From Electronics Engineer to Private Investigator

By Tom Smith

I'm often asked "Why did you decide to become a private investigator?" To me, life is about collecting experiences, and in some ways becoming a P.I. is the sum of all my experiences so far.

I graduated from college in 1984 and worked as an electronics engineer from then until I retired in 2011. Once I retired, I decided it was time to work on my bucket list, which included sailing and learning to be proficient with a firearm. But that all changed.

In early 2013, I took several defensive handgun and shotgun courses and had the pleasure of partnering up with several different law enforcement officers. I became fascinated with solving crime and while, yes, I was too old for police work, I realized I could get a license as a private investigator.

My electronics background makes me somewhat unique in this industry. Most of my P.I. friends are not technically inclined, so when they see how I set up my surveillance vehicle, they were pretty impressed.

I added on additional wiring and switches to my vehicle so that I can turn on or off light circuits if I want to alter the appearance of my vehicle at night. I can also disable my horn and my license plate light for when I go into stealth mode.

Adding wire and switches

I installed a separate 12V power supply and converter behind the driver's seat, so I have access to 120VAC and an additional 12V socket so I don't have to suffer during those long stake outs. Now I can run my laptop, charge my cameras and not worry about running down my vehicle battery.

Install 12V power supply
12V socket

I have a wealth of electronic gadgets including a digital tape recorder, GPS navigation, Mac Pro laptop, various battery chargers, an additional 12V power supply and converter, and various cameras.

The majority of my work involves surveillance for workman's compensation cases. The client is primarily interested in video of the claimant performing activities that he has claimed he can't do. So for that reason, the digital video camera is the work-horse of this effort and my primary tool.

For me, the critical capability of a digital video camera is a continuous date/time stamp. Only the high end cameras automatically embed this metadata. On most consumer video cameras this information has to go through a third party software program to be burned into the final video.

Sometimes, a case requires close-in work in a public setting. This calls for smaller, covert cameras. Cameras without a monitor are quite small – about the size of a tube of lipstick – and can be hidden in a wide variety of ways.

Key Alarm and Bluetooth Ear Piece Covert Cameras Key Alarm and Bluetooth Ear Piece Covert Cameras

Cell Phone and Wrist Watch Covert Cameras Cell Phone and Wrist Watch Covert Cameras

They are very simple to use but limited to a fixed focus and have a running time of only one to two hours. The biggest disadvantage is that you have no idea of the quality of the video until you download the footage onto your computer.

Cameras that allow you to monitor while you are taking video are bulkier, contain interface wiring and are harder to conceal. They do have the advantage of confirming in real time the quality of the video. Each job calls for a unique solution, so the average PI will have a need for a variety of cameras with slightly different capabilities to fit each scenario.

Wires are always breaking off from connectors, so I occasionally need to make basic repairs to my equipment. At home, I have a full blown electronics workshop stocked with tons of Jameco parts and tools. It's nice to be able to heat up my trusty, old soldering iron and fix these problems myself. Sometimes I need to change the interface completely. For that, I use a multimeter to identify which wires go where and then install the new connector.

Going from retired electronics engineer to PI has been like beginning a new life. I'm enjoying it and plan to continue collecting experiences, both on and off cases.

Editor's Note
Have a career that uses electronics skills where engineers don't commonly roam? Send us your story. We would love to share it with our readers. Contact us at [email protected].

Tom Smith lives in Marion, Iowa and is a private investigator doing business as Patriot Investigations. His interests include electronics, firearms, ocean sailing and constantly learning new things. Tom has been a Jameco customer since 1980.