Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Spy Tips from Michael Weston (Is she cheating?)

Here's a little tip from one of our favorite covert operatives, Michael Weston of Burn Notice. Great advice.

Monthly Ledger and survey mailed today

Happy holidays to you. If you have the time, please drop on over to our Monthly Ledger sign up page and start receiving the Monthly Ledger from [FIND] Investigations. While you're at it, swing on by the new survey and take two minutes to answer a few simple questions. We're looking forward to a great 2010. Hope you are too.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Economy's Impact on Child Support - Part II

Behind the Scenes of Our Marketplace Story
Close-up of Rhonda Spurlock

An intimidating pile of file folders looms high over attorney Rhonda Spurlock's desk. But that doesn't worry her too much, because she isn't often in her office. She mostly spends her days in any of ten courts in the four Tennessee counties she serves, advocating for the scores of moms and dads that imposing stack of folders represents, chipping away at her swelling case load.

Spurlock is head litigator for her district's Child Support Office, a free state service that helps parents sort out their child support agreements. Although she does handle contempt and enforcement actions, she says her agency is "non-custodial-parent friendly."

"Our goal is to collect money so these families can have income to buy food, basic necessities for their children," she says. And that goal has become far more challenging in this economic climate. 

"A lot of parents, are frustrated and stressed out. This is a trying time. And when you’re dealing with children and money and a bad economy, it evokes a lot of anger and frustration in parents. I don’t want to add to that agitation."

No one is immune to the economic downturn, says Spurlock. She has seen struggling parents along every part of the income spectrum, from laid-off factory workers in Perry Co. (with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation) to downsized Dell and former GM employees, to bankers and executives in Williamson Co. (one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S.): "People who were previously earning from $5,000 to $10,000 (or) $15,000 a month, now who are out of work," she says. "One problem is they’re in denial that the economy will or will not get better, and they are hesitant to seek jobs in lower paying positions...And that is a big problem."

"I don’t believe a lot of people have accepted that their particular industry may not get better for a long time," she adds.

Which explains all those folders on Spurlock's desk, many of them requests from parents (who have been laid off or seen a big cut in their income) to modify the amount of child support they pay or receive. "Our modification case load has almost tripled," she says.

"Where that has been essential is for people who have been laid off, and now they’re on unemployment benefits," she says. "So if they were making $5,000, now they’re making $1,191.67  from unemployment income, and they’re gonna be asking for immediate relief because their income has drastically been reduced." But even unemployed parents have to pay something, she points out. She's empowered to give relief, but not to suspend payments altogether. "Well, your child doesn’t have that choice," she says.

A few statistics tell the story: Spurlock says her counties have seen a 6.97 decrease in child support collections since last year, and Tennessee is down 8.8 percent overall. "And that is a huge reduction in collections," she says. "...Every month this year, every county’s collections have gone down."

Spend a few minutes with Spurlock in her modest office, and a picture emerges: of a modest and practical crusader who's found her life's work and whose compassion extends to custodial and non-custodial parents alike. And she hates the term "deadbeat dads." It ignores the fact that close to forty percent of these non-custodial parents are moms, for one. "(And it's) not a fair label because a lot of people are trying, and I think that unfairly categorizes them. That’s like saying all lawyers are bad. There are some good ones in the bunch," she smiles. 

"(It's) one of those jobs you either love or hate," adds Spurlock. "You have to really care about people," she says. "I don’t represent either party, so I can step back and decide what’s best for the child."

Spurlock echoes Judge Smith's advice to parents facing job losses and increasing difficulty meeting their child support obligations: "Take action immediately to ask that your court order be reviewed," she says. "DO NOT just stop paying child support altogether...Don't wait until your unemployment runs out six months later and you're in a bind."

She also suggests that parents keep a record of where they're looking for jobs -- copies of applications or internet searches -- so they can prove they are seeking work in earnest.  -KDG

Tradecraft Holiday Wish List IV


A vital component of intelligence-gathering and surveillance is maintaining open lines of effective communication. Cell phones (equipped with a headset for moving surveillance) set up to handle three-way calling can work for many situations, but other circumstances demand an excellent two-way radio. The difference between a kids' toy for paintball games and a professional communications device for investigators is vast, a lesson we had to learn the hard way. Here's the product we eventually chose:

Motorola PR400 handheld professional two way radio

($517 Retail)

When it comes to mission-critical communications, there’s no choice but to go with the best quality you can afford. We researched two-way communication options for 6 months. We consulted with friends in the FBI and the Nashville Police Department. In short…we looked high and low.

