Detective work has changed in the age of gadgets

Let’s say you’re a private investigator, and your client wants to get the goods on that philandering spouse.

DALLAS — Let’s say you’re a private investigator, and your client wants to get the goods on that philandering spouse.

You could do it the old-fashioned way, trailing him (or her) all over town.

Or, for $695, you could buy a GPS Personal Asset Tracker and hide it under the bumper of the subject’s car. Then you could sit back in your office, turn on the computer and, via a secure website, get the location of every place Cheatin’ Heart goes.

“It works in real time so if they’re in a bar or at someone’s house, you can show up,” said Cody Woods, a private investigator and manager of the Spy Exchange & Security Center in Austin, Texas.

Technology is one of many factors changing the PI business, and nowhere was that more evident than at the recent World Investigators Conference in Dallas. Some 600 gumshoes from as far away as Thailand were on hand to learn about the latest gizmos and services for “getting the competitive edge” in a down economy, as one speaker put it.

Woods’ booth, for example, featured a cornucopia of surveillance gear, including $10 sunglasses that enable the wearer to see behind him. Or for $195, PIs can surreptitiously photograph a subject with tiny cameras hidden in everything from belt buckles and baseball caps to pens, watches, flashlights and key chains.

“People know cameras are in cellphones and might be a little wary,” Woods said, “but who’s going to think about a camera in a key chain? You can take a key chain anywhere.”

The three-day conference was partly sponsored by TLO, the Boca Raton, Fla., company whose corporate slogan is “lightning in a bottle.” TLO founder Hank Asher developed Accurint, a database used by investigators to find people, and a highlight of the conference was to be Asher’s unveiling of a supposedly superior new product called Accurint Killer.

But there was no demonstration.

“The lightning isn’t quite in the bottle,” said Asher, who was accompanied to Dallas by most of his management team, including former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

Nonetheless, the crowd had plenty to take in.

Since Eugene Francois Vidocq became the world’s first private detective in the 1800s, tracking fraudsters around France, the PI business has grown ever-more specialized. At a bookstall, conference participants could browse scores of titles ranging from “Practical Homicide Investigations” to “Kidnap for Ransom” to “Financial Investigation and Forensic Accounting” (Second edition).

“One reason PIs come here is to find other things to do,” said James Jessel of Signal Auditing.

His New York-based company is hired by DirecTV, a satellite service, to find bars and restaurants that show non-network National Football League games without paying for them. Signal Auditing in turn hires local private eyes to ferret out scofflaws.

“If we have somebody in Gainesville, they can access the legal list (of DirecTV) customers and know what restaurant is paying the legal rates,” Jessel said.

Darren McCulley’s specialty is more traditional. He does “fugitive recovery,” but the job has become easier thanks to Google and websites like Facebook and MySpace where even crooks post personal information.

“You could spend six months in a car or you could jump online and do a little profiling with social network sites,” said McCulley, a Dallas PI who recently found a notorious parole violator.

For PIs who need help navigating such sites, Tracers of Spring Hill, Fla., was touting its latest product: “Social Network Profile Search.”

The new service, which costs $2 (“no hit, no fee”) identifies the actual owner or user of a specific e-mail address and also finds Web postings, pictures, personal details, family, friends and more.

“I call it the George Orwell Search – a little 1984,” said Sarah Dyer of Tracers. “It implies Big Brother is watching you, but actually this is information that’s out there.”

Private eyes have long been popular in literature (Sherlock Holmes), movies (Sam Spade) and on television (Peter Gunn, The Rockford Files). Judging from the conference crowd, it remains a field dominated by men, many of them military veterans or former law-enforcement officers.