In movies people hire private detectives to catch cheating spouses or find missing people all the time. In real life that goes on, but they also get hired by corporate clients to investigate competitors, clients, and even their own staff members for a variety of reasons. In most cases this is probably pretty standard stuff; maybe there is a fear of corporate espionage or someone is stealing. But sometimes the reasons can be almost unbelievable.
10. General Motors Hired Detectives to Discredit Ralph Nader
In 1965, Ralph Nader wrote the book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which took the auto industry to task for putting profit over safety and accused them of knowingly putting people at risk in unsafe vehicles. One of his big targets was the Chevy Corsair, made by General Motors and the company was not happy at all.
General Motors responded by hiring private detectives to spy on Nader and find evidence of anything they could use to discredit him, even if that meant manufacturing that evidence. First, they tried to seduce him with a prostitute but he turned her down. Later they attempted to discredit him by suggesting he was homosexual, harassing his neighbors and others with leading questions about his sexuality in a time when being gay would absolutely have been viewed as something discrediting.
The detectives were caught and the whole sordid scheme came out during congressional hearings which made General Motors look even worse but did lead to the rise of seatbelts and other safety features.
9. Progressive Insurance Spied on Customers in Church
Insurance companies have a bad reputation at the best of times and if you don’t have your own negative experience dealing with one, you probably know someone who does. So when you find out a company like Progressive took the time to spy on people in church, it definitely doesn’t help their image.
Progressive hired detectives to go to the church of a couple who were suing the insurer and spy on them. They became church members and even joined a private support group for people who were working through serious personal issues like drug addictions and abortions. They taped those meetings to get dirt on the couple. This led to the people filing another lawsuit against the company as well as the detectives.
The head of Progressive apologized publicly but the company also denied they did anything wrong in legal filings.
8. Pillow Pets Hired Detectives to Hunt Down Counterfeit Pillows
Pillow Pets first arrived on the toy scene in the early 2000s. They look like typical stuffed animals with the added twist that you can convert them into pillows. They became hugely popular and by 2009 they had $7 million in gross sales. As with anything popular, that fame soon brought knock offs out of the woodwork.
By 2011, US Marshals were involved in the Pillow Pet world, hunting down counterfeits. Fake Pillow Pets had been flooding the market so the company had hired private detectives to track down the source of the fakes.
Their efforts led marshals to a New York warehouse owned by a rival toy company. The whole endeavor was kept under lock and key so the other company wouldn’t get wind of it and when marshals arrived, they seized 17,000 fakes from the warehouse.
7. New York Ice Cream Trucks Spy On Each Other
Ice cream is a fun summer treat, but only if you’re the person eating it. If you’re an ice cream seller in New York, then the entire game can become cutthroat and brutal. In 2017, the cool world of ice cream became heated when Mr. Softee went to war against rival ice cream seller New York Ice Cream.
Both companies operate out of ice cream trucks but Mister Softee was accusing the other company of operating fraudulent Mister Softee trucks. About a half dozen detectives were employed by Mister Softee to spy on the competition in what ended up becoming so heated that the detectives were being threatened with pipes.
New York Ice Cream, started by a previous Mister Softee employee, was accused of using the Mister Softee Logo and even their trademarked jingle. A judge ruled in Mister Softee’s favor that the competition had to stop.
6. Lenny Dykstra Hired Investigators to Blackmail MLB Umpires
Former professional baseball player Lenny Dykstra has a checkered past which includes some arrests and challenging people to fights on social media in addition to fraud and even grand theft auto. His aggressive behavior is nothing new, however, and he readily admits to engaging in some seriously questionable behavior even back in his heyday.
Back in 2015, Dykstra admitted that he had hired investigators to dig up dirt on major league umpires. He did it specifically towards the goal of blackmailing them so they’d be more inclined to make calls in his favor during games like widening his strike zone so he could get more walks than strikeouts. You may recognize that as cheating. Really elaborate cheating.
He says he paid $500,000 and then points out that, after he did that, he led the league in walks for two years to demonstrate his plan worked.
5. Uber Has a History of Hiring Security Firms to Investigate Critics
Uber has only been around since 2009 but the company has had a huge impact on the world. The ride share idea has become ubiquitous all over the globe, and the company posted $17.4 billion in revenue during 2021. They have not, however, been without scandal during that time. Accusations of sexual assault are numerous, others including obstruction of justice, unfair firing and so much more. And with all of those accusations being tossed around, maybe it’s not a surprise that the company hires investigators to look into their accusers.
