Saturday, July 21, 2007

Day of the detective

The fate of many a marriage in urban India rests on detectives, who are no longer just characters playing a part in thrillers. Detectives today are being approached to spy on matters big and small, issues personal and professional. Be it for checking on spouses, pre-marital screening, employee verification, update on a business rival or uncovering cyber crime, the reasons for hiring a sleuth are many and varied. Vibha Sharma trails the desi detectives

Price for probing 

Private investigation comes at a price, depending upon the case and circumstances. The price tag for a pre-matrimonial surveillance can be anywhere between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000. But if the person under investigation is an NRI, the fee can range from $1,000 to 3,000. Post-matrimonial checks are generally more complicated and tricky. Therefore, depending upon the investigation, a client may be charged Rs 30,000 onwards. “The person may have to be kept under surveillance for weeks, for which more than one team has to be involved,” Kunwar Vikram Singh explains. Regarding employee background check, for one employee the charges can be as less as Rs 2,000 but if it involves a high-up like a CEO, the investigation can cost between Rs 25,000 and Rs 50,000. Pre-joint venture investigations for foreign companies wanting to invest in India come at $7,000 to $10,000 depending upon the scope of investigation. Investigations on IPR, fake medicines or products cost around Rs 2 lakh.

Spy, detective, sleuth or secret agent. Whatever you decide to call them, the very word implies danger, intrigue, and enemies. Their job is to obtain information. From tracking down an errant husband or a two-timing wife to shadowing corporate, business or political rivals or verifying credentials of prospective employees, sleuthing is big business today. Large corporations spend a lot of money on precautions and protective countermeasures. There are parents who want to keep an eye on their sons and daughters and want to know who they meet once they step out of the safety of their homes. At times it is also the other way around.

It was a change in the behavioural pattern of his wealthy widower father that led Atul Saxena to employ a full-time sleuth to tail him. The detective took just two days to find that Saxena senior was involved with a pretty young thing, less than half his age. After some active digging on the PYT’s not-so-perfect past, followed by aggressive persuasion from Atul, Saxena senior agreed to try his luck with someone closer his age.

What was once a part of fiction is now becoming very much a part of life for the urban middle class if the increasing number of detective agencies and spy gadgets is anything to go by. Not only business rivals or corporates but also lovers, spouses, parents and even youngsters are hiring detective agencies to verify and spy on one another. Perhaps it is the mark of the times that relationship are based on — not on trust.

A few months back Smita Narula, married for barely two months, contacted Ashish Mathur of Trident Investigation Network. She had a doubt that her husband Chetan was having an extra-marital affair. The basis of her doubt was that he appeared to be spending more time than was required to reach his office in Gurgaon from Delhi and back. Smita also felt that whenever she tried calling him on his mobile during this period, he would either disconnect the phone or was very brief.

What emerged after Mathur launched the surveillance is quite interesting. Apparently, Chetan had misinformed his in-laws about his job profile and the salary he was drawing. So, while the car he was driving to work was part of his wife’s dowry, the money he was earning did not permit him to maintain the vehicle. Therefore everyday he would park the car in AIIMS parking, catch a bus to Gurgaon and after finishing work pick it up and drive back home. The reason he was reluctant to talk to his wife was because he didn’t want her to overhear the background noises while he was on the bus. Simple.

Is the moral of the story that marital doubts are often misplaced? "No", says Association of Private Detectives of India (APDI) chairman Kunwar Vikram Singh, a two-time winner of the best investigator in the world. "Ninety per cent of the cases where the wife suspects her husband or vice-versa prove to be correct," he says. Mathur agrees: "This was a freak case because more often than not a partner’s suspicion is generally correct."
Singh, who also heads Lancers Network Ltd, recalls a particular incident where a man approached them insisting that his wife was having an extra-marital affair and wanted her watched. "He asked us to watch her at home during the time he was out between 9 am and 6 pm. We did that for two months and found nothing wrong. We assured him that he had no reason to be suspicious but he insisted that though his wife’s behaviour appeared to be proper, he felt something was fishy. The next day we followed her when she went to drop her son to school. And sure enough after dropping the child, she took a detour and went to meet someone, who we later discovered was her boyfriend in college," he says. In most cases, Singh admits, "the feeling" is generally right.

