How a convoluted tale about a missing half million, lousy with red flags, prompted me to consider my worth as a professional investigator.
Like many others in the investigative world, my business has suffered during the pandemic. The normal ebb and flow of casework is just not happening like it used to. I haven’t sold my children to the highest bidder yet, but I haven’t ruled it out. (What’s the going rate for two hormonal teenagers whose main form of communication is eye rolling?)
Over the past few years, I’ve prepared as much as one can for times like this. I raised my credit line last year (which I may have to use for the first time in many years). I’ve kept overhead as low as possible, hustled to meet heavy client demand during busy seasons, and diversified my client base and lines of businesses so that losing one category or a few major clients probably won’t crater my firm.
I also applied for the Payroll Protection Program for that just-in-case moment.
Amidst all this crisis thinking and planning, I got a strange call, one that reminded me of a core value of mine, something that is near and dear to my heart. I think it’s also something other investigators need to hear: Even in crisis mode, you have to value yourself way more than you do.
Here is the story of that call.
A Forest of Red Flags
Anyone searching for me on the Web can set up a time to talk to me. (It’s a handy tool from Calendly, in case you want to check it out.) I’ve set this up as a convenience, a way to ease some of the initial friction people have when hiring investigators. But it has also produced some, shall we say, interesting inquiries.
Last week, I got an alert that Jeff (not his real name) had set up an appointment to talk to me. In the message, he wrote that he had some money stuck in Switzerland and needed help getting it. Sounded kind of bizarre. Like, why would he be calling me, a private investigator who writes endlessly about how I will have NOTHING (Exemplar A) to do with bank account stuff (Red Flag 1)?
He also had a Florida phone number (Red Flag 2).
Like any curious investigator would do, I Googled the guy’s name, which quickly turned up a felony conviction. Jeff, it seemed, had served time for mail and wire fraud (Red Flag 3). His name also popped up in connection with several sketchy deals that I would categorize as get-rich-quick-schemes (Red Flag 4) and was the subject of a recent cease-and-desist order by the SEC (Red Flag 5).
Already pessimistic about this thicket of red flags, I spoke with Jeff. He astonished me by turning out to be extraordinarily pleasant, well-educated, and completely reasonable. While I thought he would just want me to literally go into the bank and get his money back, it was much more normal than that.
But there were some not-so-normal signs.
Let’s Be Frank — Or Not
Jeff went on to tell me that he’d met a guy by the name of Frank Smith (not his real name) about 12 months ago who had invested about $500,000 in some international bonds that he was able to get for pennies on the dollar. Once the bonds were “liquidated,” the investors could collect their money plus a healthy return (Red Flag 6).
Frank had supposedly liquidated the bonds, but the money was stuck in Switzerland because the bank had done some research and “flagged” the money — because it was ultimately going to Jeff, who was a convicted felon. Jeff said that he had heard of this kind of thing happening. Not only was the money stuck, but Frank had spent a night in jail because of this. The reason for the night in jail wasn’t clear, but the implication was that it had to do with Frank’s criminal history, which did not make much sense to me (Red Flag 7).
Frank Smith, Jeff also told me, was really not Frank Smith, but Frank Brown. The SEC apparently had some action against Frank Brown for $34 million, which Jeff suggested was the reason Frank Brown was going by the name Frank Smith (Red Flag 8).
Further complications entered the story. Jeff had also hired Frank to obtain about 20 “amnesty cards” from the US Treasury. Jeff explained to me that very few people know about these, and they are extremely hard to get (Red Flag 9), but (I am paraphrasing here) when presented to any bank “all of your debt will be forgiven.” (Seriously, WTF!)
I Googled this in the middle of the call. The top result was on Quora, which described it as an Internet scam. Weird, because the description sounded so believable (Red Flag 10). Jeff had paid Frank tens of thousands of dollars to get about 20 anmesty cards for some clients, but he never came through with them. (You don’t say.)
After listening to Jeff spin this yarn, I asked him if he thought that this might be a giant scam and that all his money might be gone. And if just maybe, Frank was a complete fraud, too.
He sighed. “Yes, that’s a real possibility,” he said. All Jeff wanted was his money back, IF there was anything left or if “Frank” even existed.
So at least we were back to some baseline sense of normalcy here.
And Then It Got Really Weird
That’s when Jeff told me that he knew some people high up in the international banking world who could get the money released, but they wanted an outrageous amount of money to accomplish this feat (Red Flag 11). And he would give me a portion of the money if I was able to help recover it (Red Flag 12).
I politely declined. In New York we can’t work on a contingency fee. No matter, Jeff said, he would give me a bonus anyway (Red Flag 13).
Jeff and I hatched what I thought was a reasonable plan: Do some digging around to find Frank Smith / Frank Brown to 1) make sure that he is real, and 2) to find red flags that would be a cause for concern, like a history of fraud, criminal activity, bankruptcies, and financial distress.
