Thursday, August 31, 2006

Con Artists

It never ceases to amaze me how often people are taken in by con artists. It shouldn't amaze me, though. The word "con" comes from "confidence." A con artist, whether a man or woman, builds up your confidence in them to the extent that they can rob you blind with a smile...and you'll smile right back while they're doing it.

Con artists are often complete strangers. You can meet them anywhere. They're always on the lookout for an easy target. Or, they can be members of your family.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal had an article about family members who take advantage of elderly family members. Like all con artists, one of their techniques is to try to separate the person being conned from other family members or friends.

The reason, of course, is that others can see what's going on more easily than the person being conned. So, the first sign that one should watch out for is that the person you trust so much tries to keep you from your friends or family. Another sign that you're being conned is that the person you trust keeps financial records from you, such as your check book. They assure you that everything's being taken care of.

The elderly are often afraid to report their suspicions about being conned, because they think that others will think that they've become incompetent. Actually, recognizing a con is a sign of competence.

At Sherlock Investigations we've conducted many background checks of con artists. Often though, the person being conned will never admit it, especially when others have pointed it out to them. Denial is costly.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

JP Morgan Chase Security

Recently I wrote about a close friend whose savings account at JP Morgan Chase, or just Chase for short, was hacked into online. The final damages were that the hacker got $64,000, processed through PayPal. Every other day they extracted $6000.

Of course, my friend called Chase immediately upon finding out that her money was disappearing. Well, actually, that's not quite accurate. She received a letter from Chase verifying that she had changed her address. But she hadn't. So she got on the phone with Chase and within a few minutes they found out that a chunk of money had disappeared from her account.

Chase quickly put a stop to the leaking funds, or at least that's what my friend thought. Yesterday, she found out that $6000 was now missing from her checking account. How Chase failed to catch that I don't know, but it underscores my belief that online banking is unsafe. Sure, the accounts are insured, but it's still a pain in the ass to straighten everything out.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Prostitution in New York

New York City is known as America's playground for entertainment.
This also applies to illegal entertainment and the city's abundant underground sex industry. There are more than 250 brothels in New York City's five boroughs.

Prostitution may be illegal in New York, but there's no shortage of sex workers plying their trade. Working out of an individual's apartment or apartments converted to many small bedrooms, they advertise "in call" services on cable TV and several free weekly newspapers. For those unwilling to go to a brothel, the same services are just a phone call away. Many hundreds of escorts provide "out call" services to hotel guests. Of course, prostitutes still work the streets, especially near every hotel.

At Sherlock Investigations, we've researched the industry, and made a map of NYC's brothels. When conducting a surveillance, and when the alleged philanderer is followed, investigators are be able to identify an existing brothel, even though on the outside it appears to be just a regular apartment building or business.

Unfortunately, in the course of our work, we have a high demand for surveillance, and have the ability to track and investigate subjects frequenting brothels. Most people have no idea the prevalence and popularity of these establishments---what is known as the world's oldest profession is a thriving business in locations throughout the city that you would never be aware of.

Our maps of brothel locations in Manhattan was formulated after many hours of research, including phone calls to many of these establishments, surveillance, and information from company case files. We used to have this map on our web site, but we removed it so that we wouldn't cast shadows on any neighborhoods.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Whitey Bulger Sighting?

James "Whitey" Bulger has been on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List since 2000. They're offering a $1 million reward for information leading to his arrest.

A Boston mob figure, Bulger worked for years as an FBI informant. Now he's wanted in connection with several murders. He's considered armed (a knife) and dangerous. Photos of the white-haired Bulger are on the FBI's web site.

To this day, I believe that I spotted him on Saturday, September, 2003. Here's my story:

At approximately 1:25 p.m. I arrived with a friend at The Zipper theater at 336 W. 37th Street in New York to see a show called "Berkshire Village Idiot," a one-man comedy about Western Massachusetts.

After picking up our tickets at the box office, we sat in the waiting area for about 15 minutes until they opened the theater. Then we were ushered to our seats, which were second row center. The show began about 10-12 minutes later.

About 2:30 p.m., a half hour into the show, I noticed a distinguished-looking man sitting about 10 yards away from me, diagonally on the right. He was sitting at the far end of the front row. There were four people sitting to his left.

