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While I was watching the three seasons of Veronica Mars and Veronica Mars (movie) I was surprised by some of the ways she used to investigate people and therefore to close cases.

In particular, a recurring topic in her work is to perform a "background check" on people. In several occasions she is depicted surfing on a private website where she logs in as vmars (IIRC) and then she types the name of a person, immediately getting a lot of information such as home address, car plates, past convictions (is this the correct term?) and more.

Here's an example of one of these pages from S1E3:

The Invisible Eye search engine

She also uses bugs to snoop conversations and she makes it seem like she can do that. Generally speaking, the show seems to depict a character that has a kind of legitimate or at least effortless access to a lot of information related to strangers. To me, this looks quite fictitious or at least inconceivable where I live (in the EU).

I'm not talking about when she asks Mac to do some hacking (which is amusing to see and at the same time I can understand whether it's real or not since I am a computer scientist). I am talking about tools she can just use or inquire to get information in an easy way.

Thus, speaking about her means, my questions are:

  • Is it plausible that a PI in the United States can background check people by using very convenient search engine-like tools? Do these tools exist and are they expensive?
  • Is this possible for a person who is not an officially licensed PI such as Veronica? If it is possible, is it even legal?
  • Do the answers to the above change if we consider that the series was taking place between 2004-2007 and not nowadays?
  • Does it make a difference whether or not she is employed by Keith Mars?
  • Can she freely use bugs to intercept people while they are talking? What about a PI?
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information such as home address, car plates, past convictions (is this the correct term?) and more.

Most of these would be considered public information in the US, and can be bought and sold by 3rd parties with impunity. In some states, this is a matter of public record, and there are government run websites that provide this information. Like Florida, which has to, by law, provide access to conviction records online. A cars registration is a public record in many states.

Any number of private, for pay, on demand services provide basic bulk record searches. All they do is aggregate lawful, public data.

Bugs though, are covered under state and federal wiretapping laws, and are illegal for non-police in 99% of the cases, in 2 party states. In 1 Party states, the owner of the line or one side the conversation can give permission to tap it, but thats risky. 1 party states only require one party of the line to know it is being recorded for it to be legal.

It really depends on what she does with the recordings or bugs. It would never be admissible in court, and if she uses it to blackmail, that's a felony. Wiretapping rulings vary be district.

As for licensing, it varies by state. 7 states do not require any licensing to be a Private Investigator. If no license is required, you can't distinguish a legitimate PI from an individual acting unlawfully.

The fact that Veronica is employed by her father seems normal. Most licensing states require an internship or fellowship or apprenticeship under a licensed PI as part of the licensing process.

  • In one of the voice-overs, I remember hearing her say that she got a PI license for her 18th birthday or such – KharoBangdo Dec 26 '16 at 7:16
  • Thank you for your answer, although I need some clarification about some of the points. 1. when you talk about public information, does it include the home address and the plate number for cars? I mean can anyone look this up knowing only an individual's name? 2. Regarding bugs, pardon my ignorance but what does "2 party states" mean? If it matters, Veronica Mars is based in the ficitonal unincorporated town of Neptune, CA. Also, are there cases where PIs are allowed to place hidden microphones somewhere? – Andrea Lazzarotto Dec 26 '16 at 14:46
  • 3. Veronica passes her exam to be an official PI in S3E18 so I guess there is a license involved. If a license is not required, how do you distinguish a legitimate PI from an individual unlawfully spying on other people? 4. Before getting a license, though, she spent 2 and half seasons doing investigations. I'm curious about whether this is plausible assuming she was employed by her father who is a licensed PI. – Andrea Lazzarotto Dec 26 '16 at 14:49
  • @andrea 1, yes. A cars registration is a public record in many states. 2. 2 party states is any state that requires all parties of a conversation to know the line is being recorded for it to be legal. 1 party states only require one party of the line to know it is being recorded for it to be legal. 3. If no license is required, you can't know. California isn't one of those no license states. 4. Yes, that seems normal. Most licensing states require an internship or fellowship or apprenticeship under a licensed PI as part of the licensing process. – cde Dec 26 '16 at 17:49
  • Alright. Could you update the answer to contain those details? I think they should be included. I will wait another couple of days before accepting so I can see if someone else wants to add something. – Andrea Lazzarotto Dec 27 '16 at 11:16
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Is it plausible that a PI in the United States can background check people by using very convenient search engine-like tools? Do these tools exist and are they expensive?

There are tools that exist and are free (like google), but for a more through search, you would need to hire a real PI who has developed "sources" of information throughout the years, and knows where to look, in addition, some databases require a PI License.

Is this possible for a person who is not an officially licensed PI such as Veronica? If it is possible, is it even legal?

Yes, only from publicly available sources, as a PI you have a duty to protect people's privacy.

Do the answers to the above change if we consider that the series was taking place between 2004-2007 and not nowadays?

Absolutely! Google was not what it is since 2004, although PIs did use publicly available forums.

Does it make a difference whether or not she is employed by Keith Mars? Can she freely use bugs to intercept people while they are talking? What about a PI?

Nope, it is illegal to intercept conversations, she will go straight to jail if caught. PIs will be arrested as well. They do not have any police powers. For more info on requirements and current laws and links on becoming a PI in the USA I found this guide for becoming a private investigator.

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