Placing the detectives under surveillance

New legislation governing the world of private detection will either legitimize or hamper this growing sector, experts say

Rebeca Carranco
Método 3 detectives leaving a Barcelona court after testifying in the Sánchez-Camacho political espionage case.
Método 3 detectives leaving a Barcelona court after testifying in the Sánchez-Camacho political espionage case. ALBERT GARCÍA

In February, the police and the public prosecutor stormed the former headquarters of the Barcelona-based detective agency Método 3. They were searching for files concerning the undercover recording of a lunch conversation between the leader of the Catalan branch of the Popular Party (PP), Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, and the former girlfriend of Jordi Pujol Ferrusola, son of longtime nationalist regional premier Jordi Pujol. Specifically, they wanted to find out who ordered that July 2010 recording, in which Victoria Álvarez told the PP leader about her ex's alleged money laundering activities. The case lifted the lid on a much wider political espionage network in Catalonia and resulted in the resignation of José Zaragoza, a major figure within the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC). To complicate matters even further, the head of Método 3 claimed that Sánchez-Camacho had been aware that her conversation was being recorded and that the job was commissioned jointly by her and the PSC.

But the agency search did not yield the expected results. There was no document clearly stating who ordered the recording, or indeed any information at all regarding that particular job. There was just a piece of paper bearing the license plate of Victoria Álvarez's motorcycle. It was not much to go on, but it ultimately led the police to the PSC. The investigation lasted several months, and required the seizure of computers from Método 3 and from PSC headquarters.

This would not have happened under the new law being finalized by the PP central government. In June, the cabinet approved the Private Security Bill and sent it to Congress for debate. The draft legislation introduces tougher measures for private eyes and security companies that will make their work much harder, the latter complain.

"Whoever wants to do something illegal will continue to do so," says an attorney familiar with the work of some detectives. Yet he feels that the new law does clear up the obligations of private investigators. "There has to be some control over the reports that are being drawn up; this kind of thing cannot be handled arbitrarily or simply left in the hands of the clients and the agencies," he says. This source also called for a joint "working protocol" with the national police to prevent further cases like Método 3.

The obligations of the new law

  • Article 25 of the Private Security Bill establishes that detectives must "formalize in writing a contract for each investigation service commissioned from them, and communicate it to the Interior Ministry."
  • Article 48 states that for each case that is requested, the agency will ask the client to accredit their legitimate interest in the same. It is forbidden to investigate people's private lives inside their homes or reserved places.
  • Article 49 forces agencies to draw up a report with a record number of the case, personal information about the client, the goal of the investigation, the tools that will be used, the results, the names of the detectives assigned to the case, and the activities carried out. The police and the courts will have access to these reports.

Under the new legislation, every time a client orders a job, the detective agency will have to "formalize a contract in writing" and inform the Interior Ministry about it. The law does not go into the details of the contract - this will be determined at a later date - but the sector is particularly upset over it.

"If a client comes to your office, it's a confidential matter, like when you go see a doctor or a lawyer. If we need to explain who is hiring us and for what, the way the law stands now, there are people who will not want to come see us at all," says Maria Ángeles Valls, a lawyer and a detective who heads Grupo Valen Detectives. "Let us hope this does not represent a breach of the principle of confidentiality," adds David Sanmartin, a detective at Grupo HAS.

But Enrique Arranz, president of the Official Association of Private Detectives of Catalonia, speaks openly about "overregulation."

"This is your typical technical law, drawn up with police officers from the Private Security unit and Civil Guards from the Protection and Security Service. They have detected a regulatory problem, and the law provides an answer to it," says the state secretary for security, Francisco Martínez. But he denies that detectives will be more regulated as a result. "This does not have to mean there's going to be strict control. The law does not say that every detail of the contract has to be specified."

One of the new obligations includes keeping a detailed report on each case bearing the record number assigned to it, information about the individual who commissioned the job, the goal of the investigation, the tools used and the results obtained. Both the police and the courts will have access to these reports, which will in practice reveal all aspects of a private detective's work.

Most jobs are business-based related to insurance fraud

The bill specifies that this kind of information may only be requested as part of a criminal investigation, or when an agency is the target of sanctions for wrongdoing. But an earlier draft stated that any police officer, during the course of an inspection, could request these files.

"The first draft was an aberration, and we managed to get it improved... but the current one is still an aberration," says Eloy de Paco, president of the Official Association of Private Detectives of Valencia. He feels that the government is not treating private investigators like the trained university graduates that they are. "We are being used as scapegoats," he asserts.

"We at the ministry have been working on the private security project since the beginning of this political term," says Martínez, who stresses that case reports will only be requested in "absolutely exceptional" cases.

The law, adds Martínez, was born out of the "the shortcomings and gaps in the previous legislation." Detectives are governed by a text dating back to 1992, which in practice only creates the obligation to file an annual report with the Interior Ministry containing information about "service contracts" with third parties and a record book.

Detective work "is a strongly supervised activity. It was, it is and it will continue to be so," admits Martínez, who claims this is the only way to guarantee that "private security is indeed complementary to public security."

Valls, of Grupo Valen Detectives, says: "We are doing pretty well with the current law; it's better than the one in the pipeline."

In one case a man cut off his arm in order to collect 600,000 euros

Ministry sources insist that all reports requested of the agencies will guarantee the principle of confidentiality. "Their activity will never be harmed," says Martínez.