Finally, after trying consumer-grade hand-held radios bought at the local hunting mega-store, we contacted Stan Duke over at Wireless Solutions. Stan patiently considered our operational needs and led us to the Motorola PR 400. It’s a simple, easy-to-use hand-held and, best of all, we can use it over a community repeater employing itinerant frequencies, assuring relatively secure communication and coverage for the entire metro area. Throw in a set of covert surveillance headsets, and we’re ready to launch our three-man moving surveillance team into action, rotating the pursuit vehicle seamlessly via radio, our subject none the wiser.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tradecraft Holiday Wish List III

Book Suggestion:

The Real Spy's Guide

The Real Spys Guide to Becoming a Spy

By Peter Earnest with Suzanne Harper in association with the International Spy Museum.

I picked this book up in Miami a couple months ago while the team was in South Florida conducting interviews and doing a little training with our FBI pals. I intended to give it to a young friend, the son of one of my best buddies, as a gift, but, I am ashamed to admit, I fell in love with it and gave him, instead, a book on golf.

It’s published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, intended for kids, and written only just above my reading level. The amazing thing is that this book actually has some solid advice that field operatives could (should) know.

There’s the obligatory history of the craft, from the first recorded account of spying in the Court of King Hammurabi of Babylon to the 2008 arrest of Chi Mak, a naturalized U.S. citizen who sold secrets to the Chinese. There are lessons on spy speak, quizzes that help you decide if you have what it takes to be a spy, and really cool stories about actual spies.

You’ll find chapters on how to become a spy, what training is required, and what to expect in the life. You’ll be briefed on how to tell if someone is lying, how to create a cover ID, and how to work undercover.

But for my money, Chapter 6 is the reason to buy this book. It’s a practical guide to honing your skills as an undercover operative. I have bought countless books over the years that claim to be the ultimate text on topics like disguise and surveillance. This one chapter, however, may be the best written, most concise, and optimally useful single source for learning the trade.

I have taken this chapter and made it a kind of training manual for the [FIND] Investigations team. From the basics of keeping an open mind and being curious, to research skills, note taking skills, writing skills, and observation skills, this chapter covers it all and does so with an economy of words. You’ll learn valuable tips for improving memory, being aware of your surroundings, and remembering the details.

I am recommending this book as a gift for the curious kid in your life, that little James Bond wannabe who can’t put down the Alex Rider books, but in reality this book is just fun. Check it out on Amazon here.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Economy's Impact on Child Support - Close-up

A Follow-up to our "Marketplace" Story
Close-up: Judge Philip Smith

At [FIND] Investigations, a lot of our work as investigators for hire revolves around the custody of kids who are, or are soon to be, caught in the middle of a divorce or separation. We gather intelligence for clients that may ultimately influence how a child custody agreement is settled, including how much the non-residential parent agrees to pay each month. 

Earlier this fall, we started wondering what role the down economy plays in non-residential parents' ability to write that monthly check. Is the recession turning more stand-up dads and moms into so-called "deadbeats"?

New Lexicon: "Modification"

For starters, we turned to Philip Smith, Fourth Circuit Court Judge for Davidson County (Nashville, TN and environs). His duties include hearing cases related to child custody and support, divorce, and adoptions. His answer to our first question: "Have you seen big changes in child support payments because of the economy?" introduces a new term into our lexicon:

"We're seeing a lot more post-divorce modification of support," Judge Smith tells us.

Modification. It's a word we hear many more times as we delve deeper into this issue. Judge Smith explains that a request for modification can mean one of two things: 

1. a request by the "primary residential parent"  to increase the monthly support payment received OR 
2. a request by the "alternate-residential parent" to decrease the amount of support paid monthly. 

