Just joking. What you do in Sihanoukville just might come back to haunt you. Or at least if one of our surveillance experts are around, and you’re up to something that you know you shouldn’t.
While Phnom Penh Investigations (PPI) started out of the capital in 2012, by 2013 they had already been completing investigative engagements as far NW as the Thai/Poipet border and as far SE as in Saigon (Vietnam).
In the age of global mobility, you just never know where your investigation might take you. And not just to another part of the city or to another province, it might end up in another country.
But for now, just an easy case study, this one showing just how much Cambodia’s infrastructure has improved over the past few years. From roads to telecommunications, this place really is developing at warp speed.
For now, though, here is a timeline of a very simple private investigation (surveillance) engagement we had just last week. Now there is nothing unique about this case whatsoever, so don’t expect fireworks or something you’d see on tv. In fact, like so much surveillance work in austere conditions and with limited resources, logistics and mobility can often end up being more crucial to the investigation than the agent’s actual training/investigative experience itself.
It’s a very quick read as it was a quick investigation for us. In fact, it took just as long to get the Western Union payment to Cambodia than it did to actually the complete the necessary surveillance on the case.
Here is the pertinent:
CLIENT: 30-something Male (USA)
INVESTIGATION SUBJECT: Client’s fiance (also from USA)
1ST OBJECTIVE: Subject’s hotel, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
CLIENT’S REQUESTED “SGE”*: Client’s “SGE” was sharing a room overnight with her male colleague
*SGE = “Smoking Gun Evidence” aka a “deal-breaker”. It’s just an informal phrase/acronym we use to describe the point in the investigation where we have collected enough evidence that if the client is being billed hourly, which is more times than not, most clients would be probably want us to stop our surveillance as to avoid having to pay for additional hours that might not be any more beneficial to them.
CASE STUDY: TIMELINE
Private Investigator Sihanoukville
1033hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (incoming call from USA)
Tactical Operations Center (TOC)
A prospective client calls Phnom Penh Investigations (PPI) inquiring about our private investigation services after seeing PPI at the top of Google search rankings in Cambodia.
The client informs us that his fiance (the “subject”) is on a work-holiday in Asia for several weeks but traveling with several male colleagues. The client believes his fiance (subject) might be sleeping with one of the work colleagues.
The client asks how much we charge for surveillance work as he needs a private investigator in Sihanoukville (Cambodia) as soon as possible The client deems the case time sensitive as he believes his fiance is leaving that city the following afternoon and was unsure where she might be going next in Cambodia or if she was returning to Singapore.
We inform the client that we have no agents available in Sihanoukville but could dispatch one from either Phnom Penh or elsewhere in Cambodia but that there would be travel costs in addition to the costs for the surveillance work/private investigation.
The client is fine with the travel costs and insists that “money is not an issue” but that we needed to hurry as this was her last night in Sihanoukville and it might be his last chance to catch her cheating, if that were the case, before leaving Cambodia.
The client informed that he saw the subject’s phone GPS coordinates and it indicated a location where there were only a handful of hotels nearby. Furthermore the subject confirmed the name of the hotel to the client.
We asked again just to confirm if his deal breaker was the fact they she was sharing a hotel room with her work colleague, or any other person for that matter? The client confirmed that it was. The client only wanted to know if his fiance was sharing a hotel room with one of her work colleagues (or any other person for that matter).
The client was then informed that we would itemize his retainer quote for our investigative/surveillance services and was given only a general quote by phone which was an estimated quote of $500 (retainer only).
1053hrs, Kampot, Cambodia
PPI’s on-call private investigator Kampot/Kep/Sihanoukville (Cambodia Coast) was notified but asked if stand-by could handle the case as had a “family issue”.
1102hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
PPI’s stand-by private investigator agrees to take the case but informs that she didn’t have transportation at the moment as her SUV was in the garage (added to the itemized price quote for the client). Stand-by investigator becomes the client’s “Assigned Investigator”, known internally as “AI”.
