Contra Costa Private Investigator Process Server Tips

Contra Costa private investigator Mike Spencer of Spencer Legal Investigations offers tips for serving hiding subjects. The private eye urges clients to prepare and commit to each difficult process case.

Consult a professional private investigator for difficult process service. Legal private investigator Mike Spencer knows how to get the job done on a budget. Law firms should plan the serve based on what’s at stake.

Whether it’s Orinda, Walnut Creek, San Ramon or Brentwood, the private investigator should have the experience. Contra Costa private investigator Mike Spencer serves people with legal process in the East Bay.

Process servers don’t commit like private investigators. Clients will pay more but will get better results.

New Nonfiction Private Eye Book For Sale

Mike Spencer wrote the only short, nonfiction book about the job of a modern private investigator. 99: The Press published the fun 99-page book. Spencer wrote his new nonfiction private eye book as a response to media stereotypes about private detectives.

Spencer wrote about his career change from journalism to private investigator. The book tells stories from his reporter days. He worked at papers in California and Florida. Spencer writes about his early detective cases.The book is for sale on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

The book covers domestic cases to criminal defense matters. Spencer writes about ethical challenges. He details business aspects and the daily routine of the work. He tells stories about the hunt for justice in wrongful death and personal injury cases.

PRIVATE EYE CONFIDENTIAL displays both the best and worst of human nature. Private investigators see everything. Spencer has encountered a man who wanted to prove his paternity from a frozen tampon, a man hidden from society while a large fortune awaited, and a grieving mother who wanted to make sure her tragedy didn’t occur again. The book also contains cheating husbands, felonious wrestlers, some hidden Florida crime, and inveterate scammers.


“Say good-bye to worn-out shamus cliches like trench coats and saps, and say hello to the real deal, PI Mike Spencer, who takes you on a PRIVATE EYE CONFIDENTIAL tour of those mean streets with humor, insight, and grit.”—Colleen Collins

“Spencer gets to the heart of this often misunderstood profession with stories of loss and pain and redemption. This is one fantastic read, the rare book that shows how a modern PI actually plies his trade in the face of relentless change. Hire this Spencer now.”—John Nardizzi

“Mike Spencer goes out of his way to say the real life of a PI isn’t nearly as exciting as they make it seem in the movies. He then spends the next hundred or so pages describing a life a helluva lot more exciting than yours or mine. From being a bagman, to caught in the middle of a murder, Spencer, with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, describes the day-to-day existence of the profession that spawned a hundred heroes, from Marlowe to Spade. And Spencer is a worthy addition to that lineage. The main thing that comes through his insightful and hilarious PRIVATE EYE CONFIDENTIAL: men like this are not made; they are born this way.”—Joe Clifford

Investigator for San Francisco Bay Area Attorneys

Private Investigator Mike Spencer is a leading legal investigator in the San Francisco Bay Area. He helps lawyers and legal staffs on many cases. He earned his private investigator license more than two decades ago.

Readers of The Recorder legal newspaper voted Spencer best private investigator several years in a row. Furthermore, top attorneys in the state of California use him.

Criminal defense cases and civil matters occupy him. Spencer holds associate memberships in Alameda County Bar Association, Contra Costa County Bar Association, Alameda Contra Contra Costa Trial Lawyers. Attorneys trust him.

He investigates personal injury cases from dog bites to slip and falls. Spencer knows where to look for information in wrongful death and premises liability cases. His experience makes the difference with witness statements and managing witnesses. Mike works well will all the staff in a law office, from solo to big firm.

Private Investigator Mike Spencer keeps up with information to help criminal defense lawyers and clients

Spencer is a former police and crime reporter. He brings expertise to his work on East Bay criminal defense cases. He has worked for northern California criminal defense lawyers in private practice and in court-appointed cases. He testifies in Bay Area courts in Oakland, Martinez, Walnut Creek, San Francisco and San Jose.

An assistant helps him locate witnesses and defendants. They also serve subpoenas and legal papers.

Working a legal case means investigating with purpose. However, he never cuts corners. Private Investigator Mike Spencer develops a rapport with witnesses. Spencer knows how to act as a buffer between witnesses and lawyers. He gains the trust of his interview subjects. He writes detailed reports. He understands that credibility is important in any legal case.

