Sunday 25 September 2016

True detective: back to school for a new generation of sleuths

A diploma course for aspiring private eyes starts up this autumn.

Damian Corless

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

Blurred lines: PI Sandra Mara has been lobbying the government to regulate the sector for years
Blurred lines: PI Sandra Mara has been lobbying the government to regulate the sector for years

The most intriguing third-level course coming on stream this autumn is altogether more CIA than CAO. The Dublin-based International Institute of Investigators is inviting applications for enrolment on a new Private Investigations Diploma Course.

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Participants will receive tuition in various aspects of modern-day sleuthing, including industrial espionage; electrical surveillance and counter surveillance; fraud; gathering evidence; how to interview clients, witnesses and suspects; and even how to tail someone in the street. Through a combination of lectures, web seminars and practical exercises, the Institute promises to turn out people primed for entry to a business sector that's putting on a jobs spurt.

The field has never been bigger business. Evolving technology has both expanded the potential for crime, and the means of detecting it, while traditional areas such as compo culture will always be with us. Ireland's laws surrounding surveillance and admissible evidence have lagged far behind the capabilities of the professional PI, blurring the lines of legitimacy. The intent behind the new diploma course is to regularise that situation.

The person behind it is Sandra Mara, who for many years was Ireland's sole female detective. Mara has been lobbying governments to regulate the PI business for decades. Her father, Bill Kavanagh, opened Ireland's first detective agency in 1947. Concerned that the business was infested with chancers and fly-by-nights, Bill began lobbying for proper regulation in the early 1960s, repeatedly hitting a brick wall.

One of those who frustrated Kavanagh's calls for legislation was former Taoiseach Charles Haughey. When Haughey was Justice Minister in the 1960s, Kavanagh attempted to import state-of-the-art electronic surveillance equipment from the States. It was stopped at Shannon Airport, where Customs slapped a huge import duty on it. Kavanagh appealed to Haughey, who agreed to allow it in at a nominal duty, provided the gardaí could borrow it whenever the need arose.

Kavanagh agreed, but the guards "needed" his gadgets an awful lot, with the result he found himself trotting up and down to Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park seeking his own equipment. If Kavanagh thought he had Haughey's ear he was mistaken, and according to his daughter Sandra, the future Taoiseach spurned all calls to regularise the PI trade.

However, when Mara resumed lobbying last year, there was a change in the mood music coming from government.

"I approached Deputy Shane Ross and he agreed to raise the issue in the Dáil. Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald was very receptive and very quick to draw up legislation. On November 1 new private security/private investigator regulations come into force. As of that date, people practising as PIs will have to undergo compulsory training, be fully licensed, and be subject to regular, rigorous inspection. The Private Security Authority based in Tipperary will have overview," says Mara.

For those thinking of enrolling on the PI course believing their end diploma will be a ticket to a life of glamour, excitement and even a hint of danger - well, think on, says Mara.

"Sometimes there is glamour. A case can take you abroad to some exotic destination - but you'll be working. You won't be doing the tourist thing or taking an afternoon off to sit on a beach. If you have someone under surveillance, Murphy's Law always applies. You take your eye off them for a moment and you've missed what you were supposed to get," she says.

"Be prepared, too, for the long hours. It's not a job for clock-watchers, as there are no set working hours. You stay with the job until you finish it, or the person under surveillance goes home. Not an ideal job if you have a family. As for a social life, just don't make plans you can't break at a moment's notice," Mara says.

Getting an adrenaline rush is an occasional treat in the PI game.

"When things start to gel in a case, you experience that eureka moment when you've joined the dots and it all makes sense, or you nail the evidence your client needs to win their case. As for danger, there will be risky moments.

"In 25 years as a PI, I had my share of death threats. On one occasion, I even got a threat from a man who was stupid enough to leave the threatening message on my office answering machine. But spread over a quarter of a century, life as a detective was less risky than driving a lorry for a living."

Online identity theft has become one of the blights of our age, as detection techniques struggle to keep up with the cyberspace fraudsters. But six years ago, Dublin PI David Snow found himself involved in an old-fashioned form of the scam.

A former general manager of the famous Pinkerton Agency's Irish operations, Snow was investigating a suspicious claim for injuries sustained in a car accident in the Curragh. There were no witnesses and the claimant had travelled to Britain before presenting at a hospital.

"I spent six weeks investigating this individual and it transpired he'd stolen the identities of six ­babies who'd died around the time of his own birth in 1975," says Snow.

"He'd either noted them from graveyard headstones or obtained them direct from the Records Office. He'd applied for PPS ­numbers and passports under these fake identities, allowing him to perpetrate multiple crimes from insurance frauds to credit card purchases."

Snow finally got his man trying to leave the country at Dublin Airport. Texan Jeremy Cochran served just 17 months of a four-year sentence.

While hi-tech crime is booming, Snow says that investigating lo-tech injury claims remains a big part of the job.

"Great efforts have been made to face down claims that look dodgy, and detection rates of frauds are up greatly on the 1980s, but stuff like bogus whiplash claims and staged accidents are still a major feature," he says.

"The compensation payouts in Ireland are roughly two-and-a-half times of those in the British courts, and far in excess of those in Eastern Europe. So, just being honest, there is a big incentive for non-nationals to perpetrate these frauds in Ireland rather than in their homelands. As for matrimonial matters - they've always been part of the bread and butter of the business, and probably always will be."

Agreeing, Mara recalls an outcome that raised a laugh among the scores of bystanders there to see it.

"The husband provided a miserly housekeeping allowance for his long-suffering wife and five children while he was always off on swanky 'business' trips. I trailed him to Spain on one of those trips and came back with photos of him in the embrace of a young woman. When he strolled into Dublin Airport arrivals, he was shocked when his wife appeared and emptied a suitcase of his soiled clothes at his feet, telling him his young lady friend could wash his dirty laundry from now on."

Course information from International Institute of Investigators at www.detectglobal.com.

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