The physical appearance of the man caused me to do a double take. My first thought was that he looked like Whitey Bulger. His white hair was closely cropped on the sides. He appeared to have no hair on top. He was dressed in black slacks, a black short-sleeved shirt, and thick-soled black sandals, with no socks.

While he appeared very trim, his arms were somewhat muscular. He looked to be in his late 60s to early 70s. On the floor to his right was a medium-sized black, nylon backpack.

Dismissing my "sighting" as someone who looked coincidentally like Bulger, I let it go, but I occasionally glanced over at him. One time, our eyes met, and momentarily locked. After that, I avoided letting him see me look at him. For the next few minutes he acted figidty.

Although the show has some funny lines, I never observed him laughing, or even smiling to the extent of revealing his teeth.

In one scene, the lights were extinguished and the theater was almost completely dark. When the lights came back on, I noticed that the man had disappeared. His black bag was also gone. It was about 2:45 p.m.

I sat for a few minutes wondering what to do. It made sense to me that Bulger, being from Massachusetts, would find a show about Massachusetts of interest. My adrenaline began to rise. The seat in front of me, which was the front row, was empty. I quickly climbed over it and hurried out of the theater. I spoke to an usher who was seated on a folding chair outside.

I asked her if she had seen a man leave, and I described him. She said that she had, and mentioned that he had left in a hurry, and didn't look at her, or say anything.

I also spoke to the person in the ticket office. He had also noticed the man leave in an apparent rush. I went outside and looked up and down 37th Street, but didn't see the man, and found no one else who had noticed him.

Then, I called a contact at the FBI. My friend took my verbal report and suggested that someone would get back to me. I imagined that the FBI would first question me, and then go down to the theater and fingerprint the area where the man sat. If Bulger's fingerprints were found, then the sighting was real, and they would know at least that he was in New York.

I never heard from the FBI about this. Either they knew that Bulger was in some other location, or they're just slack in looking for him.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Google Earth

If you haven't discovered Google Earth by now you're really missing out on a fun and useful Internet tool. Google Earth is a great way to learn geoography. They list a number of fun sites that you can "fly" to. You can type in a location, including almost any address in the United States, and then Google Earth zooms in on it just like you're flying there. They even have a DaVinci Code tour, taking you to sites mentioned in the book and movie, which Google calls "a little-known and obscure book and movie."

At Sherlock Investigations, we use Google Earth as an investigative tool. It's useful in preparing for many surveillance assignments, as you can literally scope out the land. You can spot trees, buildings, lakes, and ponds. If fact, it is so detailed that I can see my parked car in New York. (The up-close details in some rural areas are somewhat obscure.)

Google Earth is comprised of satellite photos taken at least two years ago. It is not real time, but still very useful.

In one case, we found that the subject of an investigation had a large house with an olympic-size swimming pool. This was useful information as we were conducting a background investigation.

When trying to locate a person recently, Google Earth solved the case. No, we didn't see the person standing in front of his house. Through other means, we located the person and his phone number, but no one ever answered the phone there, and there was no response to a Fedex envelope sent to the address.

So I ran the address on Google Earth and noticed that it was a large complex in Florida near a golf course. Next, I ran the address on Google and found that it was a large retirement community. I Googled the name of the retirement community and found their contact number. I called their office and inquired about the subject of my investigation. Right away they told me, "Oh, he's on vacation up north and won't be back until the end of October." But they knew where he was and put me in touch with the subject.

So, besides being a lot of fun, Google Earth has numerous useful purposes.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Private Investigator's Q&A

If you have questions relating to private investigations, you can post them here anonymously and I will try to answer them on this forum. They could relate to personal problems that an investigator might help you with, or a general question.

We get many emails and calls a day at our office, but with caller I.D. and email IP addresses revealed it's difficult to remain anonymous. Now you can.

So, whatever your question, post it here, and I'll try to answer it in this column.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Cell Phone Records

On June 21, 2006, I appeared before the United States House of Representatives' Committee on Engergy and Commerce in Washington to ostensibly testify about "information brokers" who advertise cell phone records for sale on the Internet. If you Google my name, Skipp Porteous, you'll read on the Committee's website: "Mr. Porteous invoked his 5th Amendment right against self incrimination & declined to testify and answer the committees' questions."

The Committee is chaired by Congressman Joe Barton (R) of Texas, and had already passed a law that could land a person in prison for 20 years if they used deception to obtain a person's cell phone records. This was the first time I had ever heard of Congress holding a hearing after they had passed a law.

