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A seat with an investigator

The investigator and process server Ian Ross usually begins his working day with a mug of tea in a corner window seat of a café restaurant named ‘47 King Street West’ in Manchester city centre. Recently he met up with our Mark Rowe for a chat.

Ian, of Manchester-based Acorn Investigations, featured in the May 2013 issue of Professional Security. That time I had called in a café for something to eat before last year’s BSIA annual spring seminar in the city. On that occasion having taken a seat, out of all the possible café seats in the city, it was unnerving for him to ask, ‘how is Professional Security’? He was in the next seat and recognised me from an Association of British Investigators (ABI) meeting. The former policeman is a member of the ABI and the World Association of Detectives (WAD), as his business card confirms. During the phone hacking scandal, Ian changed his card to ‘professional investigator’ from ‘private investigator’, as the term Private Investigator had become so ‘toxic’ – (as the ABI president Tony Imossi put it to Professional Security at the ABI AGM in York in 2012). Now that Government led licensing for private investigators is coming in, with the term Private Investigator to be a protected occupation, Ian says he will have to change his business cards back again.

This time our meeting was pre-arranged, at the same place. He began by raising the upcoming badging of private investigators as announced last year by Home Secretary Theresa May. Questions abound, quite apart from when the licence might start and how much it will cost. What will the syllabus be for an examination? Like other former policemen, he doesn’t care for having to take an exam in something he’s done (satisfactorily as far as his client solicitors and local authorities are concerned) for a living for 32 years. Then there’s the practicalities of working as one-man bands (or two, if there’s a buddy, or the wife typing and taking calls), “If I get a job in that requires more man-power, I bring in other one-man businesses, the ABI network enables networking with other agents whose specialities complement yours, we help each other out in this way, being paid on an hourly or day rate. If it’s just too big, and it needs ten people for several weeks, (because surveillance done properly is man-power and daylight-hours hungry), then, with the clients consent, I will instruct another larger specialised surveillance agency, and they reciprocate by passing to me their specialised criminal or civil Investigations work which their agents don’t have the experience or time to do. As Ian says, “It’s horses for courses really”.

As for the effect of an SIA licence, like others Ian predicts: “Without a doubt, the smaller one and two man businesses are going to be hit badly and I predict it is going to put many out of business, which is very sad’. They won’t be able to afford time or the fees to take 40 hours off to go and study for an exam, and it will be no good thinking you can study this at home in your own time. Also, on top of Training & Examination fees, there are fees for each individual Investigator and also for the individual business itself, all will now become necessary under the Licensing badging scheme, its just another tier of payments in order to run your own business. You are already working 16, 18 hour days.” As Ian adds, while he is sitting in the café, he is answering texts, taking calls, sending & replying to emails, arranging collection of documents, speaking with other investigators, and – strangely, advising solicitors as relates to what their clients are requesting to be done, Ian tells them what is possible, legal, and prices- long before the instructions hit his desk, and if something urgent crops up, already being in the city centre- he is well placed to get into the car and collect from their offices, or have it emailed to his mobile and printed out asap. (and indeed for dropping off completed work and invoices at clients’ offices!).

And smiles Ian, “then there’s always the lunches with solicitors and their clients, that’s where all my advertising budget goes, individually on a face to face with each new solicitor, their time is too expensive to allow you in during work time to do a ‘sales chat’, so have your regular solicitor invite their solicitor friend for lunch on a Friday, your own solicitor friend is then vouching for you and you’ve had a face to face meeting in which they can weigh you up and get a feeling for your abilities, from then on, its up to you with each fresh job, your only as good as your last job so each has to be right first time”. Ian makes a point of handing as many completed reports as possible to his solicitor customers face to face, or offering to go over reports over the phone as there may be details to add to the report, which will not necessarily go down in writing. And when he gets home, well, “ reports and invoices don’t type themselves- messages don’t answer themselves, addresses don’t check themselves- ‘data mining’ as its termed to gain information as to debtors whereabouts, tracing Missing Persons for debt, or missing beneficiaries of Wills-usually Ian does this late into the night as its quieter and Data banks are less busy,( Ian is signed up with Credit-safe and Equifax for data checks) & also video and photo’s taken throughout the day need downloading and printing out, clients who couldn’t be contacted through-out the day then get their final reports emailed or updated personally if required, it can be a long, but interesting day.

