Friday, 12 February 2010

Life of PI

Since I am still having computer woes, I'm taking the lazy option again today. I once did an interview with a PI, which was in the wonderful Crimespree Magazine. So I thought I would post that in lieu of a proper blog post today.

Picture the scene - the backstreet office building looks unloved and dejected. You walk up the dimly lit staircase and inhale the scents which hint at bodily functions you'd rather not dwell on too closely. Actually, it's more than a hint - the smells take you by the throat and assault your nose like a world class boxer. The door to the Private Eye's office is battered and scuffed and the letters on the opaque glass spell out hopelessness and the end of the line, as well as the words 'Pr vate Inve tiga or' in peeling black letters. Inside the office the decor could politely be described as minimalist and eclectic - an ancient desk decorated with scratches, heel marks, cigarette burns and the odd bullet hole, a couple of mismatched and uncomfortable chairs, a coffeepot standing on a gunmetal grey filing cabinet in the corner. The Venetian blind which should be on the window is lying in a heap on the floor, but it doesn't matter because the streaks of dirt on the window filter the light like a moth-eaten blackout curtain.

Behind the desk sits the world-weary, lone-wolf PI we know and love from crime fiction - a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of Jim Beam in the other, his feet up on the desk. He's wearing a rumpled suit, shoes that have seen better days but so long ago that they don't remember them, and a face that has the lived in look of a doss house. There's a knock at the door and the beautiful and mysterious dame walks in and spins the hard-bitten PI a sob story he can't refuse. Within hours the PI has been beaten up, shot at, warned off by the police and stumbled over a dead body or two.

Now rewind. Erase all those pictures from your head... well, all except one maybe.

Here's the reality. I interviewed the founder of an investigation firm with an office in a town not far from Glasgow - let's call him Sam, and let's call his Company Spade Investigations. First of all, he doesn't call himself a PI - they're Corporate Investigation, Risk and Security Consultants. The office is an upper conversion of a sandstone building in a business street. There are seven rooms including a boardroom and training room, a technical and forensics room, and a surveillance room.

I was intrigued by the technical and forensics room so I asked Sam what went on there and he told me they use a lot of technical equipment, including cameras for covert installations, GPS tracking systems, video and audio surveillance equipment, counter surveillance and debugging. “One of our directors - Q, as we call him - walks around wearing a white jacket, with pens in the pocket, and thick glasses; talking about gadgets.”

They also carry out computer forensics work - retrieving hidden and deleted data from hard drives, and from the memory cards from digital cameras. As well as being used to investigate pedophiles it's also invaluable from a commercial point of view - fraud, embezzlement, industrial espionage, theft of intellectual property: “We can investigate cases where executives have left companies and there are covenants in place to restrict practices.”

The firm has 22 employees, including 4 administration staff and they have offices in Scotland and Northern Ireland. They have their own brochures, issue a regular newsletter, hold corporate events and, believe it or not, have just hired a PR firm. In fact, before me, Sam had just been interviewed by two local papers.

Most of the investigators either have police or military backgrounds. Sam's own background is military and I asked him how he'd got started in the PI game:

“About 17 years ago I decided to contact as many investigation companies as I could and one of them gave me a job. I worked for a year and a half as an investigator until I decided I could do it better myself.”

So he did. He formed Spade Investigations 15 years ago. Initially, there was a fair amount of the traditional PI type work - tracing people, tailing people and a lot of private work, but they gradually built up the corporate side of the business and 10 years ago they started to specialise. They still do the private work though, never turning down any job if they have the capacity to take it on. The variety of work is very wide - “ranging from basic trace enquiries - we had one request - from an American who was trying to contact someone he'd stayed with in 1939, just before the war - to the other end of the scale of major corporate theft. We might send someone in undercover, install covert cameras, and have 4-6 guys on a surveillance plot.” The cameras would be installed at night or, if the workplace is open 24 hours, then they send people in dressed as electricians to install the equipment.

And did they find the man from 1939? “Yes, surprisingly.” says Sam, “Sometimes it's easier to find someone who's been away from the place a long time than it is to find someone who just moved recently. The best period to try and trace someone is if they've been away from a place for a year or so. It's more difficult where they've been away less than a year, or more than 20.”

“We have lots of interesting cases but to me it's a job. It's actually one exciting job after another - if you came in and looked through the files you'd find lots of things to interest you, but its difficult for me to pinpoint one because I do it every day.”

Spade Investigations carry out work for insurance companies and legal firms, and also any company with a lot of employees or stock. They investigate personal injury type claims “lifestyle reports on individuals - for example if someone's working when they're not meant to be working.” Some of this type of case takes them abroad. Sam's been to Spain on personal injury cases for example. “You're working hard but it's a different environment. Your subject may be going out for a meal at 10pm. So it's different and there's a bit of a holiday feel to it. It's quite glamourous sometimes.”

Building up a list of clients is very difficult because of the nature of the work. “You have to very gradually build up the trust and hope you can get repeat work.” Word of mouth is important, and having a good reputation is vital.

The company also does “close protection work, hostile environment training - we did some for people going out to Iraq - safety awareness, anti-ambush drills.”

