Spy Before You Buy

It happened again. A client calls to say that a man who bought his business has ripped him off for $100,000. The sad part is that for about $250, I confirmed that the client never should have gone near him with a 10-foot stick let alone put scads of cash at risk.

The buyer approached the client, a bar owner, with a seemingly impressive list of businesses he had owned, several references, etc. The buyer had also been in the bar business for years and said all the right things. A tentative deal was made but the buyer helped himself to a lot of cash, a credit card and failed to pay many employees.

The buyer had concealed a personal and business bankruptcy from 2004, really not that long ago. He did it by: not providing a true SSN, lying that his past business simply closed because the lease ended, using a variation of his name and providing a bogus name for his wife.

It reminds me of another case, where an attorney hired me after his client had been scammed for several hundred thousand in an investment/loan deal with an “artist.” The problem? The artist was an outright fraud. A relatively quick and easy search of San Francisco County Superior Court and some other public records on Black Book Online would have revealed about five other past fraud suits against the scalawag. (One of my fave details was that the “artist” liked to rock an ascot. What, no eyepatch?)

Back to the bogus bar buyer. The first step in checking the guy out was coming up with his past address history based on a known or given address. That database search yielded variations on his first name that I had not initially checked. It also showed the true name of his wife. Once I had his variation and his wife’s true name, I could then run them both through the excellent federal records pacer system. I learned that they had no real assets. (Searching for bank accounts is a whole other deal to be covered in another entry some day.) I could then check the names and addresses in the court papers against the addresses in databases.

It’s hard to go through life paranoid. You don’t have to. The Spencer rule of thumb: If a deal is worth more than $1,500 or $2,000 spend a little on a professional private investigator and check it out.

National Stalking Awareness Month!

And you thought January was a big deal just because we are getting a new president.

In looking for some information about the Pleasanton, California police department, I learned that it was National Stalking Awareness Month. Spencer Investigations of the San Francisco Bay Area uses surveillance but it is never meant to harass any subject. But some might say we private investigators aren’t much different than stalkers.

I toured the site, took a quiz and spied on some merchandise http://www.stalkingawarenessmonth.org/order

I scored a pedestrian 70% on the quiz. I am still laughing, but maybe I shouldn’t. I love the poster “Every(sic) Get The Feeling You Are Being Watched.” And who wouldn’t want to adorn themselves with the “stalking awareness pin.” I am not making this up. And for the collector who wants the definitive stalking poster/statement: “Beware of Strangers.”

Surveillance Success (And Failure)

Of all the jobs that I do as an investigator suveillance is far and away the toughest. I hate to lose, which I do from time to time, and lately I have been thinking about the factors in surveillance that lead to triumph or despair.

Reality is that everyone seems to be on a budget. Clients rarely want to spring for using two licensed investigators but that’s what needs to be done to improve the odds of a successful outcome. When I do the work alone, there are just too many variables that can wreck my day, some of them of my own doing.

I define success on a surveillance by not losing my subject. (Whether he does anything “noteworthy” while I peep is out of my control.) I would say that when I do surveillance solo I win about 70-percent of the time. I would tell any client that if you can’t devote the time, money and resources to a surveillance than just don’t do it.

Planning is the first step. I need to know when to start, to scout out the area before hand, where the person will be, the license plate, where the car might be parked, the license plate, any telltale bumper stickers, the driving habits of the person, the person’s paranoia level, etc, etc.

I have had some great success solo. One weekend when I was breaking into the business I followed a married lawyer and his mistress all weekend long in San Francisco. I didn’t even have video then but snapped some great shots with a mirror lens. A couple years ago in a Honda Civic, I managed to follow a venture capital dude in his Porsche from Palo Alto to San Francisco at speeds up to 100 mph. I did it with nerve and a sense of desperate determination.

The failures hurt. I once managed to follow a couple on rush hour Friday from Martinez into San Francisco. I would lose sight of them but then somehow always manage to find them again. But, as a result of being glued to them, they made me along the Embarcadero. I have lost people due to getting cut off or hung out at a light. It happens. Some targets are just more observant or nervous.

The best hedge for success is getting on a subject once they leave their neighborhood. I can look out my door right now and pick out every car up and down the block that belongs. Start slow and learn a person’s habits and schedule. When I blow it usually is because I was too aggressive or trying too hard, taking out the video camera too soon.

I have had some great results when the client opted to pay for an extra investigator. That second car gives you the option of trading off tail vehicles to avoid detection. IN congested areas, two PIs is a must. What do you do if you follow someone solo and your target gets the only parking space and is then away on foot? You’re screwed. With two PIs on a case you can just cover so much ground and recover and react that much faster. It’s not foolproof but when you consider that police use task forces on mobile surveillance, two sleuths are better than one.

I ended up getting chased in a car one time by a subject after an assistant and I had followed him for a couple weeks. He came after me but by then we already had our “money shots” of him and his girlfriend down at the Emeryville marina tucking their pants in simulateously after a little romp. I once followed a deputy in training but never could have done it without the help of PI Ed Crame.

Using the second investigator costs about 50-percent more but if you want to improve the odds from 70-percent to about 95-percent it’s worth it. I am not a great surveillance person but have had some good moments. (And I will start passing the costs along to clients if I get a moving violation on a case.)