They eavesdrop on your conversations, rifle through dustbins and pretend to deliver pizzas while taking covert photographs with a disguised camera. They hide, watch and wait, and hang around for hours in the freezing cold, crouched down in the back of a parked car dying to use the bathroom.
This is the real life of Britain’s private investigators. There are between 4,000 and 5,000 of them now active. The stereotype is of the disgraced police officer, thrown off the force, all grubby raincoat and cigarette dangling from his lower lip; or the lithe, brooding, silent panther, with eyes in the back of his head, capturing the bad guys. Neither is quite right, nor quite wrong.
Despite our insatiable appetite for the PIs of stage and screen, it is their factual counterparts who are back in the spotlight due to the News International scandal. They are not pleased about it. One PI who agreed to speak to me anonymously said he was disgusted by what he had read. “I cannot believe that any decent detective would work with the tabloids in this manner,” he said. “Hacking into people’s private messages is the lowest of the low. If we can’t get what we need to know through legal methods then we are no good at our job.”
The clients who use them come from across society. “I called a private eye,” Martha, a secretary on a low wage, told me, “because I knew that a man was grooming my 13-year-old daughter for prostitution.” The PI brought Martha footage of her daughter getting into a car with four men and accepting drink and cigarettes from them, and photographs of the driver and car number plate. She took them to the police and told them she had paid the PI for work that, in her words, they should have been doing.
This unmet expectation of law enforcement is often why people hire private investigators. Perhaps the builder you paid up front to build an extension to your house ran off with the money before completing the job. Maybe someone you love has disappeared off the face of the earth and the police do not consider him or her vulnerable. Or you have not been paid for a job and your employer is no longer answering your calls. Often, the PI’s day job is to find an unpalatable truth.
But increasingly, PIs also work in the corporate world, helping big businesses to protect their intellectual property, and guard against fraud and long-term sick leave scams. They work for insurance companies to help uncover fraudulent claims, and track down international organised crime operations whose activities have not yet reached the attention of the police.
There are a number of PI member organisations in the UK, such as the Association of British Investigators (ABI), established in 1913, and the Institute of Professional Investigators (IPI). Both organisations are keen to promote the work of investigators as a profession that is recognised by the government, legal system and general public.
At present, there is no regulation of the private investigation industry. “It is a scandal,” says experienced and world-renowned investigator Ken Gamble, “that anyone can become a PI, whatever their skills or lack of them.” The IPI runs a professional and private investigation training course, but there is no legal requirement in the UK to undergo any kind of training.
So how do PIs learn the techniques involved in undercover surveillance, such as observing and following spouses in matrimonial cases; or those used to detect false accident or sickness claims, crime, and industrial fraud? How do they know how to ask a question in a way that cuts through the lies and evasion? What about trawling through records and databases to track down a debtor and absconder (known in the trade as skip tracing)?
Many come from a police or security background, although currently half the members of the United Kingdom Professional Investigators Network are civilians. Some are trained by relatives, others learn the trade by joining an experienced PI firm and picking up tips while doing the legwork. Nothing beats experience. Nothing beats patience. In time, as one of the PIs interviewed here told me: “Nothing shocks.”
Director of a stolen vehicle engineering firm
I was an engineer with Ford Motor Company and took voluntary redundancy. A former colleague suggested I do consultancy for insurance companies, checking out suspicious claims of car theft. If a car is reported stolen and turns up either intact or burned out, there are several things we can do to check if the story holds water.
If a car is found after being reported stolen or involved in an accident, the insurance company arranges for it to be taken to one of the approved salvage yards. If they are not happy after interviewing the owner they bring me in. Keys for top-of-the-range cars contain an electronic chip with a unique code, which has to be programmed into the vehicle before it will start. From this we can see when the vehicle was last driven, and for how long and how many miles exactly.
I investigated a case where a £50,000 Range Rover was reported stolen. RR, Mercedes and BMW keep excellent records, and to order a new key the owner has to produce all the documents, such as log book and driving licence. The owner claimed he had been out of the country when it was stolen. We discovered that he had sold a key to a third party. It went to court on a charge of insurance fraud.
I also investigated a claim where the car, a very expensive Excursion 4x4, only existed on paper. The owner, an expat living in Spain, had scanned all the documents on his computer, and when he reported it stolen, said they had been stolen with the car. He had insured the vehicle for far less than it was worth, and kept hounding the insurance company to pay up, which they did. They contacted me and I investigated. The vehicle was discovered in a scrap yard in the US, and had been written off 20 days before he reported it stolen.
