Wednesday, August 13, 2008

RWA Workshop notes: Watching the Detective

One workshop choice I made was, "Watching the Detective" which recounted working in the office of a surveillance agency dealing primarily with Workers' Comp claims. They're hired, usually by the insurance company, to verify that a claim is legitimate.

Our presenter worked in the office transcribing all the reports the investigators filed. She loves her job because she gets to know everything about all ongoing cases.

Touching the highlights:

All their field agents are male, although the office staff has numerous females. Bottom line: most of their days are spent parked in vans, and the guys have plumbing designed for 12-14 hours days without a break. Most of them are young, under 30. The agency likes them to have some college, and military service is good, because they're used to the discipline and working the hours.

They need people with common sense, good communication skills, patience, who can work independently (they rarely send out more than one investigator on a job due to cost) and are good at multi-tasking. In addition, an ability to anticipate what people are going to do, and who are a bit sneaky are good qualities. They also have to be able to stay awake.

One thing our presenter found strange, was that when she circulated questions to the investigators for the workshop, a frequent answer to her question, "What do you like about this job?" was, "the lack of monotony." Even though they're sitting in a van most of the time, they liked that the specific cases change frequently.

There's a high turnover of investigators, and the most common jobs the guys move on to include the FBI, police departments, and … auto repair. Seems they spend a lot of time keeping the vehicles working.

Speaking of vehicles: they use SUVs and mini-vans, usually gray or brown, with tinted windows. Inside, they'll have a video camera, laptop, Nextel phone, a fan, ice (the vans get HOT—they can't leave the engine running for a/c), food, shirts, caps, foam knee pads, workout gear, overnight gear, so they're prepared. They do NOT carry weapons.

What do they do? First, find a place to park where they can observe the subject. Ideally, they'll find a place with street parking. In rural areas, they might put out traffic cones to make it look like they've got a reason to be there.

Not-so-ideal: large apartment complex, where it's difficult to locate the subject. Other tough locations are high crime neighborhoods, or places with nosy neighbors who are part of Crime Watch, etc. Investigators are supposed to let local law enforcement know they're in the neighborhood, but it doesn't always help. A concerned citizen expects the cops to show up when she reports a strange car parked outside. Many departments require the cops to show up even if they do know the investigators are out there.

Next, note all cars in the area and report color, make, and license. Our presenter said she sees reports with very specific details, and others that say, 'gray sedan". (And here I thought ALL guys knew cars.) Then they wait and watch.

One common lead, since these are workers' comp cases, is to know the subject's next doctor appointment and follow him from there. Glitches with that system include the subject hopping onto rapid transit. The investigator follows, the subject gets off and retrieves his vehicle from the parking lot and drives off. The investigator's car is still back at the doctor's office, so he's stuck. Subjects on motorcycles are also tough to follow if you're in a van.

What they DON'T do: engage with subject; go onto the subject's property; look in windows; touch the mailbox.

If the subject leaves his home, the investigator follows. They have cameras concealed in shopping bags which they'll use in grocery stores. There, the best place to follow a subject is immediately behind him. People tend not to pay attention to that spot. They'll look for things that indicate an injury is being faked, such as a claim for a wrist injury, but the subject is hefting gallons of milk from low shelves with no trouble.

If the subject is going into smaller stores, or goes into several stores, it's harder to remain inconspicuous. One investigator lasted about two minutes following a subject into a lingerie store because he knew he'd be discovered. Schools are another very difficult place to tail a subject. Most parents are VERY wary of someone taking pictures, etc. One specific problem was when the subject was on a golf course, and the closest the investigator could get was a nearby gravel road. He ended up being stuck and had to call for a tow. Being noticed means being caught. One cute investigator got hit on by the subject. Being tall with bright red hair is another drawback. (Note the caps kept in the van for such circumstances).

The work is more or less seasonal. They don't work much in bad weather because the subjects don't leave their homes. They also don't hang around after dark.

This information is based on one firm, and it specializes in one type of work. It's not representative of private detective work across the board, but it was an interesting hour.

And, in a moment of synchronicity, Lee Lofland's guest blogger on The Graveyard Shift is talking about her experiences as a private investigator.


Ray said...

Great blog. Don't think I would want to do surveillance for a living.

Guys used to know cars when I was younger. It was easy to tell the make, model and year at a glance. Now lots of cars look alike. Just watch a NASCAR race. I would have to see the logo for the make and the model label on the back of the vehicle. I can tell Chrysler Voyagers because I have one. I also love Mustangs so they are easy to tell.



Terry Odell said...

Glad to know it's not hard wired into all males to recognize cars, because my current hero in my WIP isn't all that car savvy. I drive a Honda Fit Sport and there are at least 3 other models that I confuse it with. I got an orange one so I could find it in the parking lots.