A private investigator relies on information to help their clients’ cases and so it stands to reason that the more knowledge they can accumulate the better they can serve their clients - whether it’s discovering underhanded business deals, hidden assets, or proof of infidelity. One of the best ways to obtain information is to secretly listen-in on telephone conversations of third parties. But can a private investigator legally tap your phone? Let’s answer these quick questions:
Q. Can a private investigator hack your phone?
A. Not legally, as hacking always suggests doing it without permission which is illegal. But they can and sometimes do, but shouldn’t.
Q. Can a private investigator wiretap my phone?
A. They can wiretap your own phone if you give permission and relevant parties to any phone calls are aware of any interception of communication and recording taking place - according to one or two-party state laws.
Q. Can a private investigator spy on cell phones?
A. Private investigators cannot legally spy on cell phones to obtain text messages, phone calls, or other cell phone data such as location. However, some can and do it illegally.
For whatever reason you’re asking can a private investigator tap your phone, generally the answer is no they can’t. A private investigator is only permitted to record telephonic or in-person conversation the same way and under the same conditions as any other ordinary citizen.
Wiretapping Laws that Prevent Private Investigators Tapping Your Phone
First off, U.S. federal law prohibits private investigators from wiretapping or monitoring phone conversations without consent from at least one of the parties of the conversation, depending on which state the phone monitoring takes place. In the United States, 38 states have laws that require only one party to consent to the recording of a conversation, while the other 12 states require consent from all individuals if you want to record conversation. Wiretapping a phone usually signifies the investigator is an unknown silent party which would contravene both one and two-party consent.
Investigations that make use of recording and/or transmission of communication without the proper authority would make the perpetrator(s) criminally and civilly liable for violating 18 U.S. Code CHAPTER 119—WIRE AND ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS INTERCEPTION AND INTERCEPTION OF ORAL COMMUNICATIONS as well as other state statutes and criminal codes.
Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, (Pub. L. 90-351; 6/19/68), also known as the "Wiretap Act":
- Prohibits the unauthorized, nonconsensual interception of "wire, oral, or electronic communications" by government agencies as well as private parties,
- Establishes procedures for obtaining warrants to authorize wiretapping by government officials, and
- Regulates the disclosure and use of authorized intercepted communications by investigative and law enforcement officers.
So, without having an official warrant or permission from other parties during a telephonic conversation (one or two-party state law applies here) it is illegal for a private investigator to wiretap someone else’s telephone conversation.
There are also other violations of law when a private investigator wiretaps or spies on a phone conversation illegally such as privacy laws and even human rights laws.
So do private investigators tap phones and listen to phone calls illegally?
Unfortunately the answer is yes. Unscrupulous or untrained investigators do cross the line and hack into phones to listen into phone calls or read text messages. There are publicized cases where private investigators have hacked into phones and as a result have been sent to prison. One such case is Anthony Pellicano, a Los Angeles private investigator known as the "Hollywood fixer".
Can A Private Investigator Legally Wiretap My Phone?
A professional private investigator is naturally tenacious when it comes to looking for information and so will always try other legal methods. The legal restrictions preventing private investigators from wiretapping have prompted some to work with state and local law enforcement to obtain the legal coverage and authority to conduct their investigations. Such cases would be in line with police or law enforcement investigations.
Let’s go into more detail and when a private investigator could tap a phone during the course of an investigation. Keep in mind the one and two-party law of consent to listening in and recording conversation.
Tapping your home phone
If you live alone you can ask a private investigator to tap your own landline phone at home and record conversations you have with others. But, if you invite a guest to your home and they use your phone, all eavesdropping and recording must stop unless they give permission to do so.
If you live with others and have a shared home phone, in shared rental accommodation for example, you will need to get the permission from the owner/landlord to monitor and record conversation. For whatever reason you need to have the phone line tapped, you can only record your own conversation and not allow the investigator to listen to or record the other occupants without their consent. The occupants will also need to be informed of any phone monitoring.
Tapping your personal cell phone
You can have a private investigator spy on your own cell phone with your permission to perhaps allow them to track your whereabouts or record conversations for evidence purposes. But, if you pass your phone over for another to use, even if it’s your own cell phone, the private investigator must stop listening and recording any conversation, unless the user consents.
Tapping your office landline or company cell phone
Many larger companies already monitor their phone systems (usually for customer service purposes) and in order to do so legally they publically inform their staff and customers. Monitoring is not the same as spying.
An owner of a business may hire a private investigator to monitor the calls of a company phone system, but only when the employees have been informed of such monitoring and its purpose. Having a private investigator spy on an employee’s office phone just to see who they are talking to, even if they are under suspicion of trading company secrets, is illegal without the employee’s knowledge of such monitoring.
Similarly, an employee may not tap or have a private investigator hack into a work phone, even if it’s their company cell phone. Permission must be sought to wiretap a company phone, and if given, only the employee who requested it can have their conversation listened to and recorded. If another employee uses the landline or cell phone that’s being spied upon by a private investigator without the employee’s knowledge then violations of law have been made.
Despite the restrictions on wiretapping and listening to private phone calls, private investigators can legally listen to and record conversations which take place in public, and this would include one-sided phone calls. Conversations held in public are generally not considered to be private, meaning there is no expectation of privacy and therefore open to eavesdropping.
Evidence Gained From Phone Tapping By A Private Investigator
An important point to note here is that any evidence gained by a private investigator through tapping into your phone would be useless as evidence in court, simply because it would have been obtained illegally. The courts may question as to how such information was discovered and if discovered by phone hacking will force the perpetrator to either lie or explain how it was obtained. Either way they will have broken the law and the evidence will usually become inadmissible.
Tapping or hacking phones by a private investigator to listen to private conversations or to obtain someone's voice mail messages or texts is against the law. Phone calls, conversations, emails, texts etc. are illegal to obtain, record, or listen to without your consent. But can a private investigator tap you phone? Yes they can. Is it illegal to do so? Yes it is, without your permission or official warrant.