Other sources note that the real problem detectives face is not regulation. "What happened with Método 3 was exceptional, and cannot be extended to the entire world of private investigation. Most detectives know what they can and cannot do," says an official at the Private Security Squad of the National Police who took part in Operation Pitiusa, involving a network of public workers, bank employees and private detectives who allegedly traded in private personal information.

"They have no legal tools to do their work. They've had to resort to bank employees, mobile telephony workers and public servants who agreed to hand over information in a manner that is completely illegal and sanctioned by the law," claims this agent. De Paco agrees: "It is absurd that we should not even have access to social security data."

"If their access to certain databases is not regulated, then it will be hard for them to get anywhere. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, detective work was based on family and marital investigations, where just following someone around with a camera and getting a few shots was enough to reach certain conclusions. But with the passing of the years, hardly anyone is interested in that sort of thing anymore, and there's no money in it," adds the same police officer. "What [clients] are interested in are companies, employee backgrounds and work histories."

But Martínez says that access to this sort of information clashes with data protection laws, "which are very strict" and rightly so, since "behind that you have fundamental rights that must be protected."

Some detectives are also demanding changes to the kind of issues they may or may not investigate. At the present time, for instance, they are not permitted to explore any crime that gets automatically investigated by the state, such as a murder or a kidnapping. Método 3 did take part in the investigation into the disappearance of British three-year-old Madeleine McCann from a hotel in the Portuguese Algarve in 2007. The agency said that the child was alive and well and would be found. "That was possible because the investigation was being conducted in Portugal," explains Sanmartin, who believes that private investigators in Spain should be allowed to act in these cases, as they are in Italy.

Sometimes people call asking you to find out their son´s Hotmail password"

This restricts the work of Spanish detective agencies, which have nevertheless kept growing over the last few years. There were 1,270 agencies in Spain in 2012, 128 more than the previous year, according to the Interior Ministry's figures. And very few of them investigate sentimental affairs. Most of the clients want "business-based jobs relating to insurance fraud," explains Arranz. Such as in the case of a man with his entire family out of a job, who cut off his own arm in order to collect 600,000 euros. "But it's not just injuries, we get all types of fraud, like people who set fire to their own business and pretend it was an accident," explains Josep Maria Vilamajó, the president of Winterman, the company that discovered the severed arm fraud. Vilamajó, who has been working in the sector for over 40 years, says that many of his international clients are venture capital firms "that want to know about the morality of another company they are interested in."

In fact, these are precisely the companies that have expressed the greatest misgivings about the legislative changes in the works as a result of the Método 3 case. But Vilamajó is less critical of the new law. "It legalizes cooperation with the police and raises us to authority figures when we are developing our activity. The government has greater control, and that puts everyone in their place. In that sense I am optimistic that this is a liberalizing project," he says.

"For a long time now, infidelities have represented no more than 10 percent of the sector," adds Sanmartin. It's not that they have disappeared, but rather that they have taken on a more economic approach. "These days a lot of couples want to change the rules that govern their separation. It's the case with men who want to prove that their wives work, make a good salary, and are living with someone else. They seek to prove that they earn more than themselves, in order to reduce the alimony they will have to pay," explains Arranz.

"This profession is the result of the political and economic system we have: investigations emerge as people's situations vary," says Valls. There is a new element in her own investigations: domestic violence. "The system does not get to all situations, such as consented violence. In cases where a man has been convicted of abuse and has been ordered to stay away from his wife, the latter may still consent to seeing him. There are relatives of victims who know this, and ask us for help," she says. Another issue that has been trickling into detective agencies is checking whether parents trying to enroll their children in a specific school are lying about where they are registered as living.

Under the new law, all these clients will have to "accredit legitimate interest." "Is it legitimate for someone to have his or her partner investigated? Is it legitimate for someone to investigate whether his neighbor is being faithful?" asks Vilamajó. "Investigating political party B to find their dirty laundry would not be legitimate," adds Arranz.

Literature, ignorance and the highly publicized cases of recent times have created an image of detective work that does not always conform to reality. "People are not aware of the kinds of illegality they could be incurring. Sometimes people call you up asking you to find out their son's Hotmail password. Even if they are underage, they still have rights, and if we reported that, that person could end up in jail," says Arranz. Yet other activities which seem unacceptable to many are sanctioned by the law. "Following a worker, whether a doctor, a soccer player or whatever, and seeing whether they are really working, is absolutely legal."

Arranz also insists on separating detective work from spy work. "Spies are people who spy for a foreign nation. We don't spy, we investigate." Some media reports, however, would suggest the contrary. De Paco explains that microphones and microcameras concealed in a shirt button are nothing exceptional. "Everyone has a digital recorder, anyone can place a microphone here or there," he says. The key is not the technology, but what you do with it.

Who can use this technology? In theory, someone with a three-year college degree, with a clean criminal record, and who is a citizen of an EU country. In practice, "they told me they wanted someone who knew how to look into accounts, documents, audits, and generate sources," explains a person on condition of anonymity, who interviewed for a detective position at an agency specializing in intellectual property. "They gave me a few examples, such as an employee who leaves a company and is followed to ensure he does not give information to the competition. Or they would give me a name, and I would have to find that person's business relations."

"Most of us work 14 to 16 hours a day, bringing dignity to the profession," says Cristina Potau, of Potaudetectives.

"Our best weapon is perseverance. You have to be out on the streets 20 hours, and really work at it," adds De Paco. "This is an unknown profession and the recent cases that have made headlines create mistrust. People getting started now have been condemned to total ruin," concludes Vilamajó.

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