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Private Investigator Basics Part 1: Records Research

  • April 23, 2012
  • by Tom Shamshak

Core Competencies of Private Investigation Records ResearchEditor's note: This article was written by an industry professional and guest contributor Tom Shamshak. The views and opinions in this article are that of the author and do not reflect the views of PInow. If you are interested in becoming a guest contributor, send an email to [email protected]

Tom Shamshak is the Program Director and lead instructor for Boston University's Certificate in Professional Investigation featured on PInow's Top 25 Investigator Training and Education Programs. He is a retired Police Chief and licensed private investigator with 33 years of investigative experience, and has been featured on CNN's Nancy Grace and ABC's 20/20. His company, Shamshak Investigations, services the Boston and Providence areas.

There are three core competencies of private investigation: records research, interviews, and surveillance. Not every investigation is going to involve surveillance, and not every investigation is going to involve interviewing, but every investigation will have some form of records research. In fact, some investigations are just research.

Tom's Tips for Records Research

Listen here for Tom's Tips for records research: 

Tom's Tips for Records Research by

What is records research:

Records research is the locating of public and private records. The research is a tool for gathering information to support or oppose a point of view. For more information, read what to expect during a public records investigation.

What do private investigators learn from public and private records?
Vital data like birth, marriage, death, education, addresses past and present, employment history, real property ownership, affiliations-personal and professional, licenses-professional and technical, domestic divorce, support, adoption, inheritance, driver’s license and vehicle registration, military record, personal property ownership-boats airplanes, credit history, bankruptcies, liens, corporate officers, major stockholder, civil and criminal court records, cemeteries and funerals, just to name a few.

Who hires a private investigator to do records research?

  • Private individuals: An individual is going to contact a private investigator for many reasons. They may want to find out if a spouse is unfaithful, or they may know an heir that needs to be contacted. They may have private business concerns and want to check an employees background, or an individual may be looking for their birth parents or an adopted child’s birth parents.
  • Law firms: The client may want an investigator to locate a witness and conduct an interview, or they may need to serve a subpoena on that individual. Again, they may know about an heir that needs to be contacted. They might need to find assets and to also investigate the veracity of claims in a lawsuit.
  • Corporations: When working for a company or corporation, a private investigator may perform some kind of undercover fraud assessment or some competitive intelligence. The investigator may conduct pre-employment research for the client and determine the compliance of government regulations, or research copyright infringement and privacy issues.

The records research basics and process

Every investigative assignment has its own nuances regarding research. Depending on the nature of the investigation you will be searching different databases, so investigators should constantly be learning about different database repositories.

Records research generally evolves through four major steps:

  • Step 1: Determining the Client’s Needs.
    The research that we conduct is contingent upon what the client’s needs are, so that’s the very first question we have to ask: what is it that you are looking for?

    This will help you identify what the client wants you to research and helps you identify the scope of work. We’re going to determine what information the client already has available and from that, we’ll determine what sources they have searched.

    Before a reasonable and prudent private investigator undertakes any investigation they will determine what the client will do with the information. We don’t want to conduct research that could be used in an untoward manner against anybody, and we have to be very concerned about that.
  • Step 2: Developing an investigative plan
    After we’ve determined the client’s needs, we put together an investigative plan that will identify specific investigative tasks and documents to look for. We’ll also establish an operating budget and provide a cost estimate so that there’s accountability that will ensure that the investigation is done in an effective and efficient manner. Once we have put together the investigative plan we’ll have an investigative proposal to present to the client, and we’ll know what the end result is going to be.
  • Step 3: Internet Research
    A lot of records research usually begins with the Internet. The Internet has made it easier to begin an investigation. The research is easier, it’s a quick starting point to narrow the search, and private investigators become more effective and more efficient with the use of the internet. We don’t want to be swimming in the ocean of information, nor do we want to be in the lake. We want to be in the pond.

    Private investigators use the Internet to get leads on possible original records through contemporary providers of online public records databases. Once we find that the records exist, we'll go to the actual record-keeping database and get a copy of the original record.
  • Step 4: Obtaining Original Records
    An original record is a document that contains the information that we may be looking for. Original documents are birth records, marriage records, business records, etc. The original records are not available on the Internet, but we may learn where to go for those original records during that search.

    Original records are either at the city, county, state, national, and even international levels. Why do investigators need original records? If we are going to provide a written research report that will contain the results of our research, the best evidence is the original document. The record becomes a piece of the documentary evidence that may be used in litigation. You will need a certified copy of the record in question, otherwise, it could be challenged.

Public vs. Private Records
Depending on the state, public records include address information, birth, and marriage records, and criminal records like divorce proceedings. Private records are something that private investigators have limited access to. In order to get an individual’s medical, tax, credit, prior employment, and educational records, a private investigator will need authorization in the form of a waiver from the individual.

Private records are non-original records, and the copies are stored in databases for retrieval and access later. These would be publications, subscription databases, and non-subscription databases.

Instances where records research can aid an investigation

Depending on the nature of the investigation, I’m going to be searching different databases. When I’ve worked on criminal defense cases I have looked at criminal defense records of witnesses and I’ve reviewed police reports. When I work on unsolved murder cases I’ve looked at automobile registration, voter registration and residential information as well as criminal records to determine persons of interest in the case. When I’ve worked on environmental pollution cases looking for PRP’s - potentially responsible persons and I’ve gone back thirty years looking into newspapers for names of people that might have been employed at this now-closed facility. I’ve used voter registration lists, I’ve gone to local historical society records looking for information about the company to identify former employees. Again, records research is going to be  tailored to what the client is looking for.


Each of the three core competencies of private investigation plays a critical role in working through an investigation. As a valuable tool, records research helps investigators get more information and a clearer picture of the individual or situation they are investigating. Combining that knowledge with interviewing and the basics of surveillance help investigators hone their skills and become more effective in the field.

Additional Parts of Private Investigator Basics Series

This article was written by an industry guest contributor. If you are interested in being a guest contributor or have an article suggestion, please contact us.

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