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PIs and Competitive Analysis: top precautions that investigators should keep in mind

PIs and Competitive Analysis: What’s Legal and What’s Not

For PIs who are comfortable working with businesses, there’s one task that many larger businesses are willing to pay well for: Investigating the competition. For jobs like these, PIs conduct in-depth research on the opposition, companies that offer competition in the same market. Clients want to know what their competitors are doing, what they’re worried about, and what their current best practices are…beyond what they can find online.

These jobs can be lucrative, but it also raises a lot of ethical questions. What’s off-limits when a private investigator starts investigating a competitor? Are public photos and videos still all right? Could digging through trash or monitoring warehouses get PIs into trouble? Let’s take a look at the top precautions that investigators should keep in mind with competitive analysis.

Researching Public Companies: Legal

Public companies have to present a lot of information to shareholders and the public in general. This makes it easy to analyze their finances, their growth, and where their investment focus is. Basic subscriptions to websites like Bloomberg, OpenCorporates, Factiva, and other services can yield a lot of information. Private companies are much more difficult to research. They don’t have to disclose anything they don’t want to, and laws will generally protect their privacy.

Put Together Complete Reports: Very Legal

Opposition research can be tricky for growing companies. They may be able to do a quick Google search and look at their competitor’s websites and social media, but will struggle for deeper analysis. Experienced PIs can advertise themselves as specialists in competitive intelligence and able to put together complete reports. These reports can analyze pricing, profits, marketing strategies, risks, strengths and weaknesses — and lots more.

Here, the value is gathering all the information in one spot and presenting it with actionable items for a company. That’s entirely legal, primarily online work that PIs can easily advertise if they want to expand their businesses.

Dumpster Diving for Trash: Sometimes Legal

Some PIs may consider going through a competitor’s trash to see what documents they may be able to find. That’s risky in multiple ways. Notably, business trash tends to stay on private property and be carried away by professionals, which makes it illegal to go through. Also, sensitive business documents are typically digital these days, or shredded if they ever make it to hardcopy. Finally, if a company throws away a product or prototype, that piece of information is still covered by trademark law even if it can legally be looted.

However, if for some reason a business’s trash is in a dumpster or trash bin that’s on public property, such as a public alley, then it’s probably legal to go through it.

Bribing Employees for Information: Very Illegal

While some PIs have even tried this in the past, it’s bound to get them and their clients in trouble in court. You, the employee you bribe, and the business paying you are all likely breaking the law if this occurs.

Note there is no law against simply talking to employees about their work and getting their opinion on it (although this could easily put competitors on guard). Likewise, you can read reviews on Glassdoor and other sites to learn more information.

Pretending to Be an Applicant: Usually Illegal

Gaining access to a business via false pretenses is typically illegal. That means you can’t pretend to be an applicant and go into a business for an interview as an excuse to collect more information. Hanging out in public areas like a lobby is usually fine, although you could be suspected of loitering. If you’re asked to leave and don’t, then you’re guilty of trespassing, which is another complication.

Surveillance from a Public Area: Legal

If a private investigator sticks to a public location, their surveillance of a competing business is typically legal. That means they could watch shipments come in from a public street, for example. If any manufacturing or distribution methods are visible from such public areas, investigators can note them as well.

Interviewing Past Customers: Sometimes Legal

Contracts with current customers may stipulate a certain amount of discretion. Customers may be limited in what they can legally talk about to PIs. However, if no contract is in place or the customer is no longer associated with the competitor in any way, PIs can often legally interview them about their experience, although certain details may still be protected depending on the situation.

Visiting Trade Shows: Legal

PIs can easily visit a trade show and learn about who a competitor is targeting. Any information that a business is providing at a trade show is open to the public. This provides a way for PIs to learn about their recruitment tactics and how they’re attracting talent.


PIs have many ways to legally research competitors and create useful reports for the companies that they work for. This type of work offers many opportunities for PIs who have contacts in business industries…but it’s important to stay on the right side of the law. Avoid using any kind of pretense or bribe to get information and stay off a business’s private property when investigating.

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