Fraud has become the most pervasive crime in the UK, with nearly one in 10 citizens (around 5.8 million people) now victims of criminal deception online, according to the latest Crime Survey of England and Wales.
The report also found that the police often do not have sufficient resources to investigate fraud, leaving many victims of cyber deception without justice.
Many of those victims turn to one of the UK’s estimated 10,000 private investigators — like 57-year-old Paul Hawkes, who says the police are “are worse than useless” at solving fraud cases.
Brought up in west London, Hawkes left school at 18 to work in the financial sector before joining a firm focused on locating debtors. He enjoyed the thrill of uncovering seemingly untraceable information so much that he established his own private intelligence business, now called Research Associates, in 1977.
The company solves cases of personal and commercial fraud, locates missing people, and participates in covert surveillance for spouses suspicious of adultery.
Hawkes charges anything from £65 an hour for simple investigative work, up to £10,000 per day for interrogation.
Business Insider visited Hawkes in his basement office in Notting Hill — which he shares with three colleagues — to learn about his work on cyber fraud cases, and what it’s like to be one of London’s most experienced private investigators.
A large proportion of Hawkes’ detective work is solving cases of cyber fraud, which lacks the glamour traditionally associated with the profession — something he tries to play down.
Nevertheless, he can’t avoid the mythical status of private investigators entirely.
“I’ve got a bit of a hatred for magnifying glasses,” Hawkes protested, embarrassed that I had spotted two within moments of sitting down. “Having said that, just because of my age … there’s another in the drawer.”
The bulletproof vests, hidden camera equipment, and a polygraph lie detector that were also on display in his office betrayed a more serious side to Hawkes’ work life. He became most earnest when discussing a recent fraud case.
“The police — I have to say it out loud — on frauds, they are worse than useless,” Hawkes said.
The private detective recalled a case he worked on in 2015, in which an Italian manufacturer (kept anonymous) sent more than £800,000 worth of air conditioning units to a company masquerading as a British household name retail company. The fraudsters tricked the manufacturing company with an indistinguishable clone website.
“The long and short of it is that they sent this stuff over to a depot in Tottenham and it just disappeared,” Hawkes said.
When the Italian company contacted the British police, it became evident that they were not prepared to investigate the case. At this point, the company contacted Hawkes.
Hawkes and the Research Associates team then gathered evidence using techniques approved by former police fraud investigators, to build a legal case against the con-men.
To trace the ultimate destination of the goods, and locate the fraudsters, Hawkes arranged to send a second shipment of air conditioning units, bugged with tiny trackers “about half the size of a credit card.”
The private investigators then phoned the police, using a crime action number they had acquired for the case, handing over evidence and the exact location of the criminals.
The officer on duty asked if the investigators had the real names of the people involved. They did not.
“We’re not going to send anyone along for health and safety reasons then,” the officer said, according to Hawkes. “They might be armed.”
Unable to take further action, Hawkes watched the tracker as the packages were picked up, taken to the airport, and transported abroad, where they would be resold.
“We handed it [to the police] on a plate, with breathtaking amounts of info,” he said.
According to the private investigator, police inaction in fraud cases is the result of a Home Office circular from 2004, which lists a number of scenarios in which police are not required to investigate. An especially vague section tells the police not to investigate a fraud case when the “likely eventual outcome” is “not sufficient to justify the likely cost and effort of the investigation.”
However, Hawkes said that not every police force is as reluctant to act. Some forces, like the City of London police, have well-established fraud prevention teams.
A more satisfying part of Hawkes’ job is reuniting estranged family members. He claims that Research Associates has a success rate of “well over 95%” for finding missing people.
“The thing to get into your head is that no one disappears,” he said. “They just disappear from your sight. They will be going about routines. People need routines.”
To demonstrate how easy it is for him to find information about people, Hawkes did a simple search on a subscription database which gathers intelligence from publicly available sources. Nearly 40 years into his career, Hawkes has seen radical changes in the ways information is located, with the development of the internet.
In moments, by typing in my name, he found my date of birth, former and current address, various email addresses and phone numbers, as well as the same details for all of my immediate family.
“That’s a start,” he said ominously. “Then we’d start drilling down.”
One way the private investigator “drills down” is using his training as a forensic psychophysiologist.
The techniques he uses to interrogate are “completely and utterly not what you think they are,” he explained. “Gone are the bright lights and the shouting and in come techniques that you probably associate with counselling and therapy, but I’m pretty good at finding the truth.”
While Hawkes enjoys his work, the father of four says it’s not a path he would recommend to his children. “There’s something in me that likes more than my fair share of stress,” he said. “It’s not for everyone.”
I asked the seasoned private investigator how much longer he plans to continue working.
“You’re asking me how long I’m going to be alive,” he said. “I’ll probably do it until I croak.”