Several Google searches, cross-referencing etc., show that the hotel the client believed his fiance was staying might have closed several years ago. However, the hotel still had a very good online presence with listings on various booking platforms.
Formulating a price quote for a client when travel expenses are to be added is generally a very quick process. However, there was conflicting information seemingly on every hotel directory and booking platform.
For example, several posts from different users commenting that it was sad to see the hotel close (comments posted several years ago), while other booking platforms showing customer reviews dated less than 2 years ago (some from mid-2016).
1125hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (outgoing call to Sihanoukville)
By 1125 we had contacted the phone number listed on many of the hotel directories and a woman with a suspected European accent answered claiming the hotel had closed five years ago but that….(too hard to understand her explanation)…so they never removed their phone numbers from the various online hotel listings.
However, when she asked she confirmed 100% that the hotel was no longer there.
1127hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (outgoing call to USA)
PPI called the client to confirm the GPS coordinates and hotel name of the subject.
Client confirmed and stated that he Googled it as well and when he tried calling the number a “European sounding woman” answered but told him that they were in fact OPEN for business (as a hotel).
NOTE: The client was calling from an overseas number while PPI was calling from a local Cambodian cell phone number albeit one that was unknown to the woman who
answered he phone.
1141hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (outgoing email to USA)
Client is sent an itemized price quote for private investigation services (Sihanoukville, Cambodia). Quote was as follows (partially redacted for privacy/proprietary reasons):
(TS*) PNH-KOS*(2) 1-way taxi $55
1-night REDACTED (subject’s hotel) $45-$105*(3)
REDACTED (proprietary) $50*(4)
24hr surveillance rate $150
KOS-PNH 1-way mini-bus $15
(5)*PPI agency fee $100
$475 plus 10% VAT*(6)
*TS = Time Sensitive (note: we do our best to keep costs down for clients and Cambodia has plenty of comfortable, air conditioned buses so private taxis are NOT required; exceptions being when the client deems the case time sensitive such as this one).
(2)*PNH = Phnom Penh
KOS = Sihanoukville, the main coastal resort area in Cambodia and also Cambodia’s main industrial shipping port (derived from Khmer name “Kampong Som”)
(3)*We book our investigators as close to the subject’s hotel as possible, if the client’s budget can allow that. This price range was given to the client ($45-$105) instead of an exact price quote because we couldn’t figure out if the hotel was actually in operation or if it had closed a few years back. If clients are overcharged for actual travel expenses such as hotel costs, the client will be reimbursed for the difference via PayPal immediately after the investigation (within 24 hours).
(4)*$50 is for certain “gratuities” that are required to access certain information and/or misc. costs incurred (projected). For this particular case we projected $50 in misc. spending required once the investigator reached Sihanoukville.
(5)*Phnom Penh Investigations (PPI) did not have a private investigator available and only acted as an operations center for the client (phone, email, IM live support). For this service we charge only $100/day. The actual surveillance was outsourced to another agency in Cambodia whose owner/operator was a former protege of PPI (insert Phnom Penh Post news article link).
(6)*Cambodia is still “The Wild West” in some regards, but the internet has proven that it can tame anyone. And, yes, Cambodia has a tax office.
It was inevitable, though. Phnom Penh Investigations filed for (and received) its VAT license in July 2015 after operating, like most of the country’s businesses, unlicensed (PPI had been unlicensed since February 2012).
1157hrs Phnom Penh, Cambodia (incoming call from USA)
Clients calls back and is now worried that either someone else has his fiance’s phone (false GPS signal) or that maybe we are incompetent etc., and appears to be hesitant to pay 100% upfront as required for these types of private investigation engagements, i.e. short-term (only 24-hours surveillance) and with travel costs which equates to lower margin on our end and less man-hours available
Client needs to chat with his fiance a bit more which gives us more time to continue verifying if he had the correct hotel or not.
1227hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (incoming call from assigned investigator)
Assigned investigator (AI) called back asking for confirmation.
As of 1227hrs, the client had not confirmed payment of our retainer.
