Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

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Pretexting: Okay for Jim Rockford, But Not Always for Real-Life P.I.s

Posted by Writing PIs on July 26, 2013

We own the complete DVD set of the The Rockford Files TV show that ran from 1974-1980.  Love James Garner in that show as the droll, I’d-rather-be-fishing private eye Jim Rockford.  He kept his gun in a cookie jar and carried around a printing device so he could quickly imprint a business card with a bogus ID whenever necessary.

Ah, those bogus IDs.  Along with bogus stories.  The stuff of private eye fiction.

But when it comes to real-life private investigators, fabricating bogus IDs and stories can get the P.I. into a lot of trouble.   Below is an excerpt from “P.I.s, Pretexting, and the Law: Tips for Crime Writers,” an article by one of the Guns, Gams and Gumshoes’s authors, Colleen, for Pursuit Magazine.  It outlines some illegal investigative pretexts, and gives tips to crime writers crafting P.I. characters who might use this technique.

“To Tell the Truth, I Lied a Little”
~Private eye Jake Gittes in Chinatown

by Colleen Collins

The private eye genre has long been a favorite for writers, from the novel The Maltese Falcon by Maltese Falcon book coverDashiell Hammett to the current hard-boiled hoax by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, who secretly penned a private-eye novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

Besides having owned my own private detective agency for a decade, I’m also a multi-published fiction author. For the past three years I’ve also been a judge for the Private Eye Writers of America, in which capacity I’ve read over two hundred hardcover private eye novels. Sometimes writers have done their research and compose compellingly realistic investigative scenarios, from conducting witness interviews to what it’s like working for a defense attorney.

And sometimes, writers being writers, they make stuff up. Stuff that no real-world private investigator would do unless he or she liked the word “felon” tarnishing their reputation and deep-sixing their P.I. career.

In this article, I discuss the investigative practice of pretexting, with tips for writers on how their private eye characters can come across as realistic, not ridiculous, when using it.

What Is Pretexting?

Pretexting is, basically, using a phony script to obtain information from someone, often playing on people’s natural desire to talk and be helpful. The pretexter might pretend to be someone else, tell a white lie, or create some other deception to acquire this information. Although in recent years pretexting has gotten a bad rap, when used legally and with good judgment, it can be an indispensable investigative technique.

Private investigators might pretext via an email

Private investigators might pretext via an email

Often a P.I. will pretext over the phone, although it can also be done in person, by mail, email or phishing. However, fabricating stories to obtain information isn’t typically the first avenue of approach for an investigator. Often, the information a P.I. needs can be found in public records as well as through Internet and database searches. Sometimes, a P.I. can get the information you want by simply asking for it.

Whether a P.I. chooses to pretext, or a writer crafts a scene using this tactic, keep in mind that in certain situations, pretexting is against the law. I’ve outlined three of these situations below:

Illegal: Impersonating a Police Officer, Lawyer, or Doctor

A private investigator must never impersonate a police officer, lawyer, or doctor. Doing so sets the stage for the P.I. spending some quality time behind bars. In our state a few years ago, a P.I. was nailed for not only impersonating an officer, but threatening the subject with a firearm while assaulting the subject. (And this was for a process service!) The subject, after learning the guy wasn’t a law enforcement officer but a P.I., hired an attorney—who filed a lawsuit against the private investigator.

In your story, the fictional P.I. might pretend he’s an officer knowing full well he’s courting a felony charge by doing so (which cranks up the tension). But if your character does this without a second thought, as though pretending to be a cop or lawyer has no possible repercussions, your P.I character could look amateur at best, or just plain dumb.

To read the full article, click here.

Have a great weekend, Writing PIs

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