Want to be a snoop? Here's a clue... mac and be a private eye for pounds 9,xx

Forget the mac and dark glasses. All you need to be a private detective is incredibly nosy - and pounds 9,950. By Meg Carter
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Are you always the first to guess who did it when watching the latest Ruth Rendell on telly? Do you have an inconspicuous mac and a pair of dark glasses? Ever considered becoming a private detective? Don't laugh. Forget the master's in surveillance techniques and 25 years' experience on the police force. These days, all you need is pounds 9,950 plus VAT.

That is how much it costs to become a franchisee of Abbey Investigations & Associates, a Stockport-based private investigation firm which is building a network of local operatives throughout the UK. "Investigate this superb opportunity," Abbey's recent national newspaper advertisement teased. "Your chance to run your own private investigation business from home." To the inquisitive individual who wants deeper satisfaction than Neighbourhood Watch and informing on dole cheats can offer, it must sound irresistible.

Abbey Investigations receives around a dozen enquiries a week and claims it is on track for signing up two new franchisees a month for this year. "There's a massive market out there," says Stuart Greatbanks, who set up Abbey Investigations in 1990 with his wife, Amanda. "Demand for our services is constant and significant. Nearly every solicitor needs a private investigator - known in polite circles as 'enquiry agents' - at some point, whether for matrimonial investigation or serving an injunction."

Much of Abbey's business comes from local firms with national needs, and being able to offer a country-wide network of investigators is a distinct advantage. Franchisees, who can be from any background, purchase the right to trade in a specific area using the Abbey name. In exchange for their pounds 9,950 they receive a start-up pack including stationery, computer software, mobile telephone and, of course, training. This is a week-long residential course where franchisees are taught a range of investigation techniques, field surveillance methods, process and writ serving, in-house- tracing, computer skills, marketing and business management. "We want people we know can do the job properly," Greatbanks says. "The job is more common sense than knowledge, although you need the knowledge for what to do and when."

But while many are called, few are chosen. "We don't just take anyone who walks off the street with pounds 10,000 in their pocket," Greatbanks insists. "I'm a pretty good judge of character, and I've got to get the feeling they're right for the job." He says he can identify the no-hopers pretty quickly. "Some think they're buying a job. Others believe they'll spend their time standing on street corners in a raincoat and dark glasses."

Calum Robertston, a franchisee based in Peterborough, is an ex-RAF investigator. He took voluntary redundancy last year but wanted to stay in the same line of work. "I enjoy it and I'm good at it," he says. "Although my last job involved mostly criminal work, the civil work is varied and interesting." Business is booming, he adds - "there's great demand".

Small wonder, then, if more and more people see private investigation as an appealing way to earn a living. Jim Cole, secretary general of the Institute of Professional Investigators, says there are probably between 15,000 and 17,000 private investigators in the UK. "Over the last three or four years, business has grown quite considerably. There are an awful lot out there. And no one is in control."

Although private investigation is now regarded as a legitimate part of the surveillance business, for many years it was ignored as a shady world where few outsiders dared tread. As a result, no formal regulation or accreditation exists, Cole says. "At the moment, there's nothing to stop someone getting out of prison in the morning, nailing a sign on his door and going into business as a private investigator. They've watched it on TV and fancy a crack themselves."

The IPI gets three or four calls from hopefuls each week, many inspired by television drama's obsession with detectives and crime series. "A favourite one is 'Please send us details of how to become a PI'," Cole scoffs. "But we don't distribute that sort of thing. It would be ridiculous." However, along with the Association of British Investigators, the IPI has successfully lobbied for the introduction of the first industry-accredited courses in investigation. You can now sit an NVQ in investigation. If that doesn't shake off the glamour-seekers, nothing willn