Top Rated East Bay Private Investigator

We are the top investigator in the East Bay. Clients review us in two places on Yelp: Spencer Investigations of Oakland and Spencer Elrod Services in Walnut Creek. The reason for this is Spencer Investigations was the original business name and listing, founded in 1997. Out of a total of 26 reviews, 23 reviews are 5 stars. The only three negative reviews came from people we turned down and who never hired us. We refuse business when it’s not legal, ethical or a good fit.

Yelp filters reviews in strange ways. As a small business we appreciate customer loyalty. But, a few great reviews never appear. We helped a robbery victim when police did not investigate. We saved a man from prosecution in a child abuse case. Our detective work cleared the man and saved his job. We helped another client and his lawyers win a civil case.

We win cases. We commit to our clients. We do quality criminal defense, surveillance, personal injury, civil cases and more. We charge fair rates but are not cheap. We strive to give clients honest and accurate information.


-Mike did an outstanding and professional job for me. His swift, thorough, and professional investigation enabled me to avoid more severe damage to my reputation. I cannot begin to thank Mike enough for his dedication and integrity and willingness to dig in and quickly find the truth. I would be happy to have a conversation with anyone who would like more detail.


-I hired Mike Spencer after I was robbed at gunpoint in Oakland but the Oakland Police Department refused to investigate, even though the robbers had left a clear trail by using my credit cards shortly after the robbery. Mike quickly and efficiency obtained surveillance video of the robbers making a purchase at the drive-through window of a local fast-food restaurant, after which he tracked down the owner of the car they were driving, but incredibly the Oakland police refused to do anything further, saying they were overwhelmed with a backlog of several thousand armed robberies and mine was “at the bottom of the pile.” The police were pathetic, but Mike was marvelous. I recommend him very, very highly.


-I utilized the services of Spencer-Elrod recently. Mike Spencer was very professional and discreet. At the initial contact, he collected the necessary details and made recommendations that led to a well-thought-out plan. He also seamlessly worked with my legal counsel effectively forming a team to best achieve my goals. His experience and background allowed him to dismiss impractical or unwise ideas leading up to the plan. He executed the plan in a timely manner and was extremely thorough in its execution and documentation of activity.

As conditions became more challenging, he was quick to work with me and my counsel to formulate alternate plans, again and again. He was able to recruit additional personnel and resources in an ‘out-of-the-box’ fashion in order to get the job done.

Eventually, his work required write-up and submission to the courts to proceed legally. He worked well with my legal counsel on this.

It was clear that Mr Spencer treated my final objective as his objective rather than taking the position that he had fulfilled the services of the original plan regardless of whether my objective was achieved or not. And just as importantly, the additional work required of him was all performed within the original retainer. – there was no ‘nickeling and dime-ing’ even when I asked him on occasion to look into this or that or follow-up on a side lead.

I would definitely use the services of Mr Spencer again and recommend him to others.

Private Investigators Serving East Bay and Now Silicon Valley, San Jose, Palo Alto, Mountain View

We have served the East Bay for more than 20 years and now serve Silicon Valley, San Jose, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Mountain View and more. We have a billing point in Fremont.

We provide: surveillance, court research, witness interviews, finding missing persons, difficult service of process and many other services for attorneys, business and select private clients.

We recognize many other private investigators provide similar services. What makes us different is the consistency and high level with which we provide services. We are efficient and always make the most use out of a client’s budget.

We are premier providers of investigations in major civil investigations and criminal defense cases. Mike Spencer, licensed private investigator, knows what it takes to help you win in court.

East Bay Private Detective Surveillance

We constantly think about our work and how to help our clients. It does us no good to take a case and not get results. The client isn’t happy and neither are we. We try to be as transparent as possible from the first contact to the last. We are writing this entry about surveillance to tell you how the process really works and to increase your/our chances of getting results.

Calculating What a San Francisco Bay Area Surveillance Costs

At first the client has to decide what’s at stake. Is the surveillance for an insurance defense investigation trying to prove fraud in a $1 million claim or for a family law case where child custody is at stake, or maybe it’s trying to get evidence of infidelity in a long-term marriage? I look at the budget commitment question as something similar to playing poker, what is referred to as pot odds. Or, use a business analogy: What is the return on investment?

The more important the situation the more resources you need to commit. If playing in a poker game and you know you have a good hand, or you know your opponent is likely to be bluffing, it makes sense to commit more to win the pot.

