learned mostly by doing. While books and research have taught me many things, I just could not learn everything from them. Here are a few things I didn’t learn from textbooks (your experience may vary):

Frame of Mind

When I first started in this business, I quickly realized that investigators thought differently. Most people trust their senses and believe what they hear or see; investigators don’t. They are skeptical and do not believe much of anything without proof. But, they aren’t just skeptical. They also have a different frame of mind when approaching investigations. Strong investigators know there is something out there for them to find — they just need to find it.


After more than 10 years doing this work, I can spot the characteristics of an embellisher, a fraudster or people who I would simply avoid from a mile away. I have been asked to share my thoughts on boyfriends or girlfriends (I have about a 98.2 percent success rate in relationship advice). You develop an instinct for these things. At first, I was so involved in the mechanics of what I was doing that I couldn’t see the forest through the trees. Now I can see the forest and the trees.


“I’ve been in this business for 35 years!” Sound familiar? People like to pull the “experience card” as a compelling reason why they are good investigators. You will never hear me say that. While experience is helpful in any business, it will not get you anywhere unless you can use the wisdom and knowledge learned through that experience to be better at what you do. Experience will teach you when to go down a certain path or change the direction of an investigation, and it will tell you where to look and the right questions to ask.


People in their 20s think they know everything. I certainly did. I see it often in new investigators, too. Confidence is not only believing in yourself; it’s also being able to admit that you don’t know everything. Be humble. If you think you know it all, you are going to be out of this business as quickly as you came in. I don’t know everything... and neither do you. So go ahead and read some more textbooks.

Brian Willingham is a New York private investigator and president of Diligentia Group.