The biggest problem with cases like this is that the money is more than likely gone. You don’t want to start throwing money at another pile of money that you will ultimately not collect. In the end, that just enlarges the pile of lost money. So instead of trying to talk to Frank (if that’s his real name), a champion liar who’d gone silent for months, the objective here would be to learn all we could about the guy. If Frank were even remotely legitimate, I figured, maybe we had a shot.
Let Me See If I’ve Got This Straight
To sum this up, clearly Jeff had some issues in his past, and even in his really recent past. But from the sound of it, he had a real problem and needed help. Despite the fact that this was all a bit insane, I felt for the guy. $500,000 is a shit ton of money.
Taking on a client like this is usually not my first choice, but I was willing to put together a proposal.
After the call, Jeff emailed me from a separate account that he hadn’t originally provided: getrichquick @ gmail [dot] com (Red Flag 14). The name on the email was not “Jeff;” it was “Doctor Tom” (Red Flag 15). Weird, because Jeff is not a doctor and doesn’t even pretend to be one on TV.
In the email, he also stated that his only goal was to find the bank with his money. Weird, because I had made it clear to him that we don’t do bank account work. Period. (Red Flag 16)
After the call, as I usually do, I did some more digging around. Looks like Frank was a real person, but he had been involved in quite a bit of criminal activity and had millions of dollars in tax liens. That didn’t take long to find. But even with just those findings, the tax liens were a big concern, because the government was going to be first in line to get ANY money, (if it existed) over Jeff from Florida or the amnesty card clients.
I spent some time putting together a proposal and suggested a budget of a few thousand dollars. I knew this was going to be complex. This was not going to be a few minutes of work. And if he expected us to have any chance of unsnarling all those red flags, liens, and aliases and collecting a half million bucks, he’d need to put some real money into it.
At least, that’s what I thought to myself.
Jeff thought differently.
The 17th and Final Red Flag
Ten minutes later, Jeff called to inform me that my fee was outrageous. Why would he pay that amount after he’d “already given” me 75% of the information? Besides, he said, he had already hired a private investigator to do what I was going to do … for just $300. He might, however, need me to do some of the “heavy lifting” at a later date. I mean, my max deadlift is like 355 pounds, but I didn’t want to brag.
At first, I was annoyed that I had wasted my time: 15 minutes of pre-stalking before the phone call, a 45-minute phone call, and an hour to put together a proposal and do some poking around. (I guess it wasn’t a total waste of time. At least I got 2,000 word article out of it.)
Then my annoyance shifted — to the investigator who was doing this job for $300.
Price is slightly negotiable. Value is not.
If the guy even existed (and wasn’t just a bargaining-chip strawman dreamed up by Jeff), he’s just one more example of the many private investigators I’ve seen selling themselves short. I see no way to sort out a $500,000 international fraud for $300 without losing money.
Even though my time is for sale — food on the table, etc. — I’m not letting it go for nothing … My value doesn’t change with the shifting winds.
Of course, I understand the temptation to say yes to low fees and sketchy cases when the world is on fire and your livelihood is in peril. I really do.
But I would counter that it’s now, when times are bad and even kind of scary, that I should double down on the value that I put on myself, the work that I do, and the time I devote to that work. With life and death stakes literally in the news every day, I’m acutely aware that every minute I spend at work is a minute I’m not hanging out with my wife, daughter, and son. (Obviously, they’re not really for sale.) But even though my time is for sale — food on the table, etc. — I’m not letting it go for nothing. Even a pretty big work slowdown like this one doesn’t mean I’m going to have a fire sale. My value doesn’t change with the shifting winds.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe desperate times really do call for desperate measures. Maybe that $300 is going to someone’s mortgage payment or keeping the lights and water on. Or maybe that lowball price was just a teaser to get Jeff to spend more money, and I am the loser missing out.
Or just maybe it all depends on whether I’ve gone into survival mode or am still in a position to think long term.
For now, my mindset is the latter. And in the long term, I firmly believe that establishing a reputation as a high-value professional means missing out on some bargain-basement “opportunities” in the short term. Sometimes, it means taking a deep breath and charging what you’re worth.
I get it. That can be terrifying. I’m thinking of a recent conversation I had with a fellow private investigator whom I respect immensely. He’s been in the game a lot longer than I have and has worked some amazingly high profile cases. He asked if I could help out on a case of his. When I told him my rate, he was a bit flabbergasted. He admitted that it was much higher than his.
I’d venture to guess that his clients would have paid him twice what he was charging, because of the value and expertise he brings to the table. I wonder whether he increased his rates after we had that talk. I hope he did. Because I believe he was selling himself short.
At the end of the day, I think that if we are going to move forward as an industry after this pandemic, we need to start pricing ourselves according to our true value. Competing on price is a slippery slope; it creates false expectations and devalues what is otherwise an extraordinarily valuable service that we provide.
One first step is believing that we are worth it.
About the Author:
Brian Willingham is a New York private investigator, Certified Fraud Examiner, and founder of Diligentia Group. To read more Willingham wisdom, check out his blog and his previous stories for PursuitMag.