Earlier, they had invited me to testify. I politely declined. Then they subpoenaed me to appear. I would have gladly testified had they not kept me in the dark about why Sherlock Investigations was included in an investigation concerning what information brokers advertise on the Internet. Sherlock Investigations is not an information broker.

When our lawyer inquired why they included Sherlock Investigations in their investigation, as we have never advertised the procurement of cell phone records, the Committee's attorney said, "Are you sure?" Well, we were as sure as we could be.

When I was called upon to testify, the Committee posted a document on a large overhead flat-screen monitor. The document was a copy of a posting that a former employee had placed on the Internet...advertising a sale he was running on obtaining cell phone records. And he included Sherlock Investigations in his post.

After my initial shock, I said to myself, "So, this is what it was all about." Now, in a trial one has a right to "discovery." That means you have a right to know what the other side has on you. In a Congressional investigation you're kept in the dark, as it's not a trial.

We receive many inquiries about obtaining cell phone records. As useful as they might be in an investigation, we don't do it, period. I think you can understand why.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Identity Theft

A person very close to me learned last night that she is the victim of identity theft. She received a letter from Chase about her recent address change, and that if the information was incorrect to notify Chase immediately.

She's lived at the same address for 15 years, and hadn't notified Chase of any change. After a call to Chase, she learned that someone went online and changed her address to a Brooklyn one, and changed her online login and password. Then they proceeded to launder her money through PayPal at the rate of $6000 every other day. So far, we know of $36,000 taken. Fortunately, accounts are insured up to $100,000. Still, it's a pain in the neck to straighten everything out.

I checked out the Brooklyn address and found that it was a fake one.

Meanwhile, she's closing all her accounts at Chase, and I'm quickly coming to the conclusion that online banking is unsafe. As a private investigator I know that it's easy to get someone's Social Security Number, mother's maiden name, address, phone number, and any other info a thief would need to steal your identity.

I think to be safe, you should have the bank flag your account with a notice that says that you have to go to the bank in person to change anything on the account.

To learn more about protecting yourself against identity theft, go to the Federal Trade Commission's web site at

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Is your phone bugged?

I sweep homes and businesses for clandestine listening devices two or three times a week. Our clients come from every walk of life. Recently, I swept the office of a very famous socialite. Before that, I swept the office, conference room, and city-owned vehicle of a well-known mayor. But, most of the people who call Sherlock Investigations are ordinary people. They may be other private eyes, accountants, lawyers, or housewives.

For every case I accept, there's one that I turn down. About half the people who call have a legitimate reason to have their place of work or home swept for electronic bugs. They may be going through a divorce and the soon-to-be-ex knows too much about what is going on. Others may have a high-level conference scheduled and they want to make sure eavesdroppers aren't listening in.

I'll turn down a case if I feel a would-be client is mentally unstable. People who hear strange sounds in their head, or see red lights in the bathroom are quite common, but a little off. In almost every other way they're normal. Still, they're paranoid.

In some cases, people have convinced me to sweep their apartment or house, only to tell me afterwards (after I found nothing suspicious), that "they knew you were coming and turned off the devices."

Believe me, I want more business, and love doing what I do, but I can't take advantage of people. If you think your place is bugged, ask yourself who would go to such extreme lengths to plant listening devices or cameras in your house? Do you have a landlord or neighbor who might want to spy on you? That could be a good reason to suspect something.

Do you think the CIA has placed computer chips in your head? If you do, please don't call me, call a psychiatrist. I'm not being cute, I'm serious.

Sometimes paranoia or an obsessive compulsive disorder is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Medication may relieve this sympton, as these things are usually treatable.

Sometimes our fears or suspicions are self taught, from the messages we tell ourselves. We tend to build a case about some fear until we really start to believe it.

Many of us have phobias. I've always been afraid of heights. To help get over this fear, I started climbing 30-foot ladders. I'm still somewhat afraid, but it's more on the side of caution than fear. Sometimes we have to systematically desensitize ourselves about our fears. Little by little, we can replace the fear with the truth.