For all those now wishing to become or continue as a Private Investigator , the SIA insist you need a syllabus that newcomers and those already working at the licensable task learn, so that they can pass an exam to qualify to apply for the badge. Who will teach the syllabus? Someone with a street investigative background, or with only teaching experience? As for that PI exam; how long will it be good for? As Ian says, the law changes daily, and new appeals make case law all the time – will the SIA or the Courts send out legal updates, if so, when, every week or monthly? If not, how will every Investigator know what’s changed, and in timely fashion so as to able to put the new law into use; discovering it months later at a Professional Development meeting is no good, its too late by then, they need it instantly via email. But from whom. The syllabus itself must cover all types of investigation – Civil and criminal,- divorce, missing person, traffic accidents, criminal defence investigations for murder, theft, robberies, sex offences, insurance claims, covert surveillance etc,etc, the list is endless, and then there’s process serving, which is a world in itself with dozens of different types of forms to be served legally and in time, not just issued in this country and served her, but also having to be served properly abroad, and those documents issued abroad need serving properly here, Ian handles these on a daily basis, with papers issued in the UK served last month in Pakistan, India, and the USA. Ian says “ This is where networking via contacts through the ABI and World Association of Detectives pays dividends,” and Ian says he wouldn’t be without them. Being able to contact an agent anywhere in the world by mobile instantly is invaluable” he says.

Can a licence give an investigator, or prove to his client, that he has experience, integrity and competence – the sorts of things that an exam (in any subject) cannot show? In a word, how can you be sure that the PI is a professional? Because the client, such as a solicitor, relies on the PI, as Ian says, not only for details but advice that a case is likely to lead to a positive conclusion or to a dead end, and runs the risk of costing more money than it’s worth. “And most PIs will have built up a rapport with solicitors they have worked for over many years, and certainly I have solicitors who will ring me up and say, “I have a client with a problem, where do you think we can go with it, if we instructed you”. So even before they are putting pen to paper with the client, or prospective client, they are discussing it with a private investigator they trust” for one thing to get an idea of the cost. Ian’s point is; if a PI isn’t competent, or lacks integrity, he won’t have clients – or be around-for very long. Or, a solicitor may want a PI with an accountancy background, which Ian cannot do, so Ian will put him in touch with a forensic accountant. While he has no time for law-breakers or law-breaking, he makes the point that there have to be legitimate ways for lawful people – solicitors, insurers, businesses seeking debtors – to find people who are determined to break the law; such as refusing to detail their business interests when ordered to by a court. Hence the market for blagging, ie’ illegally acquired information’. Few private investigators have been locked up for this crime, Ian says, and those few are mostly for data protection offences, and occasionally for a telling a lie in an affidavit – saying that they had served papers when they hadn’t.

Those PIs Ian suggests are stupid, ‘and shouldn’t have been an investigator in the first place, because they haven’t grasped the first tenet; (a) you should know the Data Protection Act and what it stands for and why, (b) you don’t break laws to get anything, ( c) you only state the facts in an affidavit of what you have actually done. Prevarication sends you to prison. Because you should know that you can’t keep everything secret for ever, it always, always comes back to bite you. If you can’t serve documents properly, you should get another job. And,’ turning to process serving, ‘if someone holds up their hands and won’t touch it, you can place it at their feet, which he feels is bad manners, but if the person says they still won’t take it from your hand, that’s their business and their responsibility if they leave it on the floor.’ Ian does add that if the papers being served are about a divorce and have details of children, and the person left them on the pavement, Ian would not leave them lying there; he would wait until the person had walked away and retrieve them, and ring the solicitor to say what he had done and put all this into his Affidavit or Statement of Service. Although, the process server would be within his rights to leave the papers there. BUT, it depends what is in the papers, if its definitely data protected or about children say, then you don’t leave them there for other eyes to read, that wouldn’t make common sense, and the solicitor needs to be kept informed, because he doesn’t want to be surprised in court by the other solicitor saying his client wasn’t served or had no knowledge of what the papers contained because he didn’t take then from the server and hadn’t read them, in this case, that would be the subject’s fault not the server.

Ian suggests that the benefit of an SIA-PI badge ought to be that the PI could obtain all presently data protected information, ie; be able to ring or email the DVLA, etc, give a pin-code and ask for details of a car’s ownership, and the same with other presently data protected information. If, through the Land Registry Ian knows that a house belongs to a named person he is investigating or serving, but cannot find at present whether the car parked outside belongs to the person investigated, surely that anomaly needs fixing. “I don’t think the SIA badge is going to make a scrap of difference regarding this access, the latest news reports and enquiries have made everyone paranoid about privacy, and rightly so for what was done, but those people ( hackers) weren’t Private Investigators, they were just criminals using their expertise for bad, rather than good and taking no notice of any laws at all, it wont make any difference to those type of persons what laws or sentences are brought in, they are criminals and it will still go on, money talks, and strangely, the new laws don’t appear to relate to news reporters, who started all this off in the first place, strange that?.. He smiles, knowingly.. He wonders his Professional Indemnity Insurance will rise, pointing out that insurers may now require an investigator to have ‘roll-on insurance’ similar to solicitors on retirement, in case something he did turns out to require insurance later on.. “I can see there are advantages to being a licensed investigator, but initially it is going to be a big disadvantage for every investigator in the country, because they are going to have to pay out so much money.”