So the first thing we learned is that we needed to re-frame the question. The economy isn't necessarily turning a lot of paying parents into "deadbeats." Judge Smith says job losses, plant closings, and decreases in income have all affected parents' ability to pay. These are mostly honest dads and moms who just "need a break," he explains. And his docket is overloaded with these struggling parents, who are asking the court to temporarily alter the child support agreement they made in flusher times.

The question, framed more precisely, should have been, "How does an overloaded court system effectively collect child support during an economic slump?"

It's the Economy, Stupid

Before the recession, Judge Smith saw far fewer modification requests than he did contempt and enforcement cases -- in other words, "deadbeat" (in the traditional sense) dads and moms ducking responsibility by misreporting their income or by claiming they can't find work when it's clear they're not really trying. These days, he says, these folks are in the minority. But they're still out there, clinging to the economy as an excuse. "That's the first thing I hear in every modification proceeding is, you know, 'This economy has affected my ability to earn income.'" says Judge Smith. 

But it's not always easy to tell the honest, struggling parents from what he calls the malingerers: "They weren't working when the support order went down...and now they're claiming they don't have the ability to pay," he says. "They're not looking for other employment, they're living off other people. And the court's not quite as sympathetic with people like that."


He says enforcing the court order to pay in these cases can be tricky, but he has several tools at his disposal. For what he calls "W2 employees," he might apply a "wage assignment," which takes a portion of a parent's paycheck and credits the amount to the back support owed. He can garner up to half of a non-paying parent's unemployment check and can intercept tax refunds.

He might also revoke professional license, a driver's license, a passport, or even hunting and fishing licenses for non-payment. And he has the power to hold non-paying parents in either civil or criminal contempt of court in certain cases. Civil contempt is occasionally used to coerce an uncooperative parent who can pay to do so, by putting him/her in the slammer until he/she complies with the court order.

"They have the keys to the jailhouse in their pocket," says Judge Smith. "I.e. take that money out of savings and pay the support owed."

Criminal contempt, he explains, is purely a punitive measure...and a last resort. In these cases, the burden of proof falls on the petitioner (often the residential parent who is owed back payment) to show that the ex has the ability to pay: "Payroll records, tax returns, or proof that the person is making their mortgage payments, their electric payment, their gas payment, their cable bill, their internet bill, tithing to their church, their automobile payment...and checking account records." says Judge Smith. "Deadbeats" in criminal contempt can even face jail time.

Unfortunately, incarceration doesn't feed the kids in question. And, as Judge Smith points out, for some people who mostly live outside the system and the law, it isn't even much of an incentive.


Although the economy has affected a lot of non-custodial parents' ability to pay child support, one thing has not changed: "The primary residential parent's expenses still continue," Judge Smith points out. "And when we talk about a modification, we're not talking about a termination. Rarely is support terminated."

The takeaway message for custodial and non-custodial parents is this: you have somewhere to turn. For non-residential parents falling behind on support payments, Judge Smith has this advice:

"The best thing that I could tell anyone facing a job loss or some other reason to justify modification is to get in and file your action for modification. That will keep you out of trouble."

He advises struggling parents on both sides of the payment picture to avail themselves of the free services provided by their local Child Support Services office. (Click here to see a listing of Child Support offices in Tennessee.)

For our next installment of this article, we'll take a closer look at the tireless work of Rhonda Spurlock, head litigator for the Child Support Office serving Perry, Williamson, Hickman, and Lewis Counties.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Second "Marketplace" Story Airs

The second installment of our continuing series for "Marketplace" (American Public Media's nationally syndicated public radio program on business) aired on Tuesday, December 8. Marketplace asked Nashville private investigator Thomas H. Humphreys to look into the economy's impact on child support collections. Humphreys turned to Nashville Fourth Circuit Court Judge Philip Smith, Child Support Services litigator Rhonda Spurlock, and our esteemed colleague, expert PI Renee Waters for expertise. 

To find out how single parents are faring in this economy, where jobless dads and moms can turn for help, and to hear the moving story of how one deadbeat dad inspired Waters' life work, visit the Marketplace online archive, where you can listen to the story or read a transcript. 

