Someone to watch over me

Updated: 2017-02-10 08:47

By Evelyn Yu(HK Edition)

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Increasingly people are turning to private detectives to investigate important people in their lives, whether it would be lovers, business partners or competitors. Social media may have something to do with creating the trend. Evelyn Yu writes.

Jennifer (alias) thought 2017 would be a great year. She was getting married. Her boyfriend of 15 years finally came through. Then, she noted a change in her fianc. There was something strange. Jennifer called a detective agency, and sure enough, her bleakest fears were confirmed. The guy was cheating. The agency produced videos, photographs and other evidence, proving her suspicions were correct. Her world fell apart.

Gordon Ho, investigation manager of Hong Kong Investigation Consulting Limited, "helped" Jennifer to learn the truth. In less than two years since Ho's company opened for business in 2015, he's accumulated over 1,000 clients. Most suspected someone was cheating. People checking out other people before marriage and even before dating has become a trend.

Social media has contributed to the distrust among people looking for partners. There are enough fakes, frauds and impersonators online. With online meetups deeply embedded in today's cultural landscape, men are just as vulnerable as women intent on building lavish lifestyles using "honey traps" to lure men.

Jennifer had been confident, hers was the right man. Why not, after 15 years? He took her to an expensive restaurant at the Peak, even when they were still poor and in college. After graduation, he would pick her up from work every day. She thought she knew everything she needed to know about him.

Then, her betrothed got a job at a local marketing company. He started coming home late. She called him one night, wondering where he was. The call connected but he did not speak to her. He was talking to another woman. Jennifer disconnected and called back. He answered, this time told her he was home, alone.

"I tried many ways to clear my suspicions myself but I couldn't. He denied everything. I had to go to a private detective," said Jennifer.

Prudent marriage

It all started to unravel for Jennifer last August. Her boyfriend told her he was going to Cheung Chau for a two-day teambuilding with his colleagues. She didn't believe him. On the night before he was to leave, she called the detective agency.

Ho didn't get Jennifer's message until 9 am the next day. There was no time to lose. The boyfriend was catching a ferry at 9:45. Ho asked Jennifer to send her photos of her boyfriend and in less than three quarters of an hour, three detectives arrived at the ferry terminal to see what came next.

The guy was busted within two days. On the second day, he was seen with other members of his team. Then he veered off from the group and stopped to make a phone call. A short time later, a young woman got off the ferry. The man greeted her and they walked away hand in hand.

Jennifer was still at work when she got the photos from the agency. The images left her with no doubt as to the intimacy between her fianc and "the other woman". It seemed things couldn't get worse, until he phoned to say his "uncle in law" had died and he was going home to be with his family.

"I tried not to break down in the office", Jennifer said. After she had made it out to the street however, she let go.

She ended her engagement in December. She has no regrets, not even begrudging the cost of the detective services. "At least I know I am not the one who was doing wrong."

Ho quit his job as assistant to a legislator 11 years ago and went to work for a small investigations agency. There were only five or six detective agencies back then, he recalled. The market has grown. There are at least 20 now. There's big business investigating insurance fraud, including workers' compensation. Some executives hire detectives to investigate their competitors and even their business partners.

Philic Man runs Hong Kong's first and the only female-oriented investigation company. The company started offering pre-date/pre-marriage investigation services three years ago. The expanded service came after a steady stream of clients came to office, eager to learn if their partners were as good as they seemed.

Both Man and Ho reflect that the wide use of social networks, especially dating apps have helped their business to grow.

"Trust toward partners is ever on the decline. You would not trust a guy you met on dating apps that much. Years ago almost all our requests were to probe clients' coworkers or old classmates. Nowadays clients want us to go to someone they have met online." Ho noted.