When the company was accused of violating antitrust laws, Uber hired a firm staffed by former CIA officials to look into not just the plaintiffs but the lawyers as well. The investigation was exposed, and it blew up in Uber’s face with the judge in the original case saying it gave a “reasonable basis to suspect the perpetration of fraud.”
In 2014, in the middle of what seemed to be a PR dinner with journalists and people like actor Ed Norton, an Uber vice-president openly talked about hiring investigators to dig up dirt on journalists who criticized the company. He immediately tried to backpedal after the dinner.
4. Rockstar Games Hired A Detective To Locate a Musician’s Family
As we’ve seen so far, in most cases a private investigator is hired to do some fairly unsavory work but that doesn’t have to always be the case. They’re not nefarious by definition, after all, it’s just that most things only require investigation because people are trying to dig into secrets or unscrupulous acts. However, Rockstar Games, the company behind the extremely popular Grand Theft Auto franchise, has shown that some good work can be done with the help of investigators as well.
The Grand Theft Auto series is notable for the music they include and GTA IV included a song called “Walk the Night“ that was released by a group called the Skatt Bros. in 1979. The game was huge in ways no video game ever had been before. It broke sales records and has made over $2 billion since its release. Some Of that money filters down to the musicians whose music was featured and that meant the Skatt Bros were looking at a pay day. But the problem was that the songwriter, Sean Delaney, had died in 2003.
The publishing shares that Delaney owned had gone to his brother, sister and a nephew, but no one knew where they were. Rockstar did right by Delaney and, rather than letting it go, they hired an investigator to track down his relatives. The investigator had to travel to the city of Orum, Utah, with a population under 100,000, to find them and make sure they got what was owed.
3. Municipal Governments in Australia Hire Investigators to Have Sex With Prostitutes
Imagine trying to explain your job to anyone and get them to take you seriously if you were one of the investigators hired by Australian authorities to hire prostitutes and then report back about the experience. As unbelievable as it sounds, it was a real thing, arguably funded by taxpayer money.
In 2007, officials in Sydney were looking to crack down on illegal brothers within the city. Somewhere north of $16,000 was paid over three years to get investigators to go through the entire process from beginning to end so that the council will have irrefutable evidence of the illegal acts. Brothels are legal in Australia, but they have to be legal brothels, if that makes sense. Just like you can’t have an unlicensed bar in America, you can’t have an unlicensed brothel in Australia.
As late as 2019 investigators were still being hired to go to massage parlors and see if there were sexual services being offered in addition to the legal activities. The work involves either having acts performed by employees or, if it’s part of the job, having full sex with the employees that are being investigated.
2. A Spanish Town Hired a Detective To Spy on Pet Owners
No one likes a dog owner who doesn’t clean up after their dog. It’s a scourge of the modern world but, unless you catch someone in the act of leaving it, there’s not much to be done about it. But for one town in Spain, that was not good enough.
Colmenar Viejo invested money in hiring a detective back in 2014 to roam the streets undercover, complete with a camera, to get evidence The detectives job wasn’t to stop anyone if he caught them ignoring their duties as a pet owner. Instead, they would just gather proof and give it to the police. The pet owners could then expect a respectable fine of €750 after the fact. That’s actually a mild fine compared to larger cities like Madrid and Barcelona where the fines are double that.
The detective seemed to be a sort of last resort effort as the already steep fines had not proven to be enough to convince residents to clean up. So the added threat of people knowing they were being watched might have done the trick.
1. A California Water District Hired investigators to Track Tom Selleck’s Water Use
California summers have been harsh for a number of years now with droughts and fires becoming more and more commonplace. Many communities have had to institute rules over water use in an effort to conserve what is available.
Actor Tom Selleck, best known for Magnum PI in the ’80s, has a ranch in California and was accused in 2015 of using more than his fair share of water, illegally taking it from the Calleguas district. The Calleguas Municipal Water District hired a private investigator and determined that a truck from Selleck’s ranch had been tapping a hydrant on several occasions between 2013 and 2015.
Reps for Selleck said the water was from a construction site and the actor paid for it rather than stealing it, but the district pointed out you can’t just buy water from someone else like that. In the end, Selleck agreed to pay the district just over $21,000 to settle the lawsuit.