In the more than 20 years we have been doing this we have seen and obtained results for clients who have spent about a minimum of $2,000 and well over $10,000. We will use one, two or three licensed private investigators each with their own video surveillance equipment. The number of personnel depends on the subject. We use professional surveillance operatives who write detailed reports and who make for excellent court witnesses. We are nor farming anything out for cheap or inferior labor. In surveillance like any other service you really do get what you pay for. The hourly range for our surveillance services may range from about $125 per hour to $300 per hour. Cost depends on the number of personnel we are going to use.

The Three Ps of A Good Surveillance

  • Planning

We obtain solid evidence with good information up-front. After the client agrees to a retainer, we then meet the client in person. We need to know as much as possible about the subject. What does he drive? Where does he park? What is his driving style like? How does he wear his hair? Does he wear jewelry. We will need photos of him. We will need to know his schedule.

On a mobile subject we will need to use two or three investigators. On a suburban or stationary surveillance, one investigator might be enough for the job. Heavy traffic situations will also require more personnel. We will also use a male-female team of private investigators. Surveillance is more about blending in than not being seen.

  • Patience

We typically will not work surveillance cases on a rush basis. Flying out the door without a plan in place rarely yields good results.

If we are too aggressive in the beginning and get detected, will have to take a long break before attempting again. We are all creatures of habit. The insurance cheat or the marital cheat will make mistakes. With a patient, disciplined approach, we get results. Over time, we will figure out a subject’s habits.

It’s not the end of the world if we temporarily lose someone on surveillance. We return to our staging areas another time or find the subject at a place he frequents. Good habits allow us to get back on the trail again.

  • Persistence

On a Berkeley case it took a week or two to catch a cheating husband. The client could see on her husband’s phone he was going to a certain area. She saw that he was visiting the same area before work but not for a very long time. We went on him with one operative at first but caught him using two operatives. We had determined his habits.

The GPS the client checked on her phone was not precise. We knew he was going to an area about 200 yards long. We went to the same location three times. We caught him on the third time because we had planned, committed and anticipated his next steps. When we caught him we had two investigators in separate cars. Each parked in a separate area. We obtained video of him cheating. The results cost about a total of $2000.

California Law about Using a GPS Device

In some situations it is legal to use a GPS device. It’s always best though to consult an attorney. One gray area is where both spouses are on registration and title to a vehicle. If you solely own the vehicle but someone else–spouse, child, family, etc–is using the car then it’s likely legal.

Here is the relevant California law and a good article about GPS

637.7. (a) No person or entity in this state shall use an electronic tracking device to determine the location or movement of a person.

(b) This section shall not apply when the registered owner, lessor, or lessee of a vehicle has consented to the use of the electronic tracking device with respect to that vehicle.

(c) This section shall not apply to the lawful use of an electronic tracking device by a law enforcement agency.

(d) As used in this section, electronic tracking device means any device attached to a vehicle or other movable thing that reveals its location or movement by the transmission of electronic signals.

(e) A violation of this section is a misdemeanor.

(f) A violation of this section by a person, business, firm, company, association, partnership, or corporation licensed under Division 3 (commencing with Section 5000) of the Business and Professions Code shall constitute grounds for revocation of the license issued to that person, business, firm, company, association, partnership, or corporation, pursuant to the provisions that provide for the revocation of the license as set forth in Division 3 (commencing with Section 5000) of the Business and Professions Code.


Why Cheap Online Background Checks Fail

We are flooded with ads for fast and convenient products. Problem is: fast and convenient rarely add up to “quality.” The fast and convenient option is a horrible way to try to do background checks. Don’t spend your money on cheap backgrounds checks. Instead, use a quality, experienced local private investigators who knows how records are compiled, stored and where to get these records.

A client recently contacted us after he had paid for an online criminal background check of a subject with a somewhat common name. It showed about 12 hits for this name in several different states. He paid about $50.00 for a mess of false hits. His background check just pulled up by first and last name, and not by middle name or date of birth. It took us about 2 hours to figure which ones were relevant.

Stop using online background checks

Why they fail:

  • Illusions of thoroughness. There is no such thing as a national criminal background check outside of perhaps an FBI database. Records usually have to be found on a county by county, state by state basis.
  • Online background checks don’t discriminate by proper identifiers such as middle names, dates of birth and address histories. You have paid money for an incomplete product that you have to sort.
  • You don’t know the geographic areas of their searches or the time frames. What if your subject has a criminal record in an area from 1991 but the database searched starts at 1995?

