Junior surveillance: the ultimate service for paranoid parents

Worried about your son's alcopop habit? Don't like the look of your daughter's new boyfriend? Suspicious about what they'll get up to on that holiday in Ibiza? Don't trust a grown-up detective agency to find out what's really happening? Who you gonna call? Teenbusters
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The Independent Online

It is 3pm in the office of Answers Investigation, and Nigel Parsons, private detective, is grappling with a particularly thorny problem: how to find two identical school ties. "Uniform blazers, shirts and skirts aren't difficult to get hold of," he says, ruefully. "But you've no idea how hard it is to find matching ties."

The ties are for two young employees of his agency, Marie-Louise McIlvenna, 26, and Amie Mitchell, 16, who will be posing as secondary-school girls later tonight. The client is a father who wants to find out where his 14-year-old daughter is buying her alcohol and cigarettes. McIlvenna and Mitchell will visit all the local off-licences in full school uniform to find out who is prepared to serve them.

"The daughter has been caught out- of-her-head on a number of occasions," says Parsons, backing away from my Dictaphone like a man who knows all too well that what he says may be used in evidence against him. "And we're not talking about alcopops. This is someone who has half a bottle of vodka stuffed into her school bag. She's got to be getting it from somewhere, and the father wants to catch them out."

Parsons earns a large part of his living from such investigations - along with inquiries into drug abuse, promiscuity and other forms of teenage misbehaviour. Young people are adept at keeping such aberrations from adult eyes, but Parsons has a secret weapon. He uses private eyes who look like - and, in some cases, are - teenagers themselves.

Nor is he alone in this market. Timothy Burchell, a senior agent at UK Private Investigators (UKPI), also based in Surrey, says that requests from parents who want their offspring to be under surveillance have "dramatically increased" in recent years. UKPI insist on its agents being over 18, but prefers them to "look younger" for such work. "On many occasions, we have obtained evidence of drug-dealing and drug-taking and, on more than one occasion, teenage prostitution. We've also been sent to holiday resorts such as Faliraki, Corfu and Ibiza to obtain evidence of teenage behaviour there," says Burchell.

Britain's largest agency, Nationwide Investigations Group (NiG), now receives such calls twice a week, and have four young employees to help deal with them, of whom the youngest is 19. "Parents come to us because they simply don't know what's going on. Once they have the facts about their children's behaviour, they can make balanced decisions rather than acting emotionally or in ignorance," says Keith Walker, operations director at NiG.

John Hope, a private investigator based in Kidderminster, says that he often works for local Asian parents who are worried about their daughter's behaviour. "There was one girl, aged 17 or 18, who used to walk down to the bus stop in traditional Asian clothing every morning," he says. "Once there, she would dive into some bushes, change her clothes and reappear looking more like a Western pop star. Then she would go to work in a bank. Her parents knew nothing about it."

Thousands of parents fear that the wool is being pulled over their eyes in a similar way, which is good news for agencies such as Answers Investigation, and for investigators such as Mitchell, a brace-wearing A-level student. "It's weird to think I'm doing undercover work," she says. "I was nervous before my first job - Charlie's Angels did cross my mind." Her colleague McIlvenna can pass for any age between 14 and 35. "In one week, I went from posing as a 30-year-old married woman to a 17-year-old student," she says.

She works with Parsons in the cramped environment of Answers Investigation's Godalming office - a green shed at the bottom of Parsons' garden. From there, Parsons co-ordinates 10 offices across the Home Counties. Services on offer to parents include investigating a child's drug-use, check-ups on new boyfriends (no one ever calls to report a suspicious girlfriend...), and investigation of internet activity.

"We always have a job on the go involving a suspected internet paedophile," says Parsons, who, despite being comfortably into middle age, seems to find it impossible to sit still. "We go through the client's computer, find out what chatroom their daughter has been using, and get the suspected paedophile's pseudonym. "Then we set up a pseudo-girl. She is a replica of the client's daughter but under a different name. We'll put her into the chatroom and see what happens," he says. What usually happens is that the suspected paedophile then gets chatting to this "girl", not realising that "she" is in fact Nigel Parsons. "I can be so 14 and female that I find myself walking past Topshop and wondering if my bum will look big in something," says Parsons, swiftly assuring me that he is joking.

Once Parsons has gained the suspected paedophile's trust, they will swop mobile numbers - that's where McIlvenna comes in. "I'm the body of the girl and he's the soul," she says. After she has chatted to the man several times, they will set up a meeting. "We've done a few meetings now," says Parsons. "One time, the paedophile thought he was meeting the girl, but instead came face to face with the girl's father."

Another time, McIlvenna did the meeting, posing as the teenage girl. She was escorted by 10 security men who then swooped on the man. "I was absolutely terrified," she says. "Afterwards, I couldn't stop shaking." The paedophile was apprehended, but could not be charged because there is no law against internet "grooming". It will become an offence when the Sexual Offences Bill, currently before Parliament, becomes law.

