The Private Investigator: ‘the truth is we drive old cars and don’t have moustaches’

Sophie Quick spoke to Melbourne-based private investigator *Michael about sneaking, secrecy and surveillance.

Abstract illustration of a pair of lustful eyes shadowed by the dark shape of a magnifying glass

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

How did you get started as a private investigator?

A family member was involved in the business and I took on an apprenticeship with them, about 29 years ago. I was 17. He was a former policeman and he'd retired and was now a private investigator.

What’s it like to be an apprentice PI?

For the first year it was just a lot of listening and being in cars with other private investigators and learning how to follow. Most of the work was domestic, matrimonial surveillance, following people to establish cheating and that kind of thing, and it was a lot of hours … I found that I enjoyed that part of the work and that there was always lots of cheating partners out there.

Did you learn anything at the very beginning of your career that still holds true?

Just that people are creatures of habit.

What kind of investigations do you work on these days?

I still like working on matrimonial and domestic matters. The reason being that it's not going away. And there's still an element of dishonesty in it. It’s something that I enjoy putting the time and effort into – to catching those people out.

What motivates you to do this work?

Getting paid. And catching them out. It'd be fair to say that most people who call me really only call to confirm their gut feeling. 

People are usually right?

Always. 99% of the time.

'It'd be fair to say that most people who call me really only call to confirm their gut feeling.'

Can you describe a typical matrimonial surveillance job?

It depends on the circumstances, but a lot of it is afternoons, early evenings, when people are finishing work or going out for their lunch breaks. And it's a matter of putting in that time. First you have to identify them. The customer can show you a photo of someone and say, 'This is where they'll be going', but everyone looks the same and wears the same thing. So the important thing is to identify and confirm that it's them. Once you know [you’ve got the right person], you just stick with them.

How do you go about sticking with them?

Potentially you’re waiting for hours. Because most of the time, at the domestic level, if a person is catching up with someone, they're catching up with them in order to be intimate at some stage. But prior to that intimacy, they may go out for dinner and drinks for three to five hours, and then they may go to a hotel or they might go back to that other person's house or they may continue out to a nightclub until four in the morning. It just varies.

Do you have to stay out until 4am often?

Yeah.

How do you keep yourself inconspicuous?

You just blend in. You have a few changes of clothes, depending on where the person is going and their calibre of presentation, if they’re going to a nice bar or restaurant. You're always thinking ahead; thinking about when the person is going to turn left or right. A lot of people in cities these days are catching public transport so you get around a bit on public transport, which is a lot easier. But you’re out so late because someone – so say a woman thinks her husband is up to no good – well if he walks out of [another woman’s] apartment at 2am, we need to establish who she is. 

How do you go about establishing who the third party is?

Every job varies, but we just have to put in the time. We saw them go up the stairs in an apartment block, and we saw the light go on, so we know it's apartment number four. Then next week we'll look on databases or we'll do a pretence with a door knock – pretend we're doing a survey or something, and she may give us some information. 

How often do you actually interact with someone you’re following?

Only when and where necessary. A couple might meet up at lunchtime and we know who he is, but we don’t know who she is, so we follow her when she goes back to her place of employment. And then we’re able to say, ‘Okay, Susie works at Flight Centre', and then we might go in there and make an appointment for some travel advice and learn a little bit about her.

What kind of information do people want to know about the third party?

'We'll look on databases or we'll do a pretence with a door knock – pretend we're doing a survey or something …'

Well: most people want to know, who is this person who's fucking my husband? They might want to know how old she is. If her next holiday is in a month’s time and she's going to Fiji, maybe he's going away in a month’s time too. It's just general chit-chat.

Do you do video surveillance?

We take videos and then hand the videos to customers on a DVD. Usually we just use a body camera, which could be a little pen camera, or a handy-cam or something similar on a mobile phone. Again, it depends on the circumstances, whether it's day or night.

What equipment would you typically take with you to follow someone around after work?

A change of clothes, a small handy-cam, a digital voice recorder to record my notes and observations, a phone to keep the customer up to date.

A handy-cam? How do you keep that discreet?

We have it in a backpack or in a little folder. We can put them in bum-bags or in satchels and put them on the table with a hole in the bag to film through.

What kind of computer skills do you have to have?

Well, you type very lengthy reports, visit social media profiles on people, check particular databases – whether it's the electoral roll or other things. Knowing which databases to look in is all taught at the private investigation colleges now.

How competitive is the PI field?

It's become more competitive – because of the fascination. But a lot of people don’t stay in it for a long time. It takes a long time to build relationships and get a referral business.

Your clients are from word of mouth?

Yes. And it takes a long time to establish.

What gender are most of your clients?

It's 50/50 these days. When I started out, it was about 90% women. But with technology and the internet, it's dropped down to about 50/50. There's a lot of lonely women at home who see all these dating ads and don’t feel their husbands are communicating with them a lot, or he’s not at home a lot … They get lonely, so they decide to pursue dating sites out of curiosity.

Illustration of one man holding a mobile phone, following a couple whose arms are around one another's backs

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

Have you ever been busted while following someone?

Yeah, of course. Everyone gets busted. A person will approach you and say, 'Are you following me?' and you say, 'Nah, I don’t know what you're on about', and the matter is forgotten about. It's pretty hard to prove.

Who is your favourite fictional private detective?

[silence]

Do you prefer Sherlock Holmes or Magnum PI?

[silence]

Do you watch detective shows?

No.

What is the most common misconception about PIs?

That they look like Magnum and drive Ferraris. 

What’s the truth?

The truth is we drive old cars and don’t have moustaches.

Has your work made you paranoid?

Not at all. Because I'm not doing anything wrong.

Do you do any other work besides the matrimonial stuff?

A bit of corporate and small business stuff. It's usually related to internal theft – people stealing stock from factories or whatever.

Have you heard of any stories from clients about things that have happened to them/their marriages after you've completed an investigation?

Clients don’t really communicate with you greatly after [completed investigations]. But typically they might tell you, towards the end of it, that they're going to approach their partner because they want to save their marriage or seek counselling and utilise the video and the photos you've provided them to be truthful. It's the psychological and emotional pain that they’re carrying. It's a type of abuse when their partner continually lies. But they can't lie when it's in black and white, can they?

Maybe not. But wouldn’t it be a pretty hard thing for a relationship to recover from? If one person had another person followed?

People are different. People want to work through things. The other person may have been at fault themselves. I don’t get involved in the psychological side – that’s not my role. What they do with that material is their own business. 

 

* not his real name

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