Exactly, because it was only after Ritu Anand got the feeling that her lover’s promises about his intentions being honourable were not so that she decided to approach a detective agency. What detectives found became the most horrifying revelation of her young life. The man was married and had a one-year-old child. "His having a one-year-old child was the final blow. But at least I found out before it was too late," says Anand, who had to undergo psychiatric treatment after this traumatic experience.

Does this mean it pays to be prudent and extra cautious, especially in these marriage dotcom days. "The problem is that the joint family system has disintegrated and checking the antecedents of prospective brides or grooms is difficult," says Singh, recounting the case of an Army nursing officer who was lured into a relationship by a Kolkata-based married businessman, claiming that he was divorced. "Surveillance revealed that not only was he married, but being a businessman who travelled a lot, this was also his modus operandi. He would insert a matrimonial ad in regional papers saying he was divorced, establish a relationship and then leave the girl saying that his divorce proceedings were not through."

In NRI marriages in particular, getting a backgrounder of prospective grooms makes sense as it can save heartbreak later. Take the example of Simran Grewal, who got married 10 years ago to a New-York based "doctor" but is still waiting for him. In Punjab, Grewal’s story is common. After making endless trips to police stations, women NGOs and government officials, she decided to get him investigated. "There was no trace of him in India and the detective agency said investigation in the US would cost a lot of money. I felt it was better to save whatever little money I had for the future of my daughter," she says, strongly recommending that parents should make detailed inquiries about NRI grooms.

Big business

There are several agencies operating in India, dealing in business and personal cases. They promise background checks, character screening, corporate intelligence and analysis, pre and post-employment screening, undercover operations and infringement of trademark, copyright and patent besides assets verification. They also help obtain proof and evidence for insurance cases, offer debugging services, trace missing persons and do audio and video surveillance and handwriting authentication.

Business for detective agencies is growing, thanks to increasing permissiveness followed by rising awareness in this nation of one billion. The number of couples having a good time outside marriage has increased and so has the business of detective agencies, courtesy the increasing number of hurt spouses who now have resources and facilities to bring erring partners to book. Some detective agencies, particularly the cyber types, are flooded with requests of hacking e-mails and procuring the proof of their spouse’s infidelity for the convenience of divorce lawyers who will need them as evidence for getting their clients a suitable deal.

Infidelity cases

Many involved in the business may not like to admit it but the services most in demand are pre and post-matrimonial verification, alimony and divorce cases, spouse fidelity, litigation support besides, of course, corporate surveillance.

In pre-matrimonial investigations, credentials presented at the time of alliance are verified, followed by background checks to confirm the "character and trust worthiness of the individual concerned." Post-marital investigation includes cases of adultery, extramarital affairs or suspected activities and day-to-day tracking. "Women by nature are more suspicious than men hence the number of women asking for keeping tabs on their husbands is more. Also now they are financially more empowered and are aware of their rights and refuse to take any nonsense from their erring husbands," Singh explains.

Corporate intelligence

Cases for corporate intelligence are growing because with the opening up of economy, the number of foreign investors in India is increasing. "Companies and investors now want a due diligence before committing. There have also been several cases of data theft from BPOs and companies also want to find out who are involved in these nefarious activities. It also makes perfect sense for MNCs to know their rivals’ moves in advance," Singh says.

Pre and post-employment checks are also gaining ground. MNCs regularly get their employees checked before offering letters of intent and want to know everything, right from work attitude, habits, performance rating, social wellbeing, family and friends circle of their employees.

Employees too like to make their own inquiries, especially about the immediate boss. For example, Rahul Gupta, before joining a well-known media group as a top executive, went to great lengths to find out the behaviour of his immediate boss and also why the person before him had left the job. "I wanted to know whether I would be able to gel in the new set-up. Also, why did the guy before me leave if the company was so good, especially when he himself approached me to take up the job," Gupta explains.

Know your spy

Now if you think the detective you have employed will come in a package reminiscent of some debonair gun-totting character with fast cars, beautiful girls et al — a la James Hadley Chase — banish the thought. Even the very conservative Sherlock Holmes or our desi Agent Vinod are nowhere close.