I have found cars in containers bound for Holland and beyond. We have saved insurance companies millions of pounds. In the current economic climate it may well become tempting to fake a car theft, but it is a high-risk crime.
Bill Hurr declined to be photographed for this article
Founder and executive director of Gamble Investigations International
I built a reputation as someone who could track anyone down anywhere in the world. I work with former intelligence agents, police and military personnel. I left the army in 1987, aged 22, and my uncle, who was a PI, helped me train as a covert surveillance officer. By the mid-1990s I had 20 guys working for me as part of a big surveillance team doing insurance and government work.
In 2007, I set up a company called Internet Fraud Watchdog with a retired British police officer, following an investigation into a man we suspected was a ticket fraudster. Terence Shepherd would have 100 tickets for an event but sell 1,000. I found he was involved in a fake company in Arizona and was associated with more than 150 websites selling tickets. Everything from football and baseball games in America to concerts and football games in Europe.
I discovered that he was planning a massive scam at the Beijing Olympics. I decided to blow the lid on it and wrote to all the authorities. The Metropolitan Police weren’t interested, because I was not the victim of a crime.
In August 2008, I read in the paper about a ticket scam in Beijing, and that it was unlikely the perpetrators would be caught because the company was fake. I knew it was Shepherd and gave the dossier that proved it to a friend at the Sydney Morning Herald. They ran it on the front page. My clients – event management companies – were being ripped off for hundreds of thousands after buying hospitality and ticketing packages.
Following this, police around the world were inundated with people complaining they had been victims of scams by Shepherd. He was convicted in London in July 2011 and sentenced to eight years imprisonment for fraud and money laundering.
Tools of the trade include a video camera with high optical zoom capability, and compact hidden video and recording devices such as phones, keyrings and pens. I use camouflage clothing for remote or rural work, including military-style survival packs.
You need to be fit and have self-discipline. I have had gun shots fired over my head on two occasions in Australia, once by professional kangaroo shooters and another time by an irate farmer who lodged a fraudulent insurance claim.
Former computer operator, and private detective for 14 years. Her firm, Anna Willson & Co Private Investigators, is female-led
When I needed a change of career, a friend suggested I looked at becoming a private detective. I have always had a fascination with police investigations and have an endlessly inquiring mind. I researched it on the internet and then called some firms in the Yellow Pages for advice. Many PIs are male ex-coppers, and the majority tried to put me off, but eventually one offered to train me.
On one of the first surveillance jobs I did with a few guys, one of them didn’t really want me there, and said, “You women always need the loo.” Of course I wanted to prove him wrong, which I did.
I have undertaken many matrimonial cases. Women tend to come to me because I am female. Women have good instincts. If they think a man is having an affair he usually is.
I bring in other PIs for specialist support, such as computer forensics. These days, if someone is cheating, there will likely be evidence of it hidden away on a computer.
Matrimonial work can be messy and emotional so you need to keep a certain distance. Maybe you are the only person a client has confided in, and I can find myself hearing a life story and tears. Some of the situations are so sad.
A job can cost relatively little, but if it turns out to be a long investigation it can be costly. We have sometimes had to watch a subject for a number of weeks before observing them do something they shouldn’t. The way we see our job portrayed on TV isn’t quite accurate. It can be quite boring and tedious at times.
Because of the increased use of internet dating sites I often get inquiries from people who have met someone online but sense that something is not quite right. They want to know if the other person is married, or has children, or isn’t the age they say they are. A couple of years ago, a man who had been chatting to a woman for months, and had some quite intimate conversations at times, hired me. I discovered “she” was actually a man. My client was absolutely shocked.
We carry out observations post divorce. For example, an ex-wife may say she is living alone rather than cohabiting with her new partner so she can claim more money from her ex-husband. We are asked to obtain evidence to refute this.
Someone may wish to prove adultery for divorce proceedings. We follow the ex and see if they have an overnight in a hotel or at the new partner’s house. Our clients sometimes ask if we burst into hotel rooms to get the “action shot”, but they have been watching too much TV. We can watch through restaurant windows and go into public premises but we do not go on to private property, and we never break the law.
We install covert cameras, use hidden cameras when on surveillance, and in some circumstances use GPS units for tracking vehicles. I also use subtle tactics to change my appearance when necessary.
