Private eyes spied on the wrong couple

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The Independent Online

Procedures used by a local authority and its insurers to investigate bogus damages claims were being reviewed yesterday after private detectives spent a month trailing a family before discovering they were watching the wrong people.

Sharon Wood, 25, and her family were so alarmed by the attentions of the team that she called the police and was given a police escort in the mistaken belief that she might be the subject of a kidnap attempt.

Once the error was discovered Cleveland County Council apologised unreservedly to the Hartlepool family. The insurers who had contracted the investigators to examine the claim, Zurich Municipal, said it would review its contract with the detection firm.

However, despite the ordeal both the authority and the insurers said they would continue to use private detectives to examine claims, which now total hundreds of thousands each year and have grown eightfold in 10 years.

The two-man detective team, investigating a claim against the council by a woman who had lived at the Woods' house previously and had fallen in the street injuring herself, took it in turns to follow Mrs Wood as she accompanied her children, Craig, six, and Rebecca, two, to school.

They photographed and filmed her movements on video until finally Mrs Wood contacted the police and was given protection by plain clothes officers.

Extra playground security was laid on by teachers at her children's school because of fears that the children might be abducted, before the blunder was discovered.

The anxiety Mrs Wood and her family experienced was heightened because some years before she had been harassed by someone who plagued her with phone calls and watched her every move.

She was angry at her latest ordeal. "They put me through hell. I didn't know what was going on. Every time the doorbell or the telephone rang I started shaking like a leaf.

"They used to drive along in their car at walking pace just a few feet behind us. I wanted to get the registration number but I was too afraid to look back. It was like a repeat of that nightmare.I was going out of my mind with worry, " she said.

Officials at Cleveland council were embarrassed by the fiasco which began in 1991."The facts are clear," said Bruce Stevenson, the authority's chief executive. "It was a case of mistaken identity which should not have happened.

"We sincerely regret any distress which has been caused to the lady, who found herself unwittingly involved."

Nigel Peake, of Zurich Municipal, echoed the sentiments and said that the circumstances would be investigated to ensure it could not happen again.

The Association of British Investigators, said that the scale of work its members carried out was growing, particularly as police forces become stretched.