Despite technology taking ever more of a part in our lives, and the need for IT security, it struck me how much of Ian’s work was physical. There’s no alternative but to be in places, as the eyes and ears of the client, whether to serve papers on someone, or note what cars or other assets are on their driveway, or in asking neighbours when trying to trace someone. That said, online is a place to do some searching, for instance for clues to the person you want to trace – have they a recent photo of themselves on Facebook, or of their make and colour of car? So that when you go to knock on the door, you have a good idea that the person answering the door, who denies that they are the person you want, is in fact that person! Then again, if you serve the document to the wrong person, that has ruined the service; and what if this results in a complaint to the data protection watchdog, the ICO (Information Commissioners Office). ‘It’s all good fun, isn’t it,’ Ian chuckles.

Each time he goes out with a document to serve, he is opening himself to possible breach of data protection law, if he doesn’t do the job right, first time. And what if some of the wrongly served documents are originals, which once handed over, cannot be replaced easily without further expense to his client? Or, the subject makes a complaint against him either for what he said, they way he said it or just out of pure maliciousness to get some ‘come-back’ on the client, and, as he’s the only one there representing the client, they complain about him. A piece of kit Ian won’t go out without is body-worn video, as he said last year. It’s to show that he served documents correctly, besides giving him a defence against malicious accusations, even of sexual misconduct, bearing in mind that people facing bankruptcy – divorce – loss of property etc, might tell lies and that the process server might be on his own. Without the video, it’s his word against the accuser’s.

As Ian puts it, while you have to know what the law is on serving a document, ‘you have to be well versed in the arts of talking to people. You can’t be over-bearing, or officious or loud, but you definitely have to control the meeting.’ An investigator can be a process server, he suggests, but a process server cannot necessarily always investigate, as he or she may not have the requisite experience. On ‘the doorstep’, he likens the job to stand-up comedy – not that Ian would start telling jokes; ‘you have to be able to rabbit on in front of people and try to get them on your side’. The person at the door will decide within maybe ten seconds if they like you or not, and if they are going to help – the same as an audience with a stand-up comedian. What then does Ian say? He begins with his name and who he is working for; Ian says ”try never to use an alias, you may have to return and it might not be useful a second time”, it depends on the reason for the call as to the ‘story’ used, but its better to stick to the straight facts, and they nearly always assist you”. The person at the door may genuinely not be able to help. “Quite often I leave my card with people and say, anything comes up, can you just let me know. And out of the blue months later you will get a call, you find a little bit more information and it’s a stepping stone, to where you want to go, but sometimes you can’t do it, because there’s nobody around any more with the information.” Cases can be unusual, even odd. Ian recalls a solicitor’s case, about a will. Was the dead man related to someone in a way he didn’t know whilst alive? To find out required a DNA test. You can take a swab of a living man, for one half of the test; but for the dead man Ian needed to provide a cube of flesh. Ian recalls the coroner accepting the test, and Ian was there to see it done – but was not allowed to touch the body. The large slice of flesh was duly taken and Ian drove the sample to the lab. A week later, Ian had to drive back with the slice of flesh, to return it for it to be put back in the body. There was no match.

Having chatted, Professional Security left Ian in his corner seat. Watching the world go by. Like all jobs forever dramatised on the TV – doctors, police detectives – the work is indeed varied and stimulating, but the reality is not excitement all the time as in an hour’s TV drama; and yet some people will always think it sounds exciting enough to try. Will the SIA badge, by offering an entrance to private investigation for anyone who passes the exam (and pays), lead to inexperienced PIs – or rather, PIs so ignorant that they might not even know they are inexperienced. And even their teachers might not know they’re inexperienced? Ian says: “I don’t want to be taught by somebody who hasn’t done the job.” I want someone who has spent some years doing it – to be able to tell me, or the brand new ‘wannabe’ PI, how to do it, and what can go wrong, and how to do it right first time. That’s the instructor I want. Ian says – and this is from him, and is not in any way meant to be from or on behalf of the ABI – that the ABI is already ahead of the game here, supplying its own teaching courses, which will assist the Investigator to gain the requisite knowledge and experience from those who have first hand knowledge of the work they wish to become part of.


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