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Lessons in Awareness from a Private Investigator by Mark Hatmaker

I will occasionally feature interviews with security industry professionals to get A) A little insight into what they do, and B) More importantly, look for ideas from their experiences that we can transfer to our own lives. I have an expert Law-Enforcement Interrogator coming up, veteran cops from several municipalities, Military Intelligence cadre, former CIA operatives, and today’s offering an experienced Private Investigator, Michael Gardner.

I will offer that in each of these interviews, that awareness is a running theme. Each professional has stressed that we are one mighty non-observant bunch.

When you hear such a thing from folks ranging from CIA humint resources officers to Native Trackers, to LA Cops, to Photo Intel Analysts we just might need to take them at their word. “Eyes up! Phones stowed! Pay attention!”

I’ll allow Mr. Gardner to introduce himself. I have been a private investigator for 10 years, and caught shoplifters for roughly 5 years before that. I've worked over 800 cases. Those cases include insurance claims, missing persons, and accident scene investigations. 

First things first, thanks for taking the time to chat. All right, you’re a private investigator. The first questions out of the gate have got to be:

  1. Do you wear a fedora? I do, when I'm off duty. They draw too much attention during casework. 
  2. Do you wear or own a trench coat? Only when I'm cold.
  3. Do you call women, Toots? And if so, have you been slapped for it? I have not. I prefer "doll".

Those out of the way, I want to focus my questions on a few specific aspects of your profession. Aspects that might aid we, the readers, in our own lives. With that said, do I have it right that you are usually hired because there is some suspicion that a subject’s behavior is less than kosher? That is, attempting a disability scam for insurance fraud, that sort of thing.

Most of the cases I work involve insurance claims. Usually, the insurance company has received  "red flags" on a claim. This could include a coworker or friend tipping off the insurance company about fraudulent behavior, or even a claimant posting fraudulent activity on their own social media accounts. Then I get called in.

With that said, I assume then that the job requires observation to see if behavior or activities match the claimed disability. Am I on the right track here? Yes. I locate the claimant, and observe their activity, tail if needed, and report the truth.

Humans are notoriously lazy and poorly disciplined [self-included] and I would assume that trying to perpetuate a false-injury/disability would require discipline and therefore human lapses in discipline. Have you found that your subjects are most vulnerable to lapses during Activity A as opposed to Activity B? To make it less fuzzy, I would assume that the possibly fake-performance is quite Oscar-worthy when visiting the doctor, but perhaps less so just hanging out with friends.

This is often true. I have followed someone as a passenger in a vehicle to a doctor's appointment, purporting to be unable to see. They then left the doctor's appointment, traveled down the road as a passenger a few miles, got into another vehicle as the driver, and went about their day with working eyes.

Where do you find people most consistently able to perpetuate put-on behavior, and where are we vulnerable to letting the mask slip?

As indicated above, most people immediately drop their pretense when away from their attorney or doctor. However, claimants often engage in physical activity directly outside their home, in the yard, driveway, porch, etc.

Do you think there are observational transfers even among the non-scammers of the world? That is, do you find that maybe I might be quite charming [purely hypothetical, folks] in Environment A, but my true colors show more at Environment B?

It's hard to say as most of the people I closely observe are being fraudulent. They may be different, socially, depending on if they think they are being watched, but I'm not usually looking at how they engage socially with their fellow man. People seem unable to break habits, physically, for any meaningful length of time. 

Have you found covert observation of human beings has altered your view of humans in your non-working capacity?

I think how well I regard human beings has been slowly eroded over time. It's not often something I think about, but I imagine it is similar to how law enforcement personnel often become jaded toward humanity. When you are regularly exposed to theft, it becomes more difficult to trust people. I try to remember that when it comes to my job, I'm working with a stacked deck, and it doesn't necessarily reflect mankind.

OK, it’s my first day on the job, you are my trainer. Are there preferred places to observe from?

Ideally, you want a location, within your vehicle, close enough to the subject's home and vehicles to see activity, but not so close as to arouse suspicion. In the field, it is rarely an ideal situation, but you work with what you have. You can NOT position yourself on private property. 

What observational no-nos would you steer me away from?

Within your vehicle, you want to remain in inconspicuous places. For example, you want to be parked, with your engine off, between two vehicles and two houses, not parked alone, in front of a house, with your lights on. I have sat for 20+ hours in a vehicle when it was over 100 degrees outside or below zero, and not be able to turn on the vehicle and heater/air conditioner. When conducting mobile surveillance, or tailing if you prefer, you need to keep the subject's vehicle in view, but refrain from being directly behind them if possible. When conducting foot surveillance, such as in a mall, you should not make eye contact, and remain at a distance as much as possible. However, most of time, people are not observant. In over 800 cases, I have probably been outright "heated", or caught, by the subject less than 10 times. 

I assume your job involves a bit of lie-detecting, if not definitively, at least in the “My sense is that this guy is lying” aspect.  Do you have “tells” that you look or listen for to help you in evaluations? 

It doesn't come up in surveillance very often; I usually just observe. However, I have interview claimant's regarding their injuries, and employees regarding theft. Usually, you want to already know the answer before you ask the question. People cannot usually keep their stories straight, so asking the same question in different ways, and at odd times, can sometimes trip people up. Silence after an answer can cause people to rephrase their answer and give additional information. This may be one of few times the movies often get it right. Unless you have overwhelming proof, and confront them with it, people do not regularly confess to wrongdoing, and sometimes, not even then. 

Having observed people covertly, have you made any adjustments to your own daily behavior based on what you’ve seen others do?

For the most part, no. I don't think I would particularly care if someone was watching me, except on my own property. I immediately approach and engage any vehicle near my home. 

Are there any observational tips that you could pass along to the non-PIs among us? This could be anything from always bring plenty of water on a stakeout to, when one person sits in a chair in a long row of chairs, the next will sit not next to them, but further away but not all the way to the end. Anything at all.

Water and food is actually a problem because you will have to go to the "bathroom", which you can't do and keep a close eye on the subject's activities. Keep the eating and drinking to a minimum. People seem to have no idea what's going on around them, and are creatures of habit. They smoke in the same place, and at roughly the same time. They take the same routes, and to the same places. They go through the same doors, and engage in routine behaviors. They wear the same clothes, and play on their phones. After observing someone for a week, I could, go to Wal-mart, on Tuesday at 8 p.m., and have a reasonably good chance of meeting the subject. I could do it for 5 Tuesdays in a row and they probably wouldn't notice me. So my tip, I suppose, would be, "notice life".

Last question, have you had any hairy experiences while performing your job? If so, dish.

Well, as I said before, I usually am pretty good at my job, so the hairy situations have been few. I once parked in front of location well away from the subject's residence that appeared to be a closed business. It turned out to be owned by a friend of the subject, and the subject was keeping an eye on it for him. The subject approached my vehicle with a baseball bat and threatened me. He then tried to keep me from driving away, chased me in his own vehicle, and called the police. Nothing happened as I didn't break any laws, and in fact, he did, because he tried to keep me from driving away. He was committing insurance fraud, by the way.

I once approached someone's house, overtly, to attempt to get their statement as a potential witness. They approached me with a handgun and was uncooperative. 

When I caught shoplifters for a living, I was involved in numerous foot chases, and physical altercations with uncooperative thieves. I was stabbed and slashed with a knife by one particularly ornery shoplifter; he still went to jail. 

Apologies, one more, do you call your gun a “gat”?

I prefer "roscoe".

Thanks for taking the time! I'll send you the bill!
[For pragmatic Awareness Drills see the No Second Chance Book of Drills available only to RAW Subscribers.]


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