I’m currently TDY and bored in my hotel room so I figured I would take the time to type about my first year of being a background investigator. When I first applied for this job, I couldn’t find too much insight other than negative reviews, so I’m hoping this will help someone who is currently in the process of becoming an investigator or considering it. I’m pretty much at my year mark and this last year has been a complete blur of meeting new meeting and traveling. I’m still relatively inexperienced compared to a lot of other people in this field and I still have a lot learn but here I go anyway.
I was USMC artillery for 4 years and I’ve got my BS in Criminal Justice. I worked a bunch of crappy restaurant and security jobs while I was attending school and I had an interesting stint in the firearms industry for a while, so this job is my first “grown up” job where I get to wear a suit and tie. I had never done anything like it and I was itching to get out of the firearms industry so once I saw a job posting for this I hopped on it despite reading all of the negative reviews regarding companies like Keypoint.
I won’t say too much about training because other than there is a lot of information to take in and it’s mostly death by power point. When I went through training, it started out with 2 weeks of online training from home and there was also a period during that 2 weeks where I shadowed another investigator for two days. After that it was 2 weeks of in house training and then 2 weeks of on the job training in which I had a more experienced investigator shadow me for two weeks. That part kind of sucked because I would just have some dude sitting next to me in my home office while I wrote reports. I learned a lot from him but he didn’t seem to enjoy being a trainer too much.
My first couple of months on my own was kind of a train wreck as I still unprepared. Reopens would happen constantly and at one point I was hit with 6 reopens in one day…talk about a headache. My first few cases on my own were pretty heavy with issues and I had yet to learn to ask the right questions at the time in order to paint a clear picture. Over time I’ve learned to ask detailed questions in order to get a detailed response and now people would be hard pressed to say that my reports aren’t thorough.
As you start to work your area, things get a lot easier as you begin to build a rapport with the human resources people who work at various companies you’ll come into contact with. Now I know exactly who to call and for what and it makes things a lot easier. I’m also fortunate enough to work in a relatively easy area where there isn’t a lot of traffic and most of the defense contractors are concentrated in one spot, so it makes scheduling subject interviews a breeze.
When you first get out of training and take a look at your workload it will seem overwhelming, and it is. I refuse to give any free time to my company and I never work more than 40 hours a week. Sometime’s I’ll miss a due date or two but i’ll never hear anything about it unless it’s a priority item. Learning to zone your work properly is crucial. Sometimes I get lucky and I’ll be assigned a few Subject’s who happen to work on the same base or in the same general area so I’ll usually get all of their interviews done back to back. It’s not uncommon for me to do 2 - 3 subject interviews in one day, on top of interviewing their co-workers and supervisors. Sure, it makes for a real long day, but it’s worth it when I’m able to accomplish the brunt of my workload for the week in just one or two days.
No day is the same
The one thing I love about this job is that I never quite know where I’ll end up. I’ve done interviews next to an Abrams tank, underneath the wing of a jet, inside a vault, in the bottom of a coast guard ship, in the parking lot of a home depot, in the pilots seat of a helicopter, on a sailboat, or even just a Starbucks. You just never know where you’ll end up, especially when it comes to interviewing references.
It’s also important to look the part. A lot of people will be skeptical when you come around flashing some credentials and trying to ask questions about their neighbor. Keep your suit clean and your car clean. I’ve run into other investigators out in the field and see them wearing a polo with jeans or khakis. I don’t think they last too long on the job running around like that so the best advice I can offer is to just do your best to look as professional as possible. You will come into contact with A LOT of people, and many of them are in very prestigious positions. I only own two fairly cheap suits but I do my best to keep them clean and looking good.
At any given time a source who you’ve interviewed can be recontacted by someone working quality assurance and the last thing you want them to say is that you were unprofessional.
Treat everyone you meet as politely as possible. This is especially true with your Subjects as you will have to discuss difficult issues with them about their past. It’s best to show understanding and show as much tact as possible when discussing the issues with them. A lot of people have done stuff in their past that they’re not proud of and they hate talking about it. For me personally, one of the questions I always hate asking is why they are divorced, as the answer usually involves infidelity and whatnot. Being a fellow human who has also been cheated on in past relationships, I know that particular issue sucks talking about. Subject interviews ARE NOT interrogations, though I know there are investigators out there who think they’re Miami vice detectives.
One interesting thing I’ve encountered with source interviews is people will often mistake you as some sort of federal agent/authority figure and they think that if they say the wrong answer it might impact them negatively. I get this all the time when I ask a reference when they first met the Subject and they’re scared to just say “I don’t remember”, instead they stutter about and apologize because they don’t want to give a “wrong answer” and I have to reassure them that they’re not under oath or anything and to just tell me what they can to the best of their knowledge.
Dealing with dodgy Subjects
Most people going through the background investigation process know that they’ll be contacted by an investigator eventually and they are eager to meet you whenever and wherever as soon as possible. However that’s not always the case and sometimes you will come across a Subject who will their best to avoid you because they don’t know who you are and why you’re trying to interview them. I’ve encountered this a lot with FEMA contractors who have were hastily told to fill out an SF85 and they probably mistook it as an additional application for their position.
In my experience, military recruits are often pretty difficult getting a hold of as they have either already shipped out to bootcamp by the time their case gets to me or their recruiter or someone at MEPS filled out an SF86 for them and the recruit themselves don’t even know a security clearance is. A lot of military recruits have no idea their even going through a background investigation. Doing a Subject interview for a military recruit is usually a major headache because often times they might fill out a paper version of the questionnaire and then it gets passed on to someone else who only inputs half of the information into the e-qip version. So during the interview it’s not uncommon to develop a bunch of residences and employments that weren’t listed, so now you have about 10 more references and just as many records to try and obtain. I firmly believe that military recruiters should go through some specialized training to familiarize them with the background investigation process so that their recruits can also be informed and know what to expect, and also so they fill out the damn form properly!
