Surveillance requires patience, a keen eye for detail, and some skill behind the wheel says private investigator Christy McKinney ’99.
At 5:15 a.m., on a brilliant summer morning, Christy McKinney ’99 of Stratham, N.H., packs her bag. She chooses a sundress, shorts and t-shirt, bathing suit, several hats, and a variety of makeup and hair accessories. At the last minute, she throws in her running clothes and shoes just in case.
Christy McKinney has only a vague idea of where she will be headed today. Prepared for any weather and activity, she heads for work to, as her 5-year-old son says, spy on people.
McKinney is a private investigator who spends a good part of her day watching people from her minivan.
“It’s a mom kind of car so nobody really notices it,” she says laughing. “I choose my clothes to blend in, but I have to consider the weather and where I think the person I’m following may go that day. I have to be prepared for anything.”
Much of McKinney’s work involves child custody and domestic cases, worker’s comp cases, and insurance and medical fraud. Surveillance requires patience, a keen eye for detail, and some skill behind the wheel.
“In a rural area, it can be harder to stay hidden,” McKinney explains. “It’s easier to hide in city traffic, but also easier to lose the person you’re following. And I’ve definitely lost people at the tollbooth!” Her funniest experience in tailing someone, however, didn’t involve four wheels.
“I usually have information on a car, but in this case all I had was a vague description of a man and the fact that he would be on a bike,” she says. “I had to drive really slowly!”
A former school teacher who earned her elementary education degree at Saint Joseph’s, McKinney was home raising two young children, yet yearning for something new and challenging. Called upon as a witness in a local trial, McKinney found herself fascinated by how the case unfolded.
“Watching the detectives figure out the pieces of the puzzle definitely sparked my interest,” she says. Spurred by a lifelong love of helping others, McKinney signed up for a private investigation course at Boston University and never looked back.
“I love that it’s always something new and different,” she explains. “It challenges me in so many different ways and makes me look at situations from different angles to put the pieces together.”
McKinney serves as an associate PI at Hallmark Investigation Bureau in Lynn, Mass., and part-time for a firm in Manchester, N.H. A typical case may involve following someone who is out of work due to disability, and her job is to determine if the person is truly disabled.
“We were watching a gentleman who had a back injury and was unable to work at all,” McKinney relates. “We followed him to a friend’s house where he helped work on a van, then actually pushed it down the street.”
Armed with a digital video camera plus a still camera, McKinney documents what she observes. She writes down license plate numbers and descriptions of people she sees. Attention to detail is critical.
“Something that doesn’t seem significant could turn out to be very important,” she says. “You really have to be able to think outside the box.”
One piece of equipment missing from her bag is a gun. Her employer doesn’t allow investigators to carry weapons due to the liability, although McKinney sometimes wishes she had one.
One such case found McKinney in a neighborhood well-known for drug use. As she sat in her vehicle, a group of men approached and started circling the van.
“That was one time a mom’s minivan looked out of place,” she says. “I took off and got out of there, but it was definitely my scariest moment.” The next time she checked in with the local police before venturing into the neighborhood. An officer came to watch her while she carried out her surveillance.
“If you’re respectful, the police are very cooperative, although sometimes they’re a bit surprised to see a woman in this line of work,” McKinney says. According to the Journal of Private Investigators, there are approximately 60,000 private investigators employed in the United States. Of these, an estimated 15 percent are women, although no official records provide an exact number.
Before heading out for surveillance work, McKinney does “pretexting” of her subject that might include going to the neighbors to find out what the person does for work, their activities, and anything about their lives that might be significant.
“When you’re pretexting someone, you hide the fact that you’re a PI because you don’t want your subject to know they’re being watched,” McKinney explains. “Communication is key. You have to be able to talk with people from all walks of life to get the information you need.”
Another method to uncover information includes calling the subject to see if he or she answers the home phone. Or a PI may also call to say there is a delivery for the home but the driver is lost. McKinney will ask the person to go outside to meet the driver so she can get a visual of the subject.
Each case presents a different scenario for McKinney. One domestic case involved following a woman who was under a court order not to consume alcohol as part of her rehabilitation.
“We followed her to the liquor store and took pictures of her purchasing alcohol,” McKinney says. Another case involved a woman out on worker’s comp with a shoulder injury. McKinney followed her to the beach where the woman carried an armload of belongings, then went swimming. Even with the explosion of personal information found on the Internet, McKinney explains there is still a big demand for this type of surveillance work.
“There are all kinds of needs out there,” she says. “Mortgage fraud is huge right now, as are insurance and medical fraud.”
A missing person case too often involves a convoluted set of circumstances that must be sorted out by a PI.
“You think you’re on the right track and then it goes off in another direction. You just have so many different avenues to check,” McKinney notes. One such case that she knew about during the early weeks of her professional training touched her deeply. When a New Hampshire woman was missing in late 2009, McKinney teamed up with her professor from Boston University to help in the investigation. She visited area hospitals to interview people, canvassed communities asking questions, and partnered with another PI who had a radio show to help get the word out. Even though her role wasn’t pivotal to the investigation, McKinney knew after that she had made the right choice when changing careers.
“….We were trying to help a family desperately searching for their daughter, wife and mother. I felt like I was really making a difference in someone’s life,” she says. “I just sort of stumbled on this profession, but I’ve always loved helping people.”