Professional snoopers: This is how a private detective exposes applicants who are cheating

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Hans Rother has an unusual job: he usually just sits in the car for a long time and waits. The target object can leave the home or office at any time. When the time comes, Rother starts the engine and takes up chase. He observes every step and notes down every important detail. At the end of his “research”, he hands his client an office folder with lots of information about someone he doesn’t know. Hans Rother is a private detective.

The majority of his clients come – as in almost all detective agencies – from business. Bosses who suspect billing fraud are just as much a part of Rother’s clients as companies who believe that an employee pays attention to operating costs or bills his expenses incorrectly. Every now and then, job applicants become one of his target persons. “Mostly from an annual salary of 125,000 euros upwards,” he says.

Whether it is termination, voluntary time off or delayed career entry – there are many gaps in the CV that job candidates prefer to keep to themselves when applying. Especially when it comes to a position in top management. If there are inconsistencies, Rother comes into play – often when items in the vita overlap or documents are incomplete.

The private detective then sits down at his desk, makes a lot of phone calls and checks all the information. Sometimes he also pretends to be a bogus entrepreneur in order to ask the job candidate’s former boss about his work behavior. “I work a lot with legends,” he says. This is what private detectives call false stories, pretexts or identities.

Working at mailbox companies and studying in the Caribbean

It is not uncommon for applicants to cheat. According to a survey of 500 managers by the personnel service provider Robert Half, almost three quarters of all executives have already rejected an applicant because he gave false information. Rother processes between ten and 15 applicant reviews a year. Sometimes only details are withheld. Sometimes, however, it also happens that references are manipulated or entire employment relationships are invented.

Once, says Rother, he convicted an applicant who claimed to have studied for two semesters in the Dominican Republic – including a certificate. After a few phone calls, it became clear that the candidate had never set foot in a university in the Caribbean – at least not to study there. Instead, he was more or less unemployed during that period. The testimony presented belonged to a friend.

Another time, a company that an applicant had allegedly previously worked for turned out to be a mailbox company. Here, too, a testimony was presented. Apparently, the new manager in Spe had googled briefly which company could fit well on his résumé and came across a company that doesn’t actually exist. “When we drove there, even the mailbox was dead,” says Rother. He laughs briefly at the memory.

He has been working as a private detective for 16 years. He actually trained as an IT system electronics engineer. He has already processed over 1,000 cases, he says. It all started with him and this job when he kept checking IT for a detective agency. He now has his own company with three employees in Ham.

Neither baseball cap nor trench coat

A good private investigator must have knowledge of people, intelligence, a good network and, above all, perseverance. “People imagine it to be so simple,” says Rother. You need a lot of experience – especially if you are observing people, i.e. secretly observing them. Sitting in the car for hours while staying alert requires a high level of concentration.

However, the profession has little in common with common clichés. Private detectives do not hang around in smoky bars to meet informants, nor are cameras secretly installed or doors broken. That would be trespassing.

“Private detectives usually have to provide evidence that has existed in court,” says Raoul Classen, President of the Federal Association of German Detectives (BDD). Personal rights and data protection must be observed. Nobody is allowed to take pictures in an apartment with a telephoto lens.

There must always be a specific suspicion

When a company hires a private investigator to monitor a specific person, it needs a valid reason. This is given, for example, when there is a specific suspicion that an employee is stealing or is on sick leave and is secretly working for the competitor.

Even with these assignments, private detectives often move in a gray area. What is the situation like when an applicant is under observation? Because in addition to his research at his desk, says Rother, it also happens again and again that companies hire him to check job applicants for their creditworthiness or in their private environment. However, only if there is a legitimate interest or initial suspicion. “For example, if the employer receives an anonymous tip,” says Rother.

Labor lawyer Pascal Croset sees this critically. Checking application documents such as certificates for their correctness if there are concrete indications of a lie may be permitted under certain circumstances. Having an applicant shadowed by a private investigator, however, encroaches deeply on the personal rights of that person. In addition, there may be violations of the data protection law. Since a job applicant has not yet signed a contract and is therefore disproportionate to the company, the potential employer usually has no valid reason for observation, says Croset.

The transparent employee

Nevertheless, the employment law professional knows cases in which companies have hired detectives to spy on an applicant. This is called a background check or pre-employment screening. The purpose of this check is to find out as much as possible about the applicant before a company hires him.

Such methods are used regularly in the USA or Great Britain. According to the homepage of the American organization PBSA (Professional Background Screening Association), these applicant screenings include license tests, data on driver behavior, registry office registers and information from previous employment relationships as well as drug tests and psychological reports.

In fact, most of the clients who hire Rother for an application test come from the USA or Canada. These are mostly companies that are looking for someone for a high position in a branch or subsidiary in Germany.

If an applicant screening is discovered, the company that hired the detective may have to pay a lot of money for it. “Data protection violations are now being prosecuted much more consistently and can be very expensive,” says Croset.

He cites the Swedish fashion giant H&M as an example. In October the company was fined 35 million euros for violating data protection law by monitoring hundreds of employees. “It’s the same as spying on an applicant – namely prohibited,” says the specialist lawyer for labor law.

However, Rother has never been exposed as a detective in his research. Sometimes he is spoken to when he is in a street with his car. Then he says he’s checking the cell phone connection. Or that he’s waiting for a friend. Just one of his legends.


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