An Interview With a Private Eye
Duncan Mee is about the closest thing there is to a celebrity private eye. A director of Cerberus, investigators specialising in intellectual property and corporate shenanigans, Duncan recently featured in the documentary Erasing David, where he was charged with tracking down the filmmaker David Bond as Bond attempted to disappear from society. Obviously, Duncan got his man. Duncan does not conform to the private eye (PI) stereotype: the windows in his office are not tinted, he doesn't smoke 50 cigarettes a day, and, today at least, there are no femme fatales hanging around. He does, however, spend a lot of time raiding people's bins, using cool gadgets, and avoiding being murdered by global mafias.
Vice: Hello Duncan, could you tell me what it is a PI actually does?
Duncan Mee: Well, there are different PIs doing different things, but our company deals mostly in trademark protection by big corporations—we are their eyes and ears. We help brands defend themselves from copyright infringement and help them grow as a result of that protection. We have 160 agents all over the world we can call upon to help us in a case. We have an office in London and one in Istanbul, Turkey.
So you don't follow cheating husbands and their suspected mistresses?
No. We always get people contacting us asking for us to try and get evidence of their husband or wife cheating, but we always say if you suspected them that much that you came to a PI for help, then they are more than likely cheating. Our main objectives are to halt the counterfeiting of our clients' products and halt the smuggling of those products.
And how do you go about that?
Well, first of all, the clients will come to us with a suspicion that their product is being smuggled illegally or counterfeited and our job is to track down the factory by posing as buyers. We obtain the location and then get a court order to raid the factory. We aren't interested in taking down the dodgy seller in a market or high street—a lot of the time they aren't aware they're selling counterfeit goods. Plus, when you get the Trading Standards agent to confiscate their goods, they can get some new stock within ten minutes.
What kind of people are dealing in counterfeit goods?
Counterfeiters have usually made money from other illegal operations like drugs, gun-running, prostitution and people-smuggling. Counterfeiting is a costly enterprise—you need a lot of start-up cash to get a factory space, all the machinery and labour force. Organised criminals want to multiply the money they made from criminal activities by starting counterfeiting operations because they rarely carry a prison sentence, and they can just start them again if they get raided.
What are the most common counterfeit goods you seize?
Well, it varies, of course, but it's mostly clothes. The most common counterfeit product in Europe and America is Calvin Klein men's boxers. In India it's worse, though: there's a huge amount of counterfeit meds. Roughly one in three of the meds given to you in a prescription are either placebos or the wrong medicine, which can obviously cause severe health problems, or might even kill you.
That's pretty dark. Is there a lot of dangerous counterfeiting?
Yes, some can be extremely dangerous. There is a large market for counterfeit airbags in cars. Replacing a used one can be very costly so some foolish people decide to get a new one on the black market that definitely wouldn't help them in a crash. It's not just the products that can be dangerous—the trade in and investigation of counterfeit goods can be extremely dangerous.
Have you been hired to look into dangerous situations?
About 15 years ago I was hired by a cigarette company to investigate some counterfeiting of their products in Indonesia. On the flight over I was told I was the seventh investigator on the case and the previous investigator had been killed and his body hacked to pieces. They said I could back out if I wanted to but I was halfway there so I thought, why not? It turned out the counterfeiting was linked to the then-president's very corrupt son who had friends in high and dangerous places. I was given a lot of power to investigate the counterfeiting operation and was even able to commandeer a satellite to search for factories in the dense rainforest. We eventually found them and 188 million cigarettes which at the time was the world's largest haul in counterfeit cigarettes.
That's a pretty good sting. Have you never feared for your life?
Funnily enough, the only time I thought that this could be it for me was down in Hungerford. In the early days before Cerberus, I had to do a lot of repossessions and went down to pick up this guy's car, I knocked on his door and told him I had a court order for his car. He shut the door and then came out again saying, "I have something for you"—he pulled out a shotgun and pointed it right in my face. That's the only time I've ever been threatened with a gun.
But he didn't pull the trigger. There must be some grizzly PI stories you all swap.
A few years ago we did the bins on this one guy we suspected of smuggling some cigarettes and found a fax that said something like, "Get us the money you owe or you're dead". A few days later it turned out that some contract killers came to his house, tied up his wife and waited till he got home. They then tied him up in the basement, tortured him and then shot him at point-blank range in the face with a shotgun. Once we heard this we handed over the fax to the police. From then the case went cold.
Being a smuggler doesn't seem like so much fun now. How did you get into becoming a PI? Do you have to do an exam?
Well, I started out 25 years ago. I'd been working abroad and when a friend's uncle needed some PI work doing abroad, they asked me because I had travel experience. When I finished that particular job they decided to keep me on. A lot of people seem to think you need a background in the police or the army. I mean, that might help but it's certainly not essential. Degrees in relevant subjects such as criminology or law are helpful, but we don't have a set criteria. Anyone could be a PI.
Duncan Mee, left, and Cameron Gowlett of Cerberus
Could you tell me about some of the various gadgets you use on the job?
Well, we use a variety of equipment for certain jobs. We've just started a website that sells the six best gadgets on the market that we use and find effective. For instance, we sell the classic spy watch that you see in all the James Bond films. Up until recently it wouldn't have been possible, but finally technology has caught up and now you have a watch that can take pictures and videos from a tiny lens that's impossible to see. They've been very popular on the site and we've been able to use them on numerous occasions successfully. It's so much easier than having to bug a room or install hidden cameras. The targets don't suspect a thing.
My hand modelling the "spy watch" that Duncan let me borrow. I'm going to compile photos and videos taken using the watch's camera so keep an eye out for loads of pictures of my girlfriend in the shower.
Cool, what else?
We also sell a flash drive that's made by the US military and is impossible to hack. It's called the Iron Key and you can't take it apart and swap chips. When I was in China the BA website was censored, so I plugged the Iron Key into my laptop and opened a window where you can browse the internet, use Word, and send emails—it leaves no forensic trace on the computer as it doesn't use the computer's drive. It's designed not to leave a trace. We just sold 200 of them to an energy company dealing in oil and gas. They have execs coming in and out of dangerous countries and laptops are very easy to hack and swap hard drives. You can only open the Iron Key with the password and each one has a unique serial number so it can be traced.
In all the classic thrillers, PIs use fake names like it's going out of fashion. Have you ever adopted a false identity for a job?
No, it's not really advisable. Using a fake name tends to be more hassle than it's worth. Something as simple as someone saying your real name and you instinctively turning your head can catch you out. On one occasion we had a client who met with members of the Polish mob to investigate counterfeit machine parts. These guys were armed and not people you mess around and he gave a fake name. When he left the meeting he realised he'd left his Filofax containing all his flight details, contact numbers, and his passport. He really needed it, so he had to go back to the meeting point, but luckily for him when he got there they were gone and hadn't touched his Filofax. If they had, they would've shot him, no questions asked.