*And if you love the swingy PI theme song that accompanies the piece, go see our composer Andy Schienman's website and hear more of his work.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tradecraft Holiday Wish List II

Shorter winter days equal lots more nighttime surveillance for us private eyes. No problem! There's nothing sexier than high-quality night ops gadgetry. At least nothing we can think of.

Night Vision

The only night vision tool [FIND] Investigations endorses is the wonderfully simple Igen NV 20/20 fromNight Owl Optics. ($590 Retail)

This is one of the first tools we purchased for covert night time surveillance. It works in low- to almost no-light situations. Pop on the IR option and it works in total darkness (thought the IR light can be spotted at just the right angle). The field of view is good (70’ wide at 330’ range), the range is acceptable, and the unit is relatively lightweight (21 oz). The most impressive feature is the built in SD card slot and image capture option. There’s even a single RCA video out so you can record night vision video of your target snogging in that dark parking lot.


The team at [FIND] Investigations has a long history of trying to locate the absolute best flashlight. I know it sounds a bit dim, but we love our torches. Two thirds of the [FIND] team are certificated FAA pilots. One team member is a certified flight instructor and commercial pilot with over 15 years experience. We know the importance of light and its potential impact on personal night vision and depth perception. If you simply crank on the overhead lights in your car while on surveillance several bad things happen at the same time. First, you’re operationally compromised. Second, you’ve just shot about 120 million rods into the realm of useless for about 10 minutes, up to 30 minutes. (Rods are found on your retina and see in black, white, and shades of gray and tell us the form or shape that something has. They are super-sensitive, allowing us to see when it's very dark.)

Avoid giving yourself away and ruining your ability to see at night by using a flashlight with a red lens or red bulb. That’s simple, but what about when the op is finished and you’re cleaning out the car, trying to discern if that jug in your floorboard is Gatorade or the similarly-colored human byproduct of consuming too much coffee? The red light simply doesn’t shine bright enough. Enter the Coleman/ LED Multi-Color flashlight, a torch that lets you choose between white, red, or green light.

Check out your local Academy Sports, Dick’s Sporting Goods, or Bass Pro Shop and find one of these. They sell for about $30. This is a great tool for the hunter in your house as well. Pilots, get one now!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tradecraft Holiday Wish List

The Wickedest Spy Gear You Can Buy Without a CIA Budget Behind You

We here at [FIND] Investigations love gadgets. The problem is: we despise cheap trinkets. Skip the $200 multi-sensing debugging device that picks up every radio frequency in a five-yard radius. Forget about the Oakley look-alike sunglasses with the built-in camera that adds about two pounds and looks for all the world like Geordi La Forge’s wrap around eyepiece. And that teddy bear with the one odd colored button, leave it in your online shopping cart, but do not buy it. Our operational requirements and our extremely good taste demand the absolute highest quality gear we can afford. 

This holiday month, we'll feature our favorite must-have gear for the savvy spy. Every item listed here is included in our bag of tricks. We use these tools on a daily basis. They are solid, well built, quality tools that should be in every investigators go bag. 

Video Recorders


Sony HDR-XR200 Digital Handycam ($899.00 Retail)

This cam-corder is perfect for the field operative. Small, lightweight, and easy to use, this camera should be at hand at all times whilst on surveillance. Sony has imbedded a GPS receiver in the unit, making it the documenter's dream. When you capture that cheating wife coming out of the local shag-o-matic hotel, this camera not only records a high definition video, it uses GPS telemetry to geo-code the location and stamp the file with an indelible date/time reference. When you get back to the office to assemble your evidence and write your report, simply sync the newly recorded video to your map program and you’ve got location, time, date, and video all in one neat little package. 

MD80 Pocket Camera Recorder ($350 Retail)

It’s not a toy. This tiny, smaller-than-my-thumb video camera makes covert recording a breeze. You can clip it to your shirt, wear it around your neck, or just hold it in your hand. This pint sized recorder actually captures high-quality, usable video images and, if enabled, decent quality audio. The images are stored directly to the Mini SD card slot. Either hook it up to your computer using the USB cable (provided) or slip the Mini SD card out and drop it into your desktop card reader and drag the video files over to your computer, easy peasy.