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How to Conduct a Trash Hit: A Private Investigator’s Dumpster Secrets

Posted by Writing PIs on June 11, 2011


A trash hit refers to searching garbage for evidence. It’s also referred to as trash covers/pulls, dumpster diving, garbage confiscation, or (a personal favorite) refuse archeology. Despite the public warnings and advice on protecting what we put into our trash, it’s amazing how many people still toss their most private information (receipts, phone numbers, personal letters, credit card statements and much more), making this dirty work a ripe way to mine details about a person’s life and assets.

Throughout this article, references are to residential trash hits are, but the same techniques apply to business trash hits as well.

Preparing for a Trash Hit

Just as you’d scout an area before conducting a surveillance, it’s important to plan ahead for a trash hit.

Which Day Does the Subject Put Out Their Trash?

Find out which day the subject puts out their trash by:

Asking your client. Sometimes a client already knows what day of the week a subject sets out their trash containers. For example, maybe your client (such as an estranged spouse) recently lived in the subject’s home and knows the trash collection schedule.

Checking trash pick-up days through local services. City municipalities often list which companies pick up trash for different areas.

1. Go to that municipality’s website and check for such listings (often listed as “trash collection”) under city services. Cities that do not offer such public services will often list the private companies that offer trash collection.

2. Call the trash companies and ask if they offer service to the address, and if so what day and time.

Driving past the subject’s residence or business. If you haven’t been able to pinpoint the trash pick-up day through the client or a trash collection company, conduct drive-by checks of the address. If the neighborhood uses private companies, and you see trash containers out at other residences, jot down any unknown trash company names (at our agency, we’ve learned city websites don’t always list every private trash company that services an area). As in step 2 above, call these new trash companies and ask if they service your subject’s address.Colleen Collins 2 Getting Down and Dirty: Conducting Trash Hits

A more thorough approach is to drive by at the same time each morning for one week. Unless the subject isn’t putting out his/her trash for some reason, this approach establishes what day and where the trash is set out.

Where Do They Set Their Trash?

Most people put their trash outside their homes on the sidewalk or in the street against the curb. Although trash left in such areas is usually deemed public property and is therefore accessible to anyone, it’s wise to check that municipality’s laws regarding trash collection (see Legalities of Trash Hits, below).

Warning: Stay Off Private Property. If you obtain trash while on private property, you may face civil and criminal penalties for trespassing and invasion of privacy. Private property, for example, might be inside someone’s garage or in a fenced-in backyard.

What Is the Subject’s Schedule?

After you know what day the trash is set out, where, and its pick-up time, it’s a good idea to check the subject’s schedule. For example, is there a stay-at-home parent or nanny? Check if that person leaves the home at a regular time (for example, to take kids to school) and conduct the trash hit then.

Note: It’s more difficult to conduct a trash hit on a communal trash container, such as a dumpster for an apartment building that is used by many people. We advise our clients that conducting such a trash hit means a significantly decreased chance to find a specific subject’s trash as it’s impossible for us to haul away dozens of people’s trash. However, a surveillance might reveal when a subject tosses trash (the investigator can conduct the trash hit immediately after). Also, sometimes the client knows when the subject typically dumps trash, and the investigator can schedule the trash hit accordingly.

Legalities of Trash Hits

Although the U.S. Supreme Court and most state laws allow trash recovery, there might be municipal ordinances that forbid this, especially in areas where trash companies serve a number of homes with shared dumpsters. Years ago, there were dumpster trespass ordinances passed to keep the homeless from living in them, and those laws apply to “visitors just reaching for a few bags.” Although enforcement of such laws is typically lax, it’s wise to check for the existence of such municipal ordinances.

Also, although most cities view trash left on the curb as public property, a few cities make it illegal to pick up trash placed there. Not only do you not want to chance trespass or theft charges, you don’t want to retrieve evidence that can’t be used in court because it was illegally obtained.

Here’s a few tips for researching the legalities of trash hits for a certain region:

• Search the website for the municipality or call the town clerk. Ordinances for most towns and cities are now on the web.

• Contact your local reference librarian for assistance, who can point you to the appropriate municipal ordinances.

What to Bring

Handy supplies for a trash hit include:

Plastic bags and pens/felt-tip markers. For sealing and documenting evidence.

Flashlight. If you’re conducting a trash hit at night or in the wee morning hours, a flashlight can come in handy. Don’t use it at the trash site itself unless absolutely necessary (you don’t want to draw attention to yourself), but use it instead at the remote location (for more information on remote locations, see Conducting the Trash hit, below).

