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'I know a gold-digger when I see one," huffed my Aunt Azelda. "And I'm not about to let her bluff her way through me to Frankie. I'm going to do some digging of my own, and I want you to help me." Frankie is Aunt Azelda's nephew, the only son of her dearly departed sister, Aida. Aida had money; she put it in a trust for Frankie and made Aunt Azelda the executor. Frankie gets the keys to the vault when he turns 30 in August. His wedding to Brandy is slated for October. She's the one Azelda's worried about. I wasn't about to put on my trench coat and go sleuthing, but I was willing to look into hiring a private investigator. Which is why I ended up in the Del Mar office of Howard Eisemann of Able Forensics Investigations (866-302-2366). He wasn't wearing a trench coat. "I think, in the movies," he said, "private investigators are portrayed as unsavory characters, people who hide in the bushes and take pictures. I think the profession has far exceeded that image." It's not that PI's don't do surveillance. "We might do it for a domestic situation. A spouse might want to know if the other spouse is going out and getting drunk at night, or what happens when they go away." But now, instead of relying solely on street smarts and legwork, an investigator can turn to his laptop and gadgets. "Say you're doing surveillance and you want to follow a car. We can use Global Positioning System transmitters attached to the bottom of a car with a magnet. Instead of using three or four cars, we can sit in an office and follow a person -- know where they went, how fast they were going, when they came back. It saves a lot of time."

Surveillance is one part of the company's investigative section, a section which also includes the locating and interviewing of witnesses. "That's usually done for attorneys, insurance companies, or individuals. Say someone witnesses an automobile accident, or a robbery, or a murder. We locate and interview them, to see how it will affect the case. Our investigations are primarily concerned with providing information that is court admissible -- that's why we have 'forensic' in the name." (Most of Eisemann's investigators have either law or jurist doctor degrees.)

Investigating is also done for the sake of due diligence, "what you perform when you want to enter into a business transaction or a contract with somebody. You are diligent in performing background investigations so that you feel comfortable. If you were thinking of buying a piece of commercial real estate, you would do due diligence on the previous owners. If you were getting married, you would do due diligence on your future spouse. We're doing a case right now in which an individual came to us and said that his daughter met a bass player at a rock concert. They fell in love, and two weeks later, they were married. He wanted to show his daughter that the guy was not who she claimed he was. We found out the guy was a felon, that he had been married three or four times before, and that he had three kids. Of course, the due diligence should have been done before they were married." (I knew Aunt Azelda would love that story.)

In that case, Eisemann was able get the bassist's Social Security number from documents provided by the daughter. It's not always so easy. "The law is very complex; we have to be extremely careful. For example, we do corporate work. We evaluate internal control procedures and sometimes investigate employees. We have a computer forensics section that analyzes hard drives. Now there's no problem with going after somebody's computer if they're working in a company, or with having a camera in the workplace. But we can't follow that person to their home or bug their house."

Still, it's a complicated business. "In general, we can't violate the privacy of an individual. But where looking into a person's window is not okay in one instance, it might be in another. As investigators, we need to know the law -- for the client's sake, for the court's sake, and for the sake of the evidence. All the information we use is public information, but we're able to take it and utilize it in ways that a normal individual can't. We do use a proprietary database. We start off with a name and work from there. We look for a birth date -- then we can get criminal records."

Besides investigation, the company also performs forensic accounting and analysis. "That has a lot to do with asset searches for family law cases. One spouse is required to pay alimony or child support, but claims not to have the ability. We're able to identify fraud." The company performs "historical and transactional research" to see how past agreements bear on current situations. And it does "a lot of potential recovery analysis. If you're going to sue somebody, you want to make sure that they have something to collect if you prevail in the action." As part of that analysis, investigators will sometimes accompany a client to "pitch" the case to an attorney willing to work on contingency.

For their part, the investigators at Able work on retainer. When a person calls asking for help, says Eisemann, "I spend as much time as they want on the phone -- sometimes up to an hour, which we don't bill for." That's to assess the case. "I determine whether we can help. I give them some idea of what the fee will be. If they give us $5000 and we're close to using it up, we'll say, 'Okay, here's where we are, and here's where I think we can get. We need another $1000. ' Or, if we've gone as far as we can and we've spent only $3000, I'll send them a report and the remaining $2000."

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