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The private investigation sector has seen itself caught up in the phone hacking scandal. Tony Imossi, president of the Association of British Investigators, spoke to Professional Security at the ABI annual conference in York.
Private investigators, and whether or how to regulate them, has been a topic for the Leveson inquiry, and separately the Home Affairs select committee of MPs. The ABI, and indeed other sector bodies such as the Institute of Professional Investigators, have been seeking to educate the authorities about the reputable side of investigations. Tony Imossi for example was invited to meet a senior member of ACPO. He told Professional Security: “It’s moving in the right direction.” He met recently British Transport Police at their head office in Camden, north London, offering the services of the ABI gratis, in intelligence gathering against metal theft. The 500 or so ABI members are plenty of pairs of eyes and ears.
As for the headline-making phone hacking scandal, Tony Imossi in his welcome note to the ABI event raised the ‘adverse publicity surrounding the activities of a relative few rogue opportunities masquerading as investigators in the private sector; unfortunately those few stories are the ones that that draw most media attention’. To right that public view of PIs takes disproportionate effort from professional investigators. He said he felt that PIs were being blamed over the hacking scandal as a ‘soft target’. “Private investigation has become a toxic term,” he said. Hence the ABI has been trying to use the phrase ‘professional investigators in the private sector’, instead.
The ABI has applied to the high court in a challenge to the Land Registry over access of the proprietors’ register. Tony said: “That’s where you can search ownership of property by name.” You can do such a search by company, but not by individual. The law says that access is only to ‘interested parties’, who are defined as a trustee in a bankruptcy; the individual himself; or a representative; or a law enforcement agency. The ABI has said that an interested party can represent a number of people, such as a creditor of someone on the register, who is an interested party. There’s also a data protection argument. The ABI argues that it’s not asking the Land Registry to reveal anything not already in the public domain.
As for why this matters, Tony Imossi added that he does a lot of fraud work: “The cut to the chase is follow the money; and you come up against hurdles.” He gave an example. If there’s a bank account in Switzerland with the suspected proceeds of a crime – for which someone has gone to prison, and on release the fraudster has gone back to the Swiss account. Tony Imossi on behalf of his client wants to know if the account is open, and if it’s worth targeting with an international injunctions: “And banks don’t want to give anything away … we get ridiculous examples when people hide behind data protection without understanding it.” Or an investigator might do due diligence on someone applying for a job in financial services. It’s the investigator’s job to check the applicant’s CV, which says that 30 years ago he got a degree in a particular subject, from a university. The investigator seeks written confirmation from that university that it’s the truth. “What harm is there? I get this data protection wall thrown at me,” Tony said. In this case Tony challenged the uni, making the point that the business was, rightly, protecting its interests by doing due diligence and engaging a PI. The job applicant has given the data; by making it harder to check qualifications, a university makes it more possible for a fraudster to pull off a fraud, Tony argued. And even if data protection did apply, Tony Imossi is notified with the Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO). There was a happy ending to the university story – they gave the information.
The News of the World phone hacking scandal has prompted that newspaper’s closure, police arrests, and the Leveson inquiry into media standards. Tony Imossi queried the label ‘private investigator’ put on those doing work for the News of the World; the information being provided to the newspaper being, in Tony’s words, ‘tittle tattle, to make gossip stories about’. Even if PIs had been licensed under the Private Security Industry Act 2001 (PSIA), that law would not have prevented the events that came out in the Leveson inquiry. For two reasons, Tony said: journalism was exempt under the PSIA, and second, in-house staff would be exempt. Or someone gathering info from voicemails and the like would have been called something like ‘information broker’ or ‘consultant’, that did not fall under the PSIA.
Tony Imossi said that while the ABI does want licensing and regulation of the PI sector, the association has proposed – and put it to Leveson and the parliamentary select committee – a form of self-regulation, ‘within a framework of statutory regulation, and the way we could do that is by having a chartered institute of investigators. Tony said that the ABI would ‘tick the boxes’ of such an application to the Privy Council, except one; the ABI could not say that it represents a significant majority of its industry. “We can’t do that because nobody knows the size of the industry,” Tony said. As he added, there is only one reliable register of private investigators; those notified with the ICO, who have given ‘PI’ as their purpose. Under a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, Tony has that data from the ICO. Some 2000 people gave that as their category: “And I have their names and addresses.” From a study of the list, Tony said that various people have ticked the PI box, but are nothing to do with private investigation. So Tony suggested that the number of PIs could be less than 2000. There has been an estimate of 10,000 given by the Home Office, which Tony recalled was quoted for the official purpose of costing the licensing of PIs several years ago, which Tony described as ‘a stab in the dark’ – a number Tony came up with. As he said; the total would depend on the definition of PI, and how wide. He gave the example of Belgium, which brought in licences for PIs, which covered human resources workers, who needed the PI badge to do their HR.
How is PI business? Professional Security asked. Despite, or because of, the recession, there’s work out there for PIs. “Fraud is increasing,” Tony Imossi said. “It’s endemic. The size of frauds being pulled off, and the police haven’t got the resources to investigate any, let alone the majority. So you have those victims, financial institutions, that have to turn somewhere, if not to put things right, and it might not lead to a prosecution, but at least it will make sense of what has gone wrong so it doesn’t happen again.” He gave the example f advance fee fraud; if a victim is hit once, fraudsters will go back, because the victims’ details are sold between criminals. Say that you are hit for an advance fee of £60,000, a couple of years ago. Just when a business’ or an individual’s defences start to come down, it or he will be approached by someone who may seek to rescue your situation. A typical advance fee fraud is to sell you worthless shares, in a mine in Papua New Guinea. You buy into it. Team B tell you that there really is a gold mine, and the worthless shares you bought are now worth something. The new fraudsters talk about buying them off you. “They reel you in” They ask you to pay a registration fee, and you the investor may think, ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’. But the fees you pay are to fictitious agencies; and the fraud goes on. “And this is an ever-expanding industry,” Tony added. “The fastest growing industry in this country is a fraud in property. And it’s a scam that the Land Registry are desperately trying to block.” The typical scenario is that the fraudsters’ scouts will find a property that looks empty. They put a sign on the door, ‘any inquiries contact X Security’, and a mobile phone number – the fraudsters’. If nobody rings it, they can proceed. The owners may be a family in a dispute after the owner has died; or it’s in need of repairs and sitting empty. The fraudsters enter, change the locks, and do an identity theft from the property owner, from the Land Registry records. The fraudsters use the property as security for a sub-prime loan. The fraudsters have the property to receive any mail; and can put a phone line in; and hoodwink the lender to advance money on the strength of the security. The fraudsters will need a solicitor, whether crooked, or not doing their job thoroughly – or even a sharp solicitor may be fooled into working for the criminals whose identity documents are convincing enough. Maybe years later, the true owners find that the property has a £120k mortgage on it.
“So there’s lots for us to do,” Tony summed up the work of the PI. “And if one door shuts [on fraudsters], and budgets tighten, another door opens.” Insurance fraud is another big market, he went on. In recessions, people will tend to look at a fraud against an insurance as an easy way to make money, ‘and sadly insurance fraud is one of the areas they are tempted by, stupid things like exaggerating claims or duplicating claims’. Among attenders were past presidents Richard Newman and Richard Jacques-Turner. The governing council are: Tony Imossi, president; vice-president, Stuart Price; and Mark Hodgson, Gavin Robertson, Mark Peachman, Chris Booth, Ted Potter and Peter Farrington. The ABI’s non-GC officers are Paul Peachman, Ann and Eric Shelmerdine, and Mick Kitson.