Planning your schedule
Like I said earlier in the post, I like to schedule my Subject interviews as early in the week as possible and I don’t mind doing them back to back. It’s always best to get the hardest and most time consuming thing done first. Mondays and Tuesdays are usually 10-12 hour days for me and I can usually spend all day at home on Wednesday typing and making some phone calls to obtain some records on Thursday or meet with a few references. Fridays are usually half days or less for me, and it’s been that way for quite a while. I’ve never had to meet with someone on the weekend and very rarely do I have meetings scheduled after 5PM. Most people would rather meet during normal business hours but of course you’ll come across those who absolutely can’t meet until later in the evenings. Other then that, you’re pretty much in control of your schedule and if you feel like staying up all night typing or briefing/preparing cases then it’s up to you. As long as you hit your numbers no one really cares when you work.
I remember when I was going through my background investigation, my NBIB investigator was pretty unprofessional. I took time off of work (which I couldn’t really afford to do) in order to meet her at the library. She was over 45 minutes with no phone call. Also she had called me supervisor to schedule a meeting with him and she was 30 minutes late for that with no phone call. My supervisor was pretty peeved because he had to clock out in order to meet with her and he was already clocked out of work at the scheduled meeting time and she never showed up. There was a similar experience with all of my references who made time to meet with her and she was just simply late with no explanation. Don’t be that person, it makes the profession look bad. I think her special agent badge may have gone to her head and maybe she thought normal professional courtesies didn’t apply to her. Who knows. She also showed up to interview my supervisor and she was wearing a sleeveless shirt to show off her tattoos. I myself have two full sleeves and even I thought that was very unprofessional, so maybe things are more relaxed on the federal side when it comes to dress code.
As I said earlier, when you’re first looking at your field work system and you just have 20+ cases with a few different items on them staring back at you, things can seem overwhelming. Just tackle one thing at a time. The hardest part about the job is just picking up the phone and scheduling that next meeting. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and people will pick up the phone on the first try and boom your meeting is already scheduled and you can start figuring out your next case in the meantime. Things can start to get hairy when you’re having to keep track of multiple contact attempts for multiple cases and when you don’t have any luck getting a hold of someone by phone or e-mail you have to start making attempts at whatever is address is known for them so that can eat away at your productivity. Often times you are also given bad/outdated contact information so you waste time on that as well.
Whenever I do a Subject interview and I start asking them about contact information for their references, I ask them to double check their phone to see if the number is correct. It’s also best to ask when they last contacted that references at that number and if they say it’s been a year or two I give them homework to get back at me with updated contacted info. It also helps you in the long run because they end up contacting their references and now those listed references are expecting a call from you and it just makes scheduling meetings SO much easier because most people are more than willing to help out their friends and meet with you. During a Subject interview I’m also trying to constantly get as many leads as possible, even if they don’t have a particularly issue laden case.
Make your Subject’s do some of the work for you. This will save you a lot of time during the interview especially if it’s been a year or more since they filled out the case papers and a lot of their references and family have changed addresses. When discussing past employments that require coverage, I’ll ask them for as many leads as possible and their homework is to usually give me updated contact information for people they’ve worked work and whatnot. It definitely helps out other investigators working the case when you can tell them that they cancel the item they have because a former supervisor now lives and works in a completely different place.
Some Subject’s may have certain foreign flagging issues on their case that will require their passport to be reviewed in person and you’ll also be expected to document every stamp in their passport. Some people have a LOT of stamps and some of them can be hard to read, so I learned to ask them to bring photocopies of any page showing a stamp in their passport. That way I can review their passport in person and make sure the copies match up with the original and keep the copies for my notes, versus going through each stamp one by one and writing it down.
One of the most important aspects of this job is taking GOOD notes. That doesn’t mean you have to write paragraphs on top of paragraphs, you just have to be clear and concise. Other people need to be able to read your notes and make sense of them because there might come a time where you send your notes in to document control and then you get a reopen on that case 2 months later so you’ll have to give document control a call and some poor soul will have to go through your notes and try to read your handwriting to get whatever info you need from the notes. It’s best to keep your notes in line with the Subject’s case papers with distinguishing headers that way everything is easier to find. It also makes writing reports much easier once you have a good system down as to how you want to write your notes.
Things get kind of tricky here, they teach you to write the reports one way in training and then your OJT trainer will be telling you to do it a different way. The one thing I’ve learned is to write in a way that leaves nothing open to any other interpretation. I hate to say it, but some of the reviewers I’ve worked with aren’t the brightest bulbs (the same goes for us investigators) and I don’t have time to argue with them over semantics. Once I started writing my reports at about an 8th grade level I began to experience a lot less reopens for mundane clarifications. As an investigator, it’s embarrassing having to recontact a Subject MONTHS after you’ve interviewed them just to clarify an absurd detail the reviewer wants to know, such as how they’re able to attend ONLINE classes part-time and around their work schedule. The answer should be obvious, but if it’s not in your notes you can’t put in your report.
That’s all I’ve got for now. If you managed to read through this wall of text then I thank you for taking the time. I hope I’ve been able to give some insight as to what the position entails and if you’re looking to get into this field then I wish you the best of luck. It’s a far cry from your typical 9 -5 job and other people might even envy you for it. I get asked all the time “how did you land this sweet gig?” and I always have to tell them it’s not as cool as it sounds, but sometimes it is.