Assigned investigator (AI) then asked to be excused from her position on the duty rotation (due to a terminal ill relative in grave condition now).
1229hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (outgoing SMS in Cambodia to available agents)
PPI announces short-term surveillance engagement in Sihanoukville with no available agents.
NOTE: PPI had 3 other agents on investigative engagements at the time but none of the 3 were on cases that could allow additional surveillance duties.
1229-1307hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (in-between outgoing calls to Sihanoukville)
In-between “phone tag” with the “European woman” in Sihanoukville who may or may not have a hotel, and trying to find the closest confirmed hotel available near to the subject’s
possible hotel, PPI contacts Sihanoukville police and requests for any plainclothes support that might be available (note: many Cambodian police moonlight as “private investigators” although are generally used only as a last resort).
The client is informed of the possibility that his only available resource might be a plainclothes Cambodian police officer (off duty) and while it would significantly lower the surveillance costs, the quality of the surveillance footage almost certainly would be less than ideal. Client confirms he is willing to risk it and agrees to hiring a Cambodian (off duty) police officer if no other private investigator resources were available.
1307hrs, Kampot, Cambodia (via Whatsapp with PPI in Phnom Penh)
Original investigator on duty calls back and requests if the case is still available. His “personal issue” was just a miscommunication due to poor phone reception where he was in Kampot (another popular resort area on the Cambodian coastline and only about 2 hours away from Sihanoukville).
Original investigator on-call now assumes “Assigned Investigator”. Client is informed.
1337hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (via Whatsapp with client in USA)
Client agrees to Western Union payment but doesn’t like the requirement to pay 100%.
We explain how we have no legal recourse to recoup money owed to us should a client not pay. We are private investigators in Cambodia with clients from, mostly, outside of Cambodia. And in this case, from the USA.
We are happy to use an escrow service but that is the client’s responsibility and not ours and all escrow fees will come from the client’s side. Furthermore escrow services are not ideal for time sensitive cases as the client indicated this case was.
Client agrees to pay (almost) all expenses upfront 100% but asks to pay surveillance rate ($150) and return transportation ($15) upon completion.
The assigned investigator (AI) is on another Whatsapp thread and he responds in real time agreeing to half upfront ($75) and $75 for any photographic evidence but 100% of ALL expenses including return transportation in advance.
The client agrees and sends funds via (presumably) credit or debit card on WesternUnion.com.
1357hrs, Kampot, Cambodia
Upon confirmation of the WU tracking number, the AI is dispatched from Kampot en route to Sihanoukville.
1447hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Western Union pickup of client’s payment for 100% travel expenses plus agency fee and 50% surveillance rate for 24-hours. PPI forwards AI’s travel expenses and $75 (50% of surveillance rate) via WING, a popular Cambodia mobile payment app.
1607hrs, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Assigned Investigator (AI) begins advance work in/around subject’s (the fiance’s) hotel and quickly identifies key staff members in the area along with all important avenues of approach.
Client is informed that his AI is on site. Client states that he will stay awake “for a few hours” to see how things turn out and asks to be kept updated.
Assigned Investigator (AI) sends in the first batch of time/date stamp photos verifying AI on-site (a courtesy for clients so they can be confident their AI is on site as promised and are always 100% accountable for their time).
Assigned Investigator (AI) continues perimeter surveillance around subject hotel.
AI asked PPI to confirm with the client if the SGE was the same, i.e. “smoking gun evidence” which in this case for the client, was if his fiance was sharing a hotel room with a work colleague. Client confirms that his “SGE” remains the same.
1720hrs, Sihanoukville, Cambodia (via Whatsapp to PPI in Phnom Penh)
AI texts “SGE in-hand” (i.e. the assigned investigator has either photographic or video evidence of the “smoking gun evidence” that the client requested “in-hand” meaning it is already captured and uploaded to a Dropbox folder or another cloud or sharing device that we use).
1727hrs, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (via Whatsapp with the client in the US)
Confirmation of SGE is shared with the client. Client requests the AI terminate surveillance.