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Private eyes, stung by bad economy, turn to gadgets for edge

At the World Investigators Conference in Dallas, Rhonda Hines inspects a device that can detect hidden cameras. Some 600 private detectives from around the world attended.

SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Times

At the World Investigators Conference in Dallas, Rhonda Hines inspects a device that can detect hidden cameras. Some 600 private detectives from around the world attended.

DALLAS — Let's say you're a private investigator, and your client wants to get the goods on that philandering spouse.

You could do it the old-fashioned way, trailing him (or her) all over town.

Or, for $695, you could buy a GPS Personal Asset Tracker and hide it under the bumper of the subject's car. Then you could sit back in your office, turn on the computer and, via a secure Web site, get the location of every place Cheatin' Heart goes.

"It works in real time so if they're in a bar or at someone's house, you can show up," said Cody Woods, a private investigator and manager of the Spy Exchange & Security Center in Austin, Texas.

Technology is one of many factors changing the P.I. business, and nowhere was that more evident than at the recent World Investigators Conference in Dallas. Some 600 gumshoes from as far away as Thailand were on hand to learn about the latest gizmos and services for "getting the competitive edge" in a down economy, as one speaker put it.

Woods' booth, for example, featured a cornucopia of surveillance gear, including $10 sunglasses that enable the wearer to see behind him. Or for $195, P.I.s can surreptitiously photograph a subject with tiny cameras hidden in everything from belt buckles and baseball caps to pens, watches, flashlights and key chains.

"People know cameras are in cell phones and might be a little wary," Woods said, "but who's going to think about a camera in a key chain? You can take a key chain anywhere."

The three-day conference was partly sponsored by TLO, the Boca Raton company whose corporate slogan is "lightning in a bottle." TLO founder Hank Asher developed Accurint, a database used by investigators to find people, and a highlight of the conference was to be Asher's unveiling of a supposedly superior new product called Accurint Killer.

But there was no demonstration.

"The lightning isn't quite in the bottle," said Asher, who was accompanied to Dallas by most of his management team, including former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

Nonetheless, the crowd had plenty to take in.

Since Eugene Francois Vidocq became the world's first private detective in the 1800s, tracking fraudsters around France, the P.I. business has grown ever-more specialized. At a book stall, conference participants could browse scores of titles ranging from Practical Homicide Investigations to Kidnap for Ransom to Financial Investigation and Forensic Accounting (Second edition).

"One reason P.I.s come here is to find other things to do," said James Jessel of Signal Auditing.

His New York-based company is hired by DirecTV, a satellite service, to find bars and restaurants that show non-network National Football League games without paying for them. Signal Auditing in turn hires local private eyes to ferret out scofflaws.

"If we have somebody in Gainesville, they can access the legal list (of DirecTV) customers and know what restaurant is paying the legal rates," Jessel said.

Darren McCulley's specialty is more traditional. He does "fugitive recovery," but the job has become easier thanks to Google and Web sites like Facebook and MySpace where even crooks post personal information.

"You could spend six months in a car or you could jump online and do a little profiling with social network sites," said McCulley, a Dallas P.I. who recently found a notorious parole violator. "I think human nature is to want people to know what they're doing."

For P.I.s who need help navigating such sites, a Hernando County company, Tracers of Spring Hill, was touting its latest product: "Social Network Profile Search."

The new service, which costs $2 ("no hit, no fee") identifies the actual owner or user of a specific e-mail address and also finds Web postings, pictures, personal details, family, friends and more.

"I call it the George Orwell Search — a little 1984," said Sarah Dyer of Tracers. "It implies Big Brother is watching you, but actually this is information that's out there."

The economy has taken its toll on private investigators, with thousands nationwide said to have dropped out of the business in the past few years. While the number of repossession agents in Florida is up, the number of P.I.s. has remained flat at about 7,900.

"The fact this hasn't grown in a state where we're used to occupations growing says something," notes Terence McElroy, a spokesman for Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, which regulates private investigators.

Private eyes have long been popular in literature (Sherlock Holmes), movies (Sam Spade) and on television (Peter Gunn, the Rockford Files). Judging from the conference crowd, it remains a field dominated by men, many of them military veterans or former law enforcement officers.

But P.I.s of both genders have a disdain for one staple of the trade — spending long hours parked across from a No-Tel Motel, hoping to catch an unfaithful spouse.

"Surveillance is so ugly. I just hate it; I always did," said Dana Miller, a Denton, Texas, investigator for 20 years. "It's always raining or snowing or you've got to pee. That's the hardest part for women."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Private eyes, stung by bad economy, turn to gadgets for edge 03/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 12:32pm]
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