On silver screen, detectives and spies have been romanticised as knights in black ties, hats and dinner jackets who solve mysteries with their brains, muscles and sex appeal. In real life, being on the job means a lot of hard work. It requires a lot of effort to get to the bottom of the story.

An average detective, though cool and confident, also sports non-attention-seeking mannerisms and attire that make him blend with the crowd. "We do not even want someone with a turban in Delhi, let alone any other outstanding paraphernalia," Mathur says. And apart from physical well-being and quicksilver responses, qualities like integrity, honesty, courteousness and a vigilant nature are welcome. "The effort should be to create no controversy while on the job," he adds.

Since private investigators do not have any authority under law to detain or interrogate anyone or gather proof, they resort to ingenious methods to gather information and investigate the case. At the end of the assignment, they hand over a detailed report to the client and if the client needs a proof that can be submitted in the court of law, it is prepared in such a way.

Hi-tech gadgets

To aid a detective in his job are a collection of sophisticated technological advances like miniature wiretap detectors and telephone-recording equipment, eavesdropping bugs, electronic stethoscope, amplified hearing devices to detect even faint sounds and voices behind walls, miniature cameras fitted in cigarette lighters or pens and other gadgets.

Most agencies depend upon electronic surveillance and monitoring systems. "The nature of equipment used has more or less remained the same, the difference is that now they are smaller and smarter," says Singh.

With the advancement of technology, spies have been reinventing their tools and bulky equipment has given way to silicon chip in miniature devices that could capture and transmit vital intelligence. Today, it is the world of Internet surveillance, digitally sabotaging computer networks and cyber-spies.

There has also been a massive increase in the number of personal surveillance gadgets, particularly popular with litigating couples. For men there are smart briefcases with hidden microphone and tape recorder for taping conversations and promises that might otherwise be lost. Women can take the help of sleek designer recording purses to document sexual harassment at work or for nailing a spouse for verbal or physical abuse.

Video surveillance may also come in the form of cuddly teddy bears with a tiny camera peeking through its belly button or a seemingly conventional TV with a built-in video camera behind the speaker to keep tabs on what is going on in your bedroom while you are out. A cigarette case with a UHF transmitter that can record from a distance of more than 200 m, radio microphone in pens, surveillance and telephonic microphone to intercept voices, wall microphone behind a clock with highly miniaturised micro-transmitter, they are all readily available.

There are modified mobile phones to monitor calls with a surveillance microphone hidden in the battery. Give this spy phone to the person you want to spy on —your wife, partner, kids or employees— as a present. Whenever the spy phone is called from a pre-programmed telephone number, it will answer without ringing or flashing lights and you will be able to listen in.

Past and future

In modern India the history of private detectives can be traced back to the Gorkha watchmen concept. As crime and security threats grew, Gorkha watchmen made way for full-time business for security agencies, offering security cover to business establishments, showrooms, malls, educational institutions, housing societies and private homes with trained security men and a complete armoury of metal detectors and overhead miniature cameras. And as social fabric changed, political and domestic violence increased and foreign investment and corporate culture made a foray, the job profiles of these security agencies also multiplied.

The APDI is the apex organisation of private investigators with a pan-India membership of 180 but as per Singh there could be anywhere close to 1500 investigating agencies operating in India. "A majority of them provide security services and are not investigative agencies. Quite a few are also involved in shady activities. The APDI is a self-regulatory apex body with audit and ethics committees and when you choose a member of the APDI, you choose a professional company which works as per the association’s code of ethics," he says.

The government, understanding the need for regulating private security agencies, brought in the Private Security Agencies (Regulations) Act, 2006. During the next monsoon session, the government is likely to introduce the Private Detective Agencies (Regulations) Bill 2007 to regulate the activities of investigating agencies and also ensure curbs on foreign investigating agencies operating in India.

In India as yet, detectives do not need a licence to operate. So no particular academic qualifications or background is necessary to enter the profession. But the APDI conducts training programmes and most agencies also offer in-house training.

(Names of some persons have been changed to protect identities)