Unlicensed private eyes a problem in California

March 1, 2010 7:05:24 PM PST
When you hire a private investigator in California, you are supposed to get someone with at least three years of training or a background in law enforcement. But as the I-Team discovered, that is not always what you get.

The state's private investigator trade group is cracking down on unlicensed private eyes using undercover stings. Some use fake names; some even have a criminal past.

In an undercover surveillance video, unlicensed private investigator Adrian Garfias thinks the two women are prospective clients, responding to his Craigslist ad offering private investigation services, but they are actually undercover investigators working for licensed private investigator Chris Butler. And it was all being recorded on video.

"We specialize in undercover stings, so for us to execute an undercover sting on a unlicensed private investigator, that's very easy," Butler said.

Garfias brought his wife and two young boys, a six-year-old and a six-month-old, to the meeting at San Jose's Santana Row and discussed his fee.

"The minimum is $1,000, because it requires a lot of work and a lot of planning and more than two people to do the job," Garfias said.

He tells the women he has all the necessary qualifications to do surveillance on a cheating husband.

Investigator: "So you guys have licenses though, right?"

Garfias: "Yes."

That was a lie.

"Every licensed private investigator is required by law to have a picture ID," Jeffrey Mason said. Mason heads the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, which regulates private investigators. He says the bureau could find no record that Garfias has ever had a license and his office is currently investigating the case.

"If you hire the individual advertising services on Craigslist, there's no telling what you're going to get," Mason said.

It is against the law for anyone to work as a private investigator without a license, and people with felony convictions are barred from getting a license, except in rare cases.

Court documents show that Garfias was charged in October 2008 with a felony for impersonating a notary as part of a real estate fraud case in Santa Clara County. The district attorney reduced the charge to a misdemeanor in exchange for a no contest plea from Garfias, who was ordered to pay restitution and sentenced to 15 days in jail.

In August 2005, a Santa Clara County jury found Garfias guilty of two misdemeanor charges -- resisting arrest and negligently discharging a firearm. According to a police report, he had been shooting at a wooden table in the backyard of his suburban home with a 9 millimeter handgun.

"If the allegations are true and he's been convicted of firearm offenses, I would be worried about a person carrying firearms and now you're hiring this person to follow somebody that you're in a relationship with," Jim Zimmer, president of the California Association of Licensed Investigators, said. "What if something goes wrong during this pursuit? What if a confrontation occurs? What is this person going to do?"

Zimmer says people posing as private eyes are committing serious crimes across the country.

In just the last year, an Illinois man impersonating a PI was charged with armed robbery; two men pretending to be private investigators in Florida were charged with extortion and a convicted sex offender posing as a PI in Washington D.C. was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice as part of a plot to intimidate a former victim.

The I-Team went looking for Garfias at the apartment in Santana Row listed as his business address on his direct sales website and at his house near downtown San Jose where a 2008 red Corvette registered in his name was parked out front.

Garfias was not home, but when the I-Team reached him by phone he said he had never actually done any PI work and that everything he told the women was a lie.

Others are more upfront about their lack of credentials. One man advertised himself on Craigslist as an unlicensed private investigator for hire.

"So what I charge, I charge $100 an hour," unlicensed PI David Savell said during a meeting that was recorded as part of an undercover investigation. "I know, you know, as you know, I'm, I'm not licensed."

He introduced himself as "Ian" when he met the investigator outside a Concord coffee shop.

"I said something about, 'Well you know I think he was overall a pretty nice guy', and Chris says 'Oh yeah, by the way, his name is David,' and I realized, 'Oh my gosh, everything he just told me was a lie,'" an undercover investigator for Butler & Associates said.

David Savell would not talk to the I-Team on camera, but he said over the phone that he was inspired to try PI work as a practical joke after watching the HBO TV series "Bored to Death." In the show, an unlicensed private investigator uses an Internet ad to help him meet women.

Savell received a warning from the state and has agreed not to work as a PI without a license.

The investigators who set up the stings say there is a lesson here -- if you are going to hire a private investigator, you should do your own investigation of their background first.

"You can't tell by looking at someone what they're capable of; you don't know what you're getting," another undercover investigator for Butler & Associates said.

"They could attack you, they could attack people you love, or they could use your information or they could just take your money and run," the first undercover investigator for Butler & Associates said.

ABC7 has included some video from one of the stings the I-Team did not have time to include in tonight's story.


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