Non-executive director and consultant for QCC Information Security in London since 2004
I was in law enforcement for more than 30 years, and finished off in the Metropolitan Police as the head of Scotland Yard computer crime unit. One time I arrested a man who had been using multiple identities, and seized a reminder chart from his briefcase with the names and other details. These days that information would be on a mobile phone or a computer.
We forensically analyse mobile phones and any sort of computer, and using cell site analysis can track where a phone has been. We do work for law enforcement, and are used by a number of police forces, the retail trade and big corporates. They often have a suspicion that an employee may be involved in intellectual property theft.
We work for a number of public service employers who are looking for employees who misuse IT systems, who have downloaded porn, or spend their lives on Facebook. Our investigation can confirm or refute those suspicions. We are an independent body and give them a warts-and-all report.
We tend not to work for individuals, although there are exceptions to that. I was asked to help with a fairly high-profile matrimonial case. The husband had gone from an extremely high net worth to nil just before the divorce. I asked where the computers were, and he had given one each to his children. We imaged them and found evidence he still had a very high net worth.
Digital forensics is not an inexpensive service. It is beyond the pocket of many individuals. To deal with a single laptop, to image, examine and report on it, will be about £3,500.
If I am conducting an intellectual property inquiry we are looking for the crown jewels of the company, such as its pricing policy or customer database. If employees are leaving, we want to know what devices, such as USB drives that may have been used to copy information, have been attached to a computer. We can often identify serial numbers for them.
One client was a company where six of its sales team left en bloc. Then some of their clients started getting phone calls from a company that sounded similar. I had to find out if these people had stolen the intellectual property and were planning to undercut them.
I discovered that one senior guy had asked the IT department for two CD-ROMs with customer data on. I then discovered e-mails sent externally containing all the data. It went to civil court for a claim of compensation and an order to prevent them from operating in the arena for a period of time. That job took three days. A similar job, but for a much higher-value company, took several weeks and ended up with the same results.
We have been asked if we could put tracing software on mobile phones but we refuse. It is illegal.
With specialist software we can salvage documents, e-mails and websites that have been accessed, sometimes over a period of years, even when the user thinks it has been deleted from the hard drive. You can often recover enough to make sense of a document, even if not in its original form.
Managing director of Salgado Investigations
I started as a store detective then moved to internal theft and fraud. Six years ago I started my own company. I specialise in surveillance and tracing people.
I have a contract with one of the major airlines in the UK. They offer their employees six months’ full sick pay. Some say, for example, they have hurt their back unloading luggage. If there is a suspicion, I am given a name, address, recent photograph and information such as the date and time of the alleged hospital appointment.
One man who fell off a ladder at work claimed he was paralysed as a result. The insurance company asked me to put him under surveillance and I spotted him walking up to his car and scraping ice off the windscreen. One of our operatives parked her car in front of his drive, pretending she had broken down. He helped her push it. We got it all on film, and subsequently his claim was reduced to £50,000 from far higher.
Surveillance is the equivalent of watching paint dry. You freeze in winter and boil in summer. You can’t go to the loo, which means you can’t eat or drink, and all for five seconds of film if you are lucky. I have watched a door for up to 10 hours at a time. I am usually in a car – the backseat is better as you are less noticeable. I take a book, and Tweet a lot; I can’t use my phone in the dark because it glows. All this with one eye always on the target.
Nothing shocks. I did a matrimonial where I caught the husband with a pregnant 17-year-old.
Looking for teenagers is particularly difficult, because they are not on any databases. Unless they are considered at risk the police won’t look for them, which is why we get hired. I go and look around their bedroom, check if they have been online in chat rooms or social networks, and talk to the mum and dad. I look around red light areas where, unfortunately, they sometimes turn up.
I call in experts to do forensic imaging of the computer logs, and interview friends and teachers. This is proper detective work, and at £50 an hour it can run to thousands, and without a guarantee of success.
I was once hired to locate an elderly gentleman with Alzheimer’s. His daughter called me one afternoon in a real panic. She was in Cornwall, and was certain her father had driven to Surrey where he lived before his wife died. I arrived at the address and asked the current occupiers if they had seen him, and they told me that he had been there an hour earlier. I checked all the parks and still could not see him. Then his daughter called me and said he had rung her from a phone box, so I called BT and got the locations of all their payphones in the area. I found him in the first one.
The tools vary according to the type of investigation, such as a dummy delivery box for covert operations, or spy sunglasses with a camera. The typical view of a private detective is a man reading a newspaper with a hole in to observe a target. Now it’s a man with a mobile phone or a cigarette.
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