Our practices:

  • We start with obtaining an address history on the person and we concentrate our searches on where the person has lived. We will start out with online criminal searches but we only do this for the counties we know have good systems and databases in place.
  • If a subject has lived in Oakland or San Francisco or Walnut Creek, very likely the person could have records in Alameda, San Francisco or Contra Costa counties. We will look in adjacent counties as well.
  • We will contract with court runners in out-of-state jurisdictions to look for records we can’t access online.
  • We will often check civil and federal records looking for other relevant information.



Alameda County Courts Searches Now Online

Performing background checks in Alameda County just became slightly easier the past year with both criminal and civil searches being made available online. Of course though, for a true professional background check a private investigator should visit courthouses in person to search for records.

The system links branch courts from Berkeley-Oakland down through Hayward to Fremont and out to Pleasanton. The criminal records search goes back about to 2005. Again, if you are not sure on dates you are always best served going to the court in person. The system does not show actual documents but gives charges, conviction, sentencing and a docket chronology. And best? It’s free.

Civil Search:

The civil records section search allows you to actually find the case as well as the documents. It’s a pay system with each search about $1 and then .50 per page for copies. You can preview the document you want to download but it shows a half-page of the relevant document.

The improvements are welcome and aid both the public and the private investigator. Every county in the state has a slightly different records system. We are usually able to gather public court records throughout the state of California. We are private investigators for San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and all Bay Area counties.

Rethinking San Francisco Bay Area Surveillance

img_2614The traditional talk for private investigator/potential surveillance client goes like this: Client wants the job done as cheaply as possible and private eye quotes a price to try to land the client. The negotiation seems to be more about price than about achieving results. The first-time client has maybe called around to a few other investigators and seeks a bargain.

The bargain mindset, going with the lowest bidder, often leads to failure. The standard arrangement would be for the private eye to do the best he could to tail and follow a subject all by himself. A lone surveillance operative can be successful but notorious Bay Area traffic makes it exceedingly difficult. All it takes is a right turn on red or any vehicle getting between you and the subject and even the most gifted and tenacious private investigator could lose the person.

Perhaps the first step in the talk between P.I. and potential client needs to be about the type of person who will be followed and when. Are we dealing with a younger person more likely to have a wild Friday or Saturday night, a person who drives a lot or someone who is more of a suburban homebody who might be up to something? It’s a very different surveillance task following someone in an East Bay or Marin suburb vs. following someone hitting the San Francisco clubs. In the old model, the single P.I. would try to do his best on the retainer but may or may not get results.

I encourage clients to use at least two and as many as four licensed private investigators for mobile surveillance. The operatives can be split into any number of ways, having two cars each with a driver and P.I. ready to tail on foot or other form of transit.  Even the simplest move makes the lone P.I. pull out his hair. The lone P.I. does everything right and follows the subject into San Francisco or San Jose. The subject quickly gets a parking spot and is away on foot while the lone P.I. searches in vain for a parking place and loses the target because he can’t get out on foot quickly enough.

On a retainer of $2,000, billed at $125 per hour, a single operative would have 16 hours of surveillance time. An extra P.I. added would be about $200 per-hour or give the client 10 hours on the $2000 retainer. Add a third P.I. and the hourly fee is up to about $250 per hour or 8 hours of time on the initial $2,000 retainer.

The object of surveillance is to obtain video evidence and document the subject’s activities. You might not have that many chances to get results. Adding personnel to the mission greatly increases the odds of success. A client will actually get better value, i.e., increasing the odds of success, by paying for more mobile operatives. When police do surveillance they are using teams of personnel and constantly rotating vehicles and people.

There are more transportation options than ever and a private investigator has to be ready to get on BART or follow an Uber or a Lyft. One private eye on surveillance faces incredible odds to get results.

Never Pick a Private Eye Based Only On Price

img_2470I write to inform the public about the work I do as a licensed private investigator. My subject this time: How to pick a private eye.

I have always said that our business is like a construction general contractor or other specialized service provider. You don’t want to pick a lawyer, CPA, dentist, eye doctor, college, auto mechanic or even a beer because he/she/it is the cheapest. You want to select based on quality and the likelihood that the professional will cure or solve your problem or get you answers. Continue reading