This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
If you want to call yourself a private detective in Germany, then go for it. There are 1,200 PI agencies in the country, but no recognised training facilities for private investigators. You can just declare yourself one and get going.
"So as you can imagine there's quite a few crooks in the scene," says Patrick Kurtz. The 27-year-old manages an agency that employs 28 detectives, who operate across Germany, and according to him, they are all professionals. He says this while puffing away at a pipe – a habit he maintains he developed long before he was a gumshoe: "I have been a passionate pipe smoker since I was 14."
Patrick first had the idea of becoming a private investigator during his gap year. He had just completed his BA degree and was taking some time off before starting an MA, when he saw an ad in the paper for an PI internship that promised a salary of 1,700 Euros [about £1500] a month. "I realised one could make real money if they proved to be capable in this industry." The ad turned out to be fake, but Patrick's enthusiasm had grown to be very real. "As a good detective I can earn 3,000 Euros [ about £2600] a month and as someone who runs a detective agency, I really could not complain about my income," he says coyly.
Private enquiries tend to cover four main areas: alimony payments, child custody, affairs and tracing people. Sometimes companies also approach Kurtz's agency to find out if their employees are skiving or not, although they aren't officially allowed to do that since the German Labour Court decided that it was illegal in 2015.
According to Patrick, three quarters of the time the suspicions of the client are confirmed. He says that he has rarely sympathised with the people that he's investigated. Only once did he have to check if an employer had been billing clients incorrectly.
Usually it's Patrick's job to obtain information, but now it's his turn to dispense it. I met with him to ask 10 questions.
VICE: Isn't what you do technically just stalking?
Patrick Kurtz: There are some similarities, in the sense that both a detective and a stalker are watching people in their private sphere. But a stalker wants to make contact, while a detective is there to observe and maintain boundaries. If I witness something very intimate, that's only because that act takes place outside somebody's home. If someone is cheating on their wife in car parked in a layby, then it's my job to observe it. A stalker spies because they're obsessed, private detectives spy because we're hired to do so.
There was this one time, when my agency was actually hired by someone's stalker. This client had fabricated an infidelity scenario to convince us to tail their victim. Fortunately, as soon as we started looking into the case, we figured out the client was a stalker, and we were able to come clean to the victim.
What's the raunchiest thing you have witnessed?
I'm hardly working on a porn set – we always keep our distance and there are lines we don't cross. Looking back, I think one of the most risqué scenes I've had to observe from a distance, was part of this one case in Hannover – an employer suspected that one of his salespeople wasn't using his work hours to knock on potential client doors. We observed him for five days and from the first day, we realised that he would spend some hours driving around aimlessly, then work for a few hours and then would go home early. He would park his car a short distance away from his garage, so people wouldn't notice he was home. But on the last day of our investigation, after he left home in the morning, he picked up a young man and the two of them drove to a secluded area. It was pretty clear they were having sex in there for a couple of hours – the windows were all steamed up, the car was rocking and you could hear everything. The sex part wasn't anyone's business of course – he was fired because he was getting paid, while not doing any work. But you asked about a salacious anecdote, so there you go.
Have you ever fallen in love with someone you were investigating?
No, and I wouldn't let that happen. It did happen to a couple of colleagues however. They got involved with people they met through work but they were both clients, not those being investigated. One affair started after an investigation into infidelity – it was proven that the client's partner was cheating on them, and then the client and my colleague dated for a while. It didn't last though.
However, the second pair are still together. A woman who worked for a city council claimed she had been threatened by a co-worker a few times, and grew suspicions that the local government had bugged her phone. She hired a colleague to look into that and it turned out her suspicions were false: No one was monitoring her conversations. Still, somehow she and the detective who worked on her case seemed to enjoy each other's services, and they've been a couple ever since.
What's the most common reason clients approach you?
We get a lot of female clients who suspect that their husband is cheating on them with another man. Roughly, out of 100 investigations into suspicions of infidelity, we'll find maybe two men who are hiding their sexuality from their wives. I've never discovered a secret lesbian relationship, though.
I think men find it more difficult to come to terms with their sexual orientation because of obvious social pressures. I've never come across the cliché case of a man living a double life, having two families. But we did once investigate a guy who turned out to be cheating on his wife with several women at the same time. And he was renting apartments for all of them.