Most people don't have to worry about the FBI conducting surveillance on them, or the CIA tapping their phone. If you can think of a real good reason why someone would place a bug in your car, office, or home, call me. I'll locate and disable it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Apology to Gypsies

Several Gypsies and "psychics" recently contacted me concerning my posts about Gypsy Psychic Scams in the Sherlock Investigations blog. The complainants said in effect that all Gypsies and/or pyschics are not criminals. To this I must wholeheartedly agree, and apologize to the Roma (Gypsy) people for implying that they are all criminals.

The Roms/Gypsies originally came to Europe from India about 1000 years ago. Now, they are found in many countries, including, of course, the United States. Romas can be found in all walks of life. Most are honest, law-abiding citizens.

I talked to an NYPD detective who was involved in "Operation Crystal Ball," a police crackdown on fraudulent psychics in New York City. He told me, "I've never see [a pyschic] with a neon sign that was legitimate." He added that only one in a hundred is a non-Gypsy. (A Roma term for a non-Gypsy is Gadje, which is considered an offensive term.)

While I really don't know whether people have psychic powers, I concur with the NYPD. I believe that all the storefront psychics, the one's with neon signs, are phoney.

In fact, fortune telling, except for entertainment purposes, is illegal in New York. While only a misdemeanor, it quickly escalates to a felony, grand larceny, when people start losing the amounts of money we see in our case files. At Sherlock Investigations we've had clients lose as much as $150,000. All of these clients started with a $10 reading from a storefront psychic.

While most people never file charges with the police, they can, and should.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Wire tap & bug detection update

Cell phone bugs are currently the most popular and easiest method of eavesdropping. Whether placed behind a plant in a conference room, or behind the bed in a bedroom, cell phone bugs are hot.

Cell phones can be purchased right off the shelf that have the ability to silence the ringer. All an eavesdropper has to do is just leave the cell phone any place he wants to listen in on the activity. Then he can call the cell phone from any place in the world.

Some cell phones are modified slightly with a super-sensitive microphone, or even an extended microphone on a thin wire leading away from the cell phone. Cell phone bugs can last a week or more with the internal battery. Connected to a car battery, cell phone bugs hidden in a vehicle can last indefinately.

Most TSCM people (bug sweepers) either don't bother with cell phone frequencies because they are so common. Also, a cell phone left in an office looks so innocous. However, it's a very real threat.

Cordless phone threats

Yesterday, I conducted an electronic sweep at a home in Connecticut. The owner said that people were repeating conversations that had taken place in the privacy of his home. We get many calls from paranoid people who may suffer from mental illness. So, I was a little dubious.

I still see quite a few 900 MHz cordless phones in homes. Eavesdroppers can easily listen in on their conversations with a simple Radio Shack scanner. I always advise clients to throw out these phones and pick up a digital 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz cordless phone, as these aren't picked up by scanners.

Yesterday, to my surprise, I found a GE 5.8 GHz cordless phone that was compromised. When I conduct an electronic sweep, I play music from a known sound source, a cassette player. My equipment includes an array of antennas and a broadband receiver with headphones. If I hear the music I'm playing through my headphones, then I know a hidden microphone in the room is picking it up and transmitting it. In this case, it was the cordless phone. The lesson is, anything can be compromised.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Find a Person

Finding people is one of several things that we do very well at Sherlock Investigations. We've been locating people for many years. When the Internet first came on the scene I was afraid that it would cut into our business. We've experienced quite the contrary.

On the Internet you can find many services that claim to find people. Whether you Google "people search," "find a person," "find someone," or many other combinations, you'll get many hits. Some of these sites offer free people searches. They'll find the easy ones.

Others even post ominous warnings such as:

Find A Person - Warning
Do Not Pay For Any People Search
Service Until You Read This

"Find People" Scam Alert
Do Not Purchase Any "Find People"
Results Until You Read This Warning

I strongly suspect that these warnings are not posted by neutral review boards or consumer boards, but are from self-serving companies that sell the public almost useless programs to locate people, or to conduct background investigations on people.

At Sherlock Investigations, we never use programs such as Net Detective or similar programs. We have access to databases that require a valid private investigation license. But, we often go way beyond database searches. For example, a recently missing person won't show up in any database as the information in them is often months old.

We get on the phone, go out into the street when necessary, and employ other trade secrets that I'm not about to tell. Yes, we're more expensive than computer programs you can buy on the Internet, but over the years we've proven ourselves with solid results. The testimonies on our web site are proof of this. Yes, every day we locate hard-to-find people. The results are very satisfying.