Private investigators have long operated in Phnom Penh’s seamy shadows, hired to follow and document the liaisons of philandering tycoons, help foreign authorities locate fugitives or track down missing persons.
But as the Kingdom’s economy develops the demand for discrete surveillance has grown, and private eyes are finding themselves increasingly digging into the financial improprieties of their clients’ business associates in ways that go beyond routine corporate due diligence.
That is where David Baxter (not his real name) and his team at Crest Hawk Investigations come in, treading carefully in the murky waters between Cambodia’s courts and police system.
“Cambodia is still the Wild West, but the [private investigation business] has shifted from staking out girlie bars filled with Western patrons to commercial activity,” Baxter said, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses as he took intermittent drags from a cigarette during a recent interview in a local cafe. “And to get these clients, confidentiality and reputation is a must.”
Baxter, whose company operates with a full-time staff of four foreigners and a Cambodian, said the past year has seen Crest Hawk investigating cases involving individuals suspected of fraud, a break-and-entry insurance claim, and suspected embezzlement by employees of a local financial institution. He said corporate investigations are becoming a “high demand service”, and are also the most profitable cases for his small firm.
The private investigation business was admittedly an unexpected career choice for Baxter, a former Phnom Penh-based English teacher with no formal police training. He said his first taste of the business came when he took a ride-along with local firm Phnom Penh Investigations.
“I had always been interested in private eye work after growing up with British television and films that centred on espionage,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I received some training from another firm in Cambodia that is full of former ex-military personnel that I saw the full demand of these services.”
Baxter said he received training by and worked for Phnom Penh Investigations before starting his own firm a year ago.
Phnom Penh Investigations, which routinely posts updates of anonymous cases on its Facebook site ranging from charity and NGO fraud to industrial espionage and infidelity investigations, declined a request for interview. However, the company did confirm it regularly outsources cases to Crest Hawk when it is short-handed.
While the demand for corporate investigations is growing, Baxter said about 70 percent of the cases he takes on concern suspicions of infidelity.
“These are the easiest cases for us, and typically take no more than 10 hours to complete but don’t pay that much,” he said, adding that the clientele for these cases was split evenly between men and women.
He explained that the firm’s domestic clients were generally concerned about the late-night escapades of their spouses or partners, while foreign clients usually wanted details of a person’s conduct during business trips to Cambodia. These cases tend to be easier.
“When an international client hires us, they can provide the exact details of the husband or wife’s date of arrival and where they are staying, and sometimes even a room number,” he explained.
In these cases, a Crest Hawk investigator might rent a room at the same hotel to help with the investigation and provide an accurate rundown of the person’s stay, complete with photographs.
“No matter what we find, we then complete an objective detailed report written in the third person, noting the times they go out, where they went and what happens after, chronologically,” he said. “And we are only paid in cash or direct money transfers no matter if the client is happy with the information we find – which they generally aren’t when it comes to infidelity.”
Baxter said that while Cambodia has no legal framework for private investigation firms, the shadowy nature of the country gives investigators more surveillance leeway. He recounted one recent case where a client handed over “thousands and thousands of dollars” to stake out a villa for over a month.
“We were not told the suspect’s name, just [given] a photograph of the man and hired to follow every move he made after being contacted through a middleman,” Baxter recalled. “The idea that the client had was that this person was undercutting an ongoing business deal and they needed to know who he was meeting with at all times.”
He added that it was only during the investigation that Crest Hawk learned the person it was investigating appeared to be part of Cambodia’s military, or closely related to a high-ranking military official.
“Of course when we realised this we got worried, but the insane amounts of cash kept on coming in and we kept our distance as much as possible,” he said, adding that his company provided all the information requested, though he never did find out what happened with the case.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a source with firsthand knowledge of the local private investigation business said investigators operate in a “very dicey grey area”. He said private eyes walk a thin line between corporate due diligence activities and traditional policing, putting themselves at high personal risk.
“There is definitely a role for them to play in Cambodia to close the gap between civil and legal cases of fraud or illegal corporate behaviour seeing that the police lack the capabilities and can be bribed,” he said. “But currently these firms have no legal protections for their operations and depending on who they are dealing with they can end up on the wrong side of the law.”
However, the source said demand for private investigators was likely to grow as Cambodia’s economy flourishes and more multinational firms enter the country.
“The cowboys of the industry will have to make a good name for themselves and build up credibility and international respect if they want to catch high-paying clients,” he added.