Having been mugged three times, I wondered if I could get some tips from an expert on personal safety. Sam asked me a couple of questions about where I live, what I do for a living, where I go and his advice was:

“Carry a panic alarm - always. Be aware of your surroundings. Before you leave your flat, look out of the window and see who's about. For example, in cases of stalking, if someone's watching you, then YOU should be able to see THEM. Make sure you have nothing valuable on display when you go out and have your handbag positioned across your body. You might want to carry two purses - one which is viewable and one which is hidden, then you can give up the obvious one. Stick to well lit routes with people about, and try and be within shouting distance of people at all times. Never take the lanes. Always have a safe place to run to.”

So how does someone set up as a Private Investigator?

In the US most of the States require PIs setting up in business to be licensed. At present, there is no requirement for PIs in Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, or South Dakota to be licensed but many of the cities and counties in those states may have their own licensing requirements. It would appear that all you need to be licensed as a private investigator is to be 18 years of age, of sound mind and with a clean criminal record (how reassuring). In some states there's also a requirement for an applicant to serve an apprenticeship with a licensed investigative firm and/or pass an exam.

In the UK there's no requirement to be licensed at present, although Sam explains that this is going to change -- “legislation is currently coming in to English law which covers wheel-clampers and door stewards. We expect legislation in England to cover investigators in 2006 and Scotland shortly after that. Until then, anyone can start up in business as a Private Investigator.”

As for training, well, Spade Investigations are ahead of the game. “Training's not obligatory but should be undertaken by anyone who wants to stay in business” was Sam's opinion. The Company in fact provide training to other investigators. They recently held a surveillance course where the morning was theory and the afternoon was spent out on surveillance, being shown the equipment, and mobile surveillance in action. When I wistfully said I'd love to go on something like that Sam told me I could - they have another course in the next few months, and anyone can go on it. I asked him to sign me up.

As the boss of the Company, Sam's day is taken up mostly with looking after the business side of things - marketing and PR, accountants, bank. The Investigators' routine is different “They might start around 6 or 7am if they're on surveillance, either following the person, or at the location that's being watched, and they'll finish about 3 or 4 in the afternoon depending on requirements.” Usually there are between 2 and 4 people on one surveillance. All the Company's vehicles have communications fitted and the investigators have all their equipment for the day with them - covert camera, body camera, Palm recorder, change of clothes, binoculars, and a kit to enable them to put video equipment in an empty car in locations where an occupied vehicle would stand out. They also have food and drink of course, and my delicate question about necessary bodily functions was met with an “I'll leave that to your imagination.”

Real life professional investigators like Sam have a good relationship with police on the whole. “Some policemen realise it's a good career to go into after leaving the police force. Some still perceive us as doing the job which the police should be doing. But this really isn't the case. The police don't have the time to investigate everything and we deal with the sort of cases they wouldn't really get involved in.” Would he ever be called upon to solve a murder? “Definitely not - that's a job for the police.”

I asked Sam what the best and worst aspects of the job were:

“Best - achieving something for the client that has been quite hard to achieve for them; maybe a difficult situation where we've really put ourselves out to get a result. Worst - a client who doesn't have an appreciation of all that we've done.”

A lot of their work is potentially dangerous “ but we know how to turn and run. People don't know who we are so they don't know what they're dealing with. But if someone starts to guess we're onto them then we'll pull out.”

I asked Sam if he had one piece of advice for a budding PI looking to start out in the business:

“Do your homework about the market and don't assume that there's money to be made. If you're not a business minded person - don't do it.”

And what about the attributes of a good investigator:

“Bags of integrity, bags of commitment, a good sense of humour and staying power. We'd also look at previous training and experience.”

By this point in the interview, I was contemplating a career change and asked Sam if the firm had any female investigators. The answer was no, but not because they didn't want one:

“I've tried my damnedest to get one. I'd love to employ one - a female investigator would be a big benefit to the company provided she fulfilled the minimum requirements.”

I asked if he'd ever thought of employing a short, fat, unfit, middle aged woman with a good sense of humour. He was kind enough to say that none of that would matter but my biggest stumbling block would be that I don't drive. “You need to be strong on mobile surveillance. If you're chasing someone you need to have quick reactions on the roads.” I had a fleeting thought of getting on the Number 62 Bus and saying to the driver “Follow that car”, but it looks as though the life of a PI is, sadly, not for me.

Sam doesn't read detective fiction, and he doesn't have time to watch TV, too busy walking the walk, but I asked him about the traditional view of PIs:

“That preconceived idea of the 1970s - smoke filled offices and overcoats - isn't true; although there is still an element of that, where someone is maybe a one man organisation and his old pals from the police force will pop in for a cigarette and a chat. But we're so high tech and PR aware that it's really not like that at all. We're so far advanced and our equipment is more James Bond. For the public, the work of the Investigator often conjures up romantic images - a lot of which are a load of rubbish.”

So what about that beautiful and mysterious female client? Does she ever walk into the office?

“Sometimes,” said Sam, “but not very often.”

And on that note, I let him go back to walking those mean streets.

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