What do you do all day? Do you just sit in your car, waiting for something to happen – like in the movies?
Obviously, each case is different but yeah, it can get boring when you're following someone to see if they're cheating on their partners. That's like it is in the movies – you're just sat in a car, waiting outside someone's house. It's surprisingly exhausting to watch a driveway for hours on end.
When I get tired I put on some hard rock to stay awake, like Metallica or Soundgarden. I also just listen to audiobooks to kill the time – like Edgar Allan Poe and, as basic as that makes me sound, Sherlock Holmes. About 70 percent of observation is waiting, 30 percent is action. And if you're following someone around, you really need to focus and concentrate.
How do you manage to follow someone without them noticing?
My investigators and I have a couple of textbook tricks that help us conceal our profession. When neighbours notice us, we'll always have a story ready – or a "legend", as we like to call it. So, for example, I'll often say that my wife has just thrown me out of the house. For that reason, I always have a thermos and blanket in my car and keep my hair messy – those props help sell the story usually.
So far we have only been found out once, because we hadn't taken into account the difference in location. We were investigating someone living in a rural area, where everyone knew everyone. We had been hired to find out whether a farm worker was actually doing his job. A colleague and I parked our cars at about 700 metres from the property, but a passing farmer noticed us and told the subject of our investigation about it. He then turned up at our car and said we should stop spying on him and leave. It all turned out alright in the end, we got what we needed. The most important thing is to make sure to be ready to change our strategy swiftly, if we think a subject is on to us.
Do you ever have to break the law in order to do your job?
The problem is that we often operate in a legal grey area. The laws we deal with are often unclear or there are simply no laws regarding our profession in Germany. What is allowed and what's not can only become clear after a specific case going through a judicial panel.
For example, GPS trackers are currently illegal in Germany, but paying for information isn't. But again, it's a grey area. Is it really okay to pay a waiter to tell you if Person X was eating with Person Y between times A and B? At my agency, we don't employ those kinds of techniques just to be on the moral and legal side of things, but we do make up stories to get information. For instance, we'll claim that our investigators are family members or business partners of the people we're investigating. It's certainly a lie, but it's not a criminal offence.
Some people think private detectives are just failed cops. Is that true?
I do employ plenty of ex-coppers as investigators. A small group of those people, were dishonourably discharged from the police. A lot are on police pensions and want to supplement their income. Others saw no chance for a promotion, or fell out with their superior officers – things like that. But I believe all the people I manage are more than capable at their jobs.
So far, I've only hired the wrong person once. He was a Police Chief Inspector, who took over an investigation for my detective agency. I knew the client personally. Because of the personal relationship, it didn't take long for us to realise that something wasn't right. Eventually, it came out that the investigator I had put on the case had faked his observation logs. He was meant to infiltrate a company to investigate bullying. But it turned out that he had worked for that company only one day for four hours. He then called in sick. On his account and in his report, he claimed he had worked at that company for five days, eight hours each day. I reported him for fraud and sued for damages.
If I wanted to cheat on my partner, what's the best way to do it without being found out?
I'd say to avoid putting anything in writing – don't text, email or chat online. Only deal with each other face-to-face – and never in public. If your partner suddenly turns off their mobile phone for a while, that could be an indication that they could be cheating. And if you don't want to be found out, make sure that you don't change your behaviour in any obvious way. Don't suddenly start going to the gym or the hairdresser more often than normally, for example. Those are clues that'll give you away.
And if I wanted to make myself disappear, what's the best way to go about it?
If you're an EU citizen, stay in Europe to avoid leaving any traces at borders. Don't ever take a plane or a train, because that normally means your journey will be registered – plus there are cameras everywhere at train stations and airports.
The most important thing is to be prepared to leave your old life behind. Many people who disappear successfully at first, are later found because they couldn't let go of some of the comforts of their old life. They'll keep using old credit cards for instance or will look for a flat using their old name. Few people are willing to go all the way and get a new identity and get fake documents made. That's why we fail at only 15 percent of the missing person cases we take on – and when that happens it;s usually because the budget we have at our disposal doesn't allow us to continue our search.