Regardless of success, these operations can be very expensive for the parent. Answers Investigation charges £44.50 per private eye per hour. As a result, a bill for an operation involving a suspected paedophile might run to thousands of pounds. What parent, you might ask, wouldn't pay that sort of money to ensure their child's safety (assuming they could afford it)? But, as Parsons admits, sometimes the money is doing little more than temporarily assuaging parental paranoia - or soothing their conscience.

Parsons says that he gets many calls from parents desperate to find out what drugs their children are taking and from what source. "But the times we have got involved have been when the family's got money and their daughter is so damn precious that they believe she would never do anything like that," says Parsons. "The parents are just looking for a reason to blame someone else rather than their own kid and their upbringing."

With the offhand manner of someone who does this sort of thing all the time, McIlvenna explains how they would pursue such a case. "Teenagers normally do drugs in a group, so you find out who their friends are. You work out which one you think is supplying them - it's usually the oldest guy - and then you follow him or her. I did a job like that in a college. I was dressed as a student so that it didn't look weird. The school knew about it," she says.

Parsons believes that many of the parents who call on his services are worrying unduly, like the middle-aged father who called one summer, worried sick that his 15-year-old daughter was going off the rails. He was certain that she had a secret older boyfriend, and suspected that she might be drinking and smoking heavily when out of his sight.

Parsons agreed to put her under constant surveillance for three days, promising photo and video evidence of her misdemeanours. "And I just spent the time lying on the beach watching her and her female friends do absolutely nothing untoward," says Parsons. "It was glorious. The most exciting thing this girl did was buy ice-cream." There was no secret boyfriend - not even a sneaky cigarette.

So, is the boom in teenage surveillance attributable to an increase in the number of moral and social pitfalls threatening the young? Or merely to an increase in parental anxiety? "I don't think there are any more dangers in the world now than a few decades ago," says Parsons. "The dangers are just more publicised and parents are infinitely more paranoid."

He himself is a parent - McIlvenna calls him "the most paranoid parent in the world" - but is cagey about revealing much else about himself. He refuses, for example, to say how old he is. "I'm not worried about my age," he says. "It's for security reasons - if you have your name in the paper, it's easy for someone to track you down."

It is tempting to link this caginess to unease about the moral implications of his work. Yet he sees nothing dubious about encouraging the young to spy on their peers, or about employing girls as young as 16 on undercover operations, including those involving suspected paedophiles. "Quite often, you might need to put a face in front of somebody or a voice on the phone," he says. "They need to think that they've been talking to a real 12- or 13-year-old. They haven't, but if you're 16, you can fake it."

Others in the industry are wary of the whole idea of employing under-18s as investigators. "We wouldn't entertain the idea. It's unprofessional and dangerous," says John Hope, spokesman for the World Association of Professional Investigators, which has 200 British members. "I'm not saying it wouldn't be possible, but it would need extreme caution. You'd be thinking of social-services and police involvement."

That night, Answers Investigation is faced with a delicate operation in which McIlvenna and Mitchell must "fake" being too young to buy alcohol, without actually inciting anyone to break the law. The plan is that, dressed as schoolgirls, they will try to get served in every local off-licence. But, to keep on the right side of the law, Mitchell will ask only for cigarettes, while McIlvenna will attempt to buy alcopops and vodka.

McIlvenna and Mitchell change into blazers, very short skirts, tights, shirts and maroon ties. (Parsons' wife has managed to dig up two old but matching ties.) Parsons isn't keen on the tights, arguing that every self-respecting 14-year-old goes to school barelegged, regardless of the season. McIlvenna and Mitchell counter that it is freezing outside. Parsons has to satisfy himself with making them look untidy by pulling out their shirts on one side.

Soon, they are on a high street somewhere in the Home Counties - the exact location of which can not be divulged to protect the client. Parsons insists on turning the car around before he parks it just behind the first off-licence. "It's one of the rules of private investigation," he explains. "Always point your car in the right direction for a fast getaway." A quick exit isn't necessary, however, as the proprietor turns the girls down without batting an eyelid.

It's the same story at the Thresher's further up the high street. However, this time their cover is blown when a passer-by notices our photographer outside. "First rules," says Parsons to McIlvenna. "If you're found out, leave the scene." They head off to the out-of-town Sainsbury's where McIlvenna manages to buy some vodka, although Mitchell is refused cigarettes. Back on the high street, McIlvenna is also served at the Co-op, buying two cans of white cider.

But then, she is 26. And, although she is dressed as a 15-year-old and suitably petite, she has the knowing look of a woman. No one serves the real teenager, Mitchell. When the man behind the counter in Oddbins refuses to serve McIlvenna cigarettes, she says, "Oh come on!". And he promptly does as she asks. Does the fact that this man served a 26-year-old in school uniform mean that he would serve a 15-year-old? Answers Investigation says that it does.

In a world whose lifeblood is paranoia, this fuzzy logic goes unchecked. As we drive back in the car, I ask Nigel Parsons how the father, who has paid hundreds of pounds for tonight's operation, will use the information that Answers Investigation has gained about local off-licences. "To be honest, I don't think he's thought that through," he replies.