Working with Informants and Contacts
Contacts are necessary for the PI to operate. Because a contact has no law enforcement badge to plop down on a counter, no police powers that encourage people to provide information, and no ability to petition for search warrants, she must rely on people for certain information. Technically, informants are contacts, but contacts aren't necessarily informants. Therefore, this section will treat them separately.
A contact is anyone with access to information needed by the PI. Contacts can be paid or unpaid, friends, police, government workers, or private citizens. In other words, anyone in any industry or business who holds information relevant to the PI's needs can be a contact. Cultivate these people. Form some type of relationship with them so that they trust you. People in records, police, and child welfare departments are good contacts, as are those in the media, insurance, politics, real estate, and forensics or crime labs. Developing as many contacts in as many areas as possible will help, as each new case presents different information requirements. Don't wait until you need someone — cultivate relationships now.
Must I pay contacts in order to receive help?
Cultivating doesn't mean paying people or spending money to keep people “in your pocket.” It means taking advantage of opportunities to get to know people who have access to information you may need, and to help them where you can. Be genuinely interested in their lives and show appreciation for what they do.
If you're able, you might gift these contacts with small tokens such as sticky notepads or pens with your phone number. Become a learner — let the contact educate you about his work. Be interested in pictures of children or pets that someone may have on her desk. Remembering children's names and asking about them from time to time is a means of meeting people on a more personal level. However, don't overdo it or your interest can feel creepy. During holidays, you might bring cookies or another inexpensive edible to a department you do business with. More importantly, become a friendly face that people welcome. Be alert to peoples' needs and look for ways to help. When you need something, your contacts may reciprocate.
The main thought to keep in mind is that contacts can be anyone, so don't burn your bridges with those around you. To reiterate what's been mentioned earlier, even if someone is rude, sharp, or even hostile, with patience and a little humor, you may be able to turn that person into a contact — and maybe a friend. You may even experience the privilege of pouring the salve of kindness on someone's pain; when you can do this, it'll make your day.
Informants are also contacts, but they are usually of a different breed. Informants, more often than not, want to be paid. They're usually in professions or from cultures or communities that are difficult to reach, and they may be criminals or criminal associates. First and foremost, you must determine the informant's motive. Does he crave attention? Is he looking for revenge or to settle a score? Is he trying to make a quick buck by pulling the proverbial wool over your eyes? Is he emotionally unstable? Knowing motive will help to weed out people with real information from those whose information is false or nonexistent. Sometimes motives are mixed, but the information can still be valid.
Cab drivers, bartenders, waiters and waitresses, store clerks, and the like aren't necessarily criminals or criminal associates. You may not know them well enough to know whether they are or not — and it might not matter. For example, if your target frequents a certain restaurant or bar, you may want to cultivate the bartender or someone in wait service who can unobtrusively report on the target and glean information from and about her. These people usually want to be paid, but don't let them soak you; you don't need to pay an exorbitant price. Most will take a much lower price than the one in your head. Also, be sure you receive what you need from them before paying the entire amount. If you've paid half, don't pay the rest until you have your information.
While it's true that informants are less likely to be people with whom you want to form personal relationships, even informants perform better when there's some kind of connection between you, so treat them with respect. There's a fine line to walk here because the informant must know that you can see through any duplicity, yet they should not feel degraded. Police informants are carefully controlled. They must be recorded in a book and monitored. Even confidential informants must be known to someone.
Relationships with informants can be sticky. Even police have difficulty handling them, so don't underestimate the potential for problems. The first rule is: Never trust an informant — always check the information provided. Second rule: Never trust an informant — take someone with you or have backup watching when you meet with or use an informant.
Another source of informants for the PI is hotel and motel personnel such as maids, janitors, and front desk clerks. They could be the only ones with access to information in certain areas, and they may be persuaded to share. Also, don't overlook home workers such as nannies, landscapers, yard workers, housekeepers, and the like. This is trickier, as many of these people are intensely loyal. Yet some are not well paid or are treated poorly, and some have witnessed activities of which they disapprove. They may talk.