Around 70 percent of her clients, as Man said, are female or the typical "three-high" leftover women - high income, high education and high age. They often are careless in material life, but traumatized by previous heartbreaks. When a potential Mr. Right shows up, they want to make sure everything they say is valid, hoping to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

The questions Man's female clients ask, however, often are trivial. Where does he live? What car does he drive? How much does he earn? What does he usually do after work? These are among the most frequently asked questions raised by her female clients, Man said.

One of Man's clients, who goes by the pseudonym Natalie, was in her 30s. She owns several beauty salons in Hong Kong, turning over millions of dollars every month. She was not as lucky in love as in career. Natalie broke up with her ex-boyfriend, who is a habitual prostitute patron.

Two years later she met a new man at a friend's party. She liked him but feared he might be like her ex. She turned to Man.

Professional eyes

Man sent her detectives, one in a business suit, whose high-end handbag was full of video cameras to be installed to observe the entrance to the target's office building. Another agent, casually attired, stalked the man in coffee shops and other public places after work.

Two weeks' of sleuthing proved the young man was a promising finance industry employee, with regular routine and unimpeachable social activities. He visited no pubs, exercised on weekends and spent time with family members. Natalie ended up marrying the man.

Stag parties, celebrations among friends of the same sex, for those soon to be wed, caught on quickly in Hong Kong. Man's team has checked out of town events, in Taiwan, on the Chinese mainland and other places.

Man described their regular, hectic schedule. Agents will follow their targets onto airplanes, sneak into night clubs, and even paddle boats to follow the targets.

The veteran PI owns her own fleet of cars, luxury cars and vans. Man's team is equipped to handle a variety of circumstances. She also has a PhD team of technology professionals adapting surveillance devices into ordinary objects. In her office, Man showcased an array of accessories. The electric socket lying in the corner, the dimly glowing lamp, and the car key she withdrew from her pocket were all designed for surveillance.

The price tag for a background check at Man's agency is around HK$ 10,000. Ho charges HK$ 550 per hour as the basic rate for individual clients. Man saw the trend and decided most people wanting more probing inquiries, especially into clandestine relationships, could afford the price.

Man sends an operative to befriend the target. That can take months and costs can escalate quickly. It can take months for the subject to open up and confide in the operative.

Man considers her work meaningful and necessary. "Everyone has secrets. Prenuptial investigation is just like insurance. It can prevent critical misjudgments before it is too late."

She cited an extreme case. A man who had shown great consideration to one of Man's female clients, claimed he was a bodyguard for the wealthy. He told her that one day, he had accidently broken some valuable items of his wealthy boss. The man said he had to borrow a large sum of money from Man's client. He told her he feared he would go to jail, if he didn't pay. The woman gave him the money and the man disappeared.

Man's team helped to find out the boyfriend a "love rat" , as Man put it, who defrauded her client of HK$ 450,000, Man called the police on her client's behalf.

Tina Yang, CEO of "Will I Love Consultant Company Ltd" and a veteran relationship consultant, has observed a decline of mutual trust among her young clients. Many of her 30 to 40-year-old clients have relationships with people they have met socially or through business. Younger people often meet their partners through social networks. Still, millennials tend to be skeptical and want to see evidence of the wealth their would-be partners are proffering and proof that they are not hiding other relationships, she observed.

Still, Yang does not advocate hiring an investigator. "Relationship is about building mutual confidence and trust. The detectives might help for a while, but mutual suspicion could snowball through years. No one but themselves can clear that."

If the results of an investigation should confirm the worst fears, a detailed report enumerates the intended target's indiscretions will be presented to their clients. Man's agency which works with psychologists and mediation experts, offers mediation services to clients who have been burned. Ho's follow-up is simpler. There's a box of tissues on his desk.

Truth may hurt but Man says most of her female clients choose to set aside their grievances and marry the offending partner anyway. The agency also suggests to clients never tell the errant partner his indiscretions were turned up by a professional investigator and never tell the partner about the investigation in any circumstances. Once the situation is resolved, the next move is to be prudent.

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(HK Edition 02/10/2017 page7)