Large plastic garbage bags. If the subject’s trash is loose, toss it into these extra bags.

Gloves. Latex gloves are good. If you’re concerned there might be drugs or drug paraphernalia, wear sturdier gloves.

A small step ladder. If you know you’ll be hopping into a dumpster, considering bringing a small step ladder to aid your entrance and exit. Some multi-apartment communities have dumpsters that measure over five feet high.

Camera. Ideally, digital still and/or video for documenting the trash.

What to Wear

You’re gonna get dirty, so wear:

Dark, nondescript clothes. You don’t want to stand out, or be easily identified, so wear neutral (daytime) or dark (night-time) clothes that don’t have identifying logos.

Old, comfortable clothes. Wear old clothes that you don’t care if they get stained. You might be hoisting yourself into a dumpster, or lugging a heavy, wet bag to your vehicle, so be comfortable. Sweats and old sneakers are good. Also, wear long pants and sleeves.

Preparing Your Vehicle

Just as in a surveillance, you’ll use a nondescript vehicle for a trash hit (for example, one that is a neutral color and has no identifying decals, bumper stickers, or collision marks). Then take a few minutes to prep your vehicle by:

Turning off the dome light. If you’re conducting a night-time trash hit, the last thing you want is a light illuminating you as you open the door. Turn off that dome light!

Protecting the interior of your vehicle. Cover the area where you’ll be placing the trash (the back seat or trunk) so trash doesn’t stain your vehicle. Plastic bags can easily be laid over a back seat, for example. We often use an old, out-of-commission nylon sleeping bag (it’s large enough to cover a wide area in the back of a van).

Conducting the Trash Hit

You’ve surveiled and prepared, and now you’re ready to get down and dirty. Here are a few suggestions for successfully achieving a trash hit:

Arrive thirty minutes before trash pick-up. This provides a short period of time (between the trash hit and its pick-up) for anyone to notice the trash might have been tampered with.

If the subject puts out trash the night before, consider conducting the trash hit in the early morning hours under the protection of darkness. Or, as noted earlier in this article, conduct the trash hit when the subject is known to not be at home.

Photograph the trash in its original condition. It’s a good idea to take a picture of the garbage can in front of the subject’s address so that you can establish “this trash came from this place.”

Tip: Swap the enter container. In your preparatory work, note the type and color of the subject’s trash cans, then purchase the same types and stuff them with newspapers or plastic bags filled with bogus refuse. On the trash hit day, swap out the containers. At our agency, we’ve been concerned a subject might grow suspicious after seeing a shiny new container missing that “signature dent,” but we’ve met investigators who swear by this swapping technique.

Tip: Replace the trash bags. In your preparatory work, check what color trash bags the subject uses. Then bring several of the same color bags filled with newspapers/bogus refuse, and replace the retrieved trash with these dummy bags.

Take trash to a nearby, remote location. Rather than drive bags of foul-smelling refuse back to your home of office, pick a nearby location that is well-ventilated, private, and has a trash container/dumpster (such as in parks). Wearing your gloves, sort through the trash and document evidence, tossing the rest. It’s a good idea to photograph the trash as you search through it so that you can establish that “this trash came out of this particular bag.”

Tip: Document the subject’s ID along with evidence. Put items that show a person’s name, date, location (such as a sales receipt, postmarked envelope, magazine label or junk mail addressed to the subject) next to evidence (such as bottles, photos, drug paraphernalia).

Note: If you’re unsure about the legality of something you find, contact an attorney and/or law enforcement.

More People Are Using Shredders, So Why Bother with a Trash Hit?

Evidence isn’t always paper. We’ve conducted trash hits where bags are full of shredded paper, but there’s still evidence in those bags. For example, we’ve found:

  • Chemical containers that have been illegally disposed in residential trash (besides chemicals being illegally dumped, it may be the chemicals are a hazard to someone who lives at the residence, such as a child with asthma).
  • Physical items that indicate a subject’s employment.
  • Drugs or evidence of drug use.
  • Food containers that point to a specific person’s dietary habits.
  • Discarded toys that indicate a child’s presence and age.
  • Empty alcohol bottles.
  • Matchbooks that indicate where the residents go to drink, socialize and similar activities.

Summary

Foraging through trash is like an archeological dig–you might get down and dirty, but what’s uncovered can break a case clean open. Remember to document your dig with photography or video to show undisturbed trash on site, the trash as you retrieve it from the bag, and finally the incriminating item in a close-up shot, well-lit and nicely composed.

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