On this grey winter morning Denis is steering a nondescript silver SUV over the Second Narrows Bridge. But his ride may change tomorrow. He switches vehicles as routinely as he does his appearance. As a private investigator, he must be a chameleon. That’s why Denis has asked that his last name not be used or his picture published for this story.
“I have to,” he explains, “I want to stay in one piece.”
Sometimes he tries to look unkempt, with extra stubble and grubby jeans. Today, he’s more GQ: black sports jacket, blue dress shirt, jeans, leather shoes, large-faced Michael Kors watch and grey scarf. It’s the kind of look he used when operating covertly to bust a knock-off Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Burberry operation in the Vancouver area, posing as a buyer from Montreal interested in purses.
Denis’s French accent (real) and spiky grey hair probably helped make his dashing purse-purchaser cover even more convincing.
The six-month undercover operation resulted in a $2.48-million judgement against the companies that were selling the counterfeit goods, he says.
“They have to repay that,” adds Denis, who says he was hired by French luxury brand group LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton to investigate the case.
“I like the covert operations very, very much.”
He’s also posed as a university researcher, a high-roller with a penchant for champagne-drenched VIP rooms and a LA movie producer — to name just a few.
“My accent helps,” he says, noting people think, “‘He can’t be undercover.’”
“I use all those things to my advantage. You have to play the part.”
Along with the ability to role play, a skilled PI has to be able to gather and present evidence in court, he says.
“If you can’t enter the evidence in court, the case goes out the window.”
Right now, the 50-something PI is on the hunt for retailers selling bogus name-brand merchandise at a Lower Mainland mall notorious for its back-room deals.
“Let’s check out some counterfeits,” he says, pulling into the underground parking lot.
“You will be surprised something like this exists in Vancouver.”
Once an athlete, Denis strides with purpose around the mall. Minutes later, he’s inside a small boutique asking the saleswoman if she carries any handbags or purses: He’s looking for a present for his wife, he tells her.
Her smile stiffens. She doesn’t carry any. He doesn’t bother grilling her: that could potentially lead to a call to the organized criminals behind moving the fake goods, something he’d rather avoid today.
This is just a recon mission. On the way out, he spies a fake LV handbag on display in the store. Of course, the only place in Vancouver to buy authentic Louis Vuitton: Holt Renfrew, the LV store or at a consignment shop, he explains. Most of the fake designer merchandise, however, is typically stored in the back room, he says. “We do a lot of malls. Counterfeit is a huge, huge problem,” he says. “Not only for LV but others — it diminishes the value of the brands.”
Denis was a Mountie for eight years. He career-shifted once he had a young family. He opened his own PI agency, BCS Investigations (picanada.ca), in 1998. The West Van-based firm offers a smorgasbord of services: along with trademark and counterfeit goods enforcement, they do DNA testing, matrimonial infidelity, GPS tracking, electronic debugging, Internet matters and murder investigations, among other things.
“People still think we only do matrimonials; they still think we watch people having wild flings — it’s maybe ten per cent of our business,” he explains.
These days it’s more about cyber sleuthing. “Mostly everything is going high-tech. We do a lot of Facebook presence. People are way too open on Facebook — they have no idea what they are putting on there. It’s unbelievable.”
He warns that personal information can be used by blackmailers and stalkers.
“People will destroy other people’s careers,” Denis adds, referring to a case recently where a woman nearly lost her job after someone using a false identity posted a photo of her face on a different body in an unflattering scene.
“We just take on the client’s identify,” he says of the first step in tracking down an Internet predator. Next they search for IP addresses and data-mine for other digital clues.
“Often for people we’re the last resort,” he says. “I like to help people — that’s what my role is.”
Contrary to what classic TV dramas like Rockford Files or Magnum PI have taught us, private investigators aren’t able to pull any ruse necessary in order to obtain evidence of wrongdoing and they’re not permitted to carry firearms or restraining devices.
In B.C., private investigators need a valid security licence, which is governed by the Security Services Act. “We have very strict guidelines. We have the privacy act, we have an agency in Victoria that supervises us and comes and looks at our files, the Solicitor General’s office. So it’s not a free-for-all where you put on dark glass and become a PI. You need 4,000 hours of practicum as an article student, before you get your licence. First you start under supervision.”
PIs must also use their street smarts. When knocking on a door, for instance, he instructs me to move to the side: you never know what’s waiting for you on the other side. “I can’t give you all my tricks,” he says later, laughing.
Many of Denis’s clients prefer not to deal with the police, either because it’s a civil matter or because they come from cultures where cops aren’t trusted. Whatever the reason, Denis goes to great lengths to ensure every client is legit. “We do a character check and if we feel this person is not on the up-and-up I won’t touch it. It’s not worth the money.”
Profiling potential clients is as important as profiling the suspects, he says.
He’s got to be absolutely certain, for instance, about the actual motive for a potential client who is trying to track somebody down. “Someone could get killed,” he says. “That would be a very strong example.”
Denis charges between $125 and $225 per hour, depending on the case. When he gives clients his cellphone digits, he says “that number is 24/7.” “The hours are pretty crazy. Any day, any time,” he says.
But even with legit clients, his job regularly puts him in the orbit of bad guys.
“You have to have nerves of steel once in a while,” he says matter-of-factly.
Recently, while doing surveillance, the target lured him to a remote landfill location in Surrey where a group of thugs were waiting to rearrange his face. “You get burnt once in a while. If someone is surveillance savvy, like most criminals, they pick up on being followed.”
Denis managed to escape that night in Surrey, but he must always be alert.
That’s why he takes his personal security so seriously. His home has everything but a moat: gates, night-vision video, alarm and a dog. “The property is totally secure,” he says. “That’s one of the drawbacks [of the profession].”
He usually only uses his first name when introducing himself and his website and business card don’t connect to any of his personal information. “My email, for example, is very vague. So it’s not like a PI email.”
As he’s fond of saying: “it’s really hush, hush.”
“I don’t want them to start connecting the dots — criminals are pretty smart.”
After sniffing out counterfeits at the shopping mall, Denis’s next stop is at a tall office building in downtown Vancouver, where he’s investigating an alleged case of text-stalking.
He has a penchant for complex cases, and this one’s got some interesting puzzle pieces, so the PI is enthused.
“I’m just not there to eat peanuts and watch people. That’s not my gig.”