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Watchful Eyes

by Colleen Patrice Clark

Always on the lookout, private investigators see it all.

Dean Smith will never forget the day a little 86-year-old woman wearing the typically adorable grandmother sweater walked into his office and said she had a job for him. The words that came out her mouth weren’t exactly what he expected to hear: “I think my husband is cheating on me.”

In his 23 years of experience as a private investigator, including 15 at the helm of West Berlin’s ICU Investigations, the days that followed resulted in one of his most memorable cases by far.

The spry 82-year-old husband, a professional in the city, was followed to a property he owned on South Street, where it didn’t take investigators long to realize something was awry. “There was an ‘element’ coming in and out of the place that just made no sense,” Smith says.

That element? “Our investigation concluded he was with prostitutes that had him hooked on crack cocaine. He was using the building as a crack house and a whore house.” Again, not quite what he expected.

But yet even in a world where you can find out so much about someone from in front of a computer screen with the click of a button, there remains a significant amount that can only be uncovered from behind a windshield. So when it comes to a day in the life of a private investigator, there are no real surprises.

“People live their lies too long and eventually get caught,” Smith says. And that applies to situations well beyond the cheating spouse scenario. In fact, those cases take up only about 10 percent of Smith’s caseload.

One of the many misconceptions about the work that private investigators do—thanks to the questionable ethics displayed in reality TV shows like Cheaters—is that it’s all about the uncovering of scandalous affairs. That’s about as true as the idea they all cruise around in Magnum, P.I.-esque Ferraris.

The majority of their work comes in the form of insurance investigations—workers’ compensation and general liability suits. But don’t let the word insurance frighten you with boredom. These cases are anything but.

Just look at the “Claimant of the Month” feature on the Facebook page of Medford’s McNelis Investigative Services, where a man—claiming a left arm and elbow injury renders him unable to work—is caught in a July video standing on a roof and cleaning the siding of a home. Another man, with a supposed injury to his right arm, is shown working out at the gym, and a woman, with a claim submitted regarding a foot, back and pelvis injury, is bending down to the floor as she shops in a drug store.

The latter two cases show just how easily people can be caught in their lie with a piece of technology the size of a button. “We used to use gym bags as cameras. Now we can use something as small as this,” says Pat McNelis, owner of McNelis Investigative Services, as he tosses a set of keys on the table.

According to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, these fake claims cost at least $80 billion each year across the nation, providing quite a bit of work for the likes of Smith, who works primarily with insurance companies, and McNelis, who operates solely with them.

“This is what we do,” McNelis says. “We follow them around and grab video of them doing stuff that they’re probably not supposed to do: the guy moving furniture, the guy panting the house.”

Or one memorable claimant who spent a week at the Jersey Shore digging a seven foot-by-seven foot hole on the beach; or another who lost his arm in an accident, and despite being offered a new position with light duty, claimed he was unable to perform any work with just one arm. “I caught him putting siding on his house with his other arm, a ladder and a pneumatic gun,” McNelis says.

There are some career claimants, who file multiple claims throughout the years with different companies. They will use a P.O. Box as an address or maybe a relative’s address to make themselves harder to find, McNelis says, but the lie always catches up to them.

“It’s such a cliché,” he says. “They don’t ever think they’re going to get caught, like they’re impervious to it, even though they’re warned by their attorneys to look out for suspicious vehicles they don’t recognize on their streets.”

But when a car parks outside your house at 6 a.m. or earlier, the chances of being noticed are slim.

“It’s sad because people complain about their insurance being so high. I bet if you really think hard, you know someone who has made money in a lawsuit,” says Smith, who helped uncover the case of a man in Louisiana who staged his death, with his wife claiming the insurance benefit, and then moved to Princeton under a fake name.

Though insurance fraud is prominent, there is a wide variety of cases out there. Michael Riggs, of Riggs Investigative Services in Sewell, recently did an executive protection detail at a local cemetery for a Jewish unveiling of the stone ritual, protecting a family against an estranged husband.

“While I’m sitting here, I’m getting text messages,” a momentarily distracted Riggs says as he looks at his phone. “I have a GPS on a woman’s car. It’s a child custody case and she’s asking if I can get her updates.”

Custody disputes have led Riggs into the seediest sections of Camden—“I think you’d be surprised by what people get involved in. If you want custody of your child, you shouldn’t be buying drugs in Camden”—or in one case, to a hotel room in Marlton where he discovered a man’s ex-wife was a different kind of working woman.

And though Riggs has a permit to carry a weapon—he’s a retired state police detective—much of his time is also spent doing employee background checks for companies in South Jersey and beyond.

Needless to say, these investigators have learned a lot about human nature through their line of work and their long hours out in the field, sometimes spending eight to nine hours waiting outside someone’s home—the way common sense goes out the window, the brazenness that takes over with greed.

But it turns out, the little things put human behavior under the microscope as well.

“You know what I always find fun with this job?” McNelis says. “It’s not always necessarily watching the claimant; it’s watching all the neighbors and what everybody does. The theater that goes on outside of your claimant’s house is incredible—neighbors let their dogs poop or pee on neighbors’ things; people kicking over other people’s trashcans; I’ve seen accidents where people leave the scene; I’ve seen drug deals. ... It doesn’t look good on a day-to-day basis when you’re out there.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 6 (September, 2012).
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