Getting Your Stuff Back
Hiring a private detective may be the best solution to recovering stolen property.
By Greg Fjetland
Suffering the outrage and indignation of home break-in and property theft is a troubling fact of modern life for many Canadians. Police across Canada reported more than 1.2 million incidents of property crime in 2002. Almost 275,000 break-ins were reported, the majority of them residential. (Prince Edward Island reported the largest increase in break-in rates at 29%.) Unfortunately, overworked and understaffed police departments don't have the time or resources to track down all the thieves and their stolen goods.
The good news is that victims of crime can do quite a bit to help recover their goods as was my personal experience. When our family went on an extended trip two years ago (See MoneySense “Going Places” June/July 03) we decided to rent out our furnished home in our absence. We rented the house to a family we knew casually. They turned out to have no intention of paying the rent. Their cheques bounced and after two months we evicted them. We hired a property manager to look after the place and he promptly found us a new family that had no intention of paying the rent either. And when they finally moved out after 6 months they took our household furnishings with them.
We tracked down our first tenants through friends. They’d heard our tenants had moved to Calgary so we called long distance directory assistance for their number. Then with a court order for payment in hand we called a Calgary lawyer. After his phone call, our first tenants agreed to pay the outstanding rent.
Our second set of tenants had moved only across town but were now living under the wife’s maiden name. We learned her previous name from an old bill left behind in their garbage and then obtained their new address through the kindness of a clerk at the cable company. (People always pay their cable bills the clerk assured us.) Once we supplied the RCMP with the address, our officer promptly went to pick them up. And quite a scene it was too, the constable later told us, with the husband cursing and the wife crying, a new born baby in her arms, as the couple was bundled into separate cruisers. (He was later to claim our furnishings were mistakenly taken by the movers and the rent non-payment was an oversight!)
Another option is to hire a private investigator to assist in your search. This was the route chosen by Richard and Lois Soneff of Kelowna. The couple awoke one morning in November 2002 to find their new custom jetboat stolen out of the back yard. Richard had just finished helping to assemble the boat, took it out for its first run and brought it home on Friday. The crooks struck the next night. “I’ll never forget how I felt,” he says, when he discovered the boat gone. The appraised value of the uninsured boat was $60,000, a major financial blow to the couple.
The Soneffs contacted the RCMP but weren’t convinced that the police were going to devote the time or effort to track down their boat. Richard undertook the task of finding the boat himself by taking out newspapers advertisements in B.C., Alberta and Washington State offering a $5,000 reward. He also hired a private investigator to help research and track down leads, searching for his stolen boat. Together, he and their private investigator sent out thousands of emails and faxes to gas stations and boatyards.
More and more victims of property crime are relying on private investigators to recover their goods. As a result P.I.’s report that their business is booming. “We’re swamped,” says Suzanne Parisien, president of FBIG Investigations (Okanagan.) which employs 13 licensed private investigators. Parisien says some of their business is because the RCMP assign greater priority to crimes other than property theft. RCMP Media Liaison Constable Heather Macdonald disagrees, saying that, “All files are assigned to a member.” Parisien says that the FBIG Vancouver branch has a whole division concerned with property recovery.
In tracking down the culprits, says Parisien, any leads provided by the victim can be helpful. “Typically we’ll use reliable sources, which could be anyone from neighbours, friend, relatives and the authorities,” she says. She says FBIG investigators don’t use the Internet much because the information isn’t current.
But don’t expect to hire today’s Sam Spade for $100/day. Private investigators don’t come cheap. FBIG charges the industry standard: $65/hour and costs. Costs can include long distance phone bills and travel expenses. Clients can be into big money pretty quickly so Parisien says they usually only get called in on big ticket items, like the Soneff'’s boat or items with a strong sentimental value, like jewelry or other keepsakes.
Besides checking with directory assistance and Canada411.com, Constable MacDonald says to visit local pawnshops to see if you can recognize your belongings. She also advises to keep serial numbers and photos of items in a safe place to help identify and reclaim recovered items.
So we managed to get our stuff back and the back rent paid too. And the Soneffs, following a tip, hired a plane and spotted their boat on a farm one hour north of Prince George. The Soneffs called the cops who promptly went and arrested the bad guys and got them their boat back.