Long romanticized by Raymond Chandler, private investigators now face state scrutiny

They take on cases of spousal infidelity, smoke out debtors for banks and insurance companies, shadow boys and girls whose parents are concerned they may be getting in with the wrong crowds and participate in crime-solving missions. Their offices are normally located in central Athenian apartments blocks, more often than not right next door to a plush legal firm or notary’s office. These are the country’s private investigators, the detectives or PIs who for years have been providing fodder for countless films and mystery novels. Until recently their activities were only of interest to the people who hired them, but the recent death of IKA chief Yiannis Vartholomaios and the role played by a private investigator in it has brought the issue of how they operate to the fore. Kathimerini spoke to well-known PIs in Athens. The phrases «everything possible» and «airtight evidence» used frequently in ads for detective services in newspapers more or less describe the situation that prevails in most private investigators’ services in Greece today. Stricter operating laws enforced approximately two years ago – to the extent that some PIs consider the laws «unconstitutional» – have meant that numerous investigators who were unable to secure an operating license under the new, rigid regulations are working in the shadows, many of them illegally. In contrast, those who have succeeded in adapting to the new rules have either been forced or have chosen to turn down commissions regarding the surveillance of spouses, lovers and the like, and have turned to more lucrative jobs such as locating debtors for banks and insurance companies. «Just one-third of private investigators have valid licenses. The rest operate without any control and take on all manner of cases,» said private investigator Nikos Talianis. «If I break any laws protecting an individual’s privacy, I risk losing my license and being punished with a considerable fine. In contrast, those who do not have a valid operating license have nothing to lose. Even if they are caught by the authorities, they will only receive a very light penalty, such as that which would be given to any regular citizen,» added Andreas T., another PI working from downtown Athens, who did not want to be identified. In order to track down investigators working without a license, the police go through the classified ads in newspapers; hardly an effective system. Many PIs say there are many detectives without licenses who have been advertising their services in newspapers and working for years without ever being caught by the authorities. One look through the classified ads of any newspaper is bound to raise suspicions; most of them advertise that their investigators specialize in personal inquiries, infidelity cases and other such areas of investigation that are protected by law, as well as highlighting the use of advanced surveillance equipment, which is also prohibited. «Not only do these people break the law, they don’t even take the necessary precautions. They actually advertise themselves,» said private investigator Alexis Stoltidis. Andreas T. added that «if the police were to examine every ad in the classifieds and apply the letter of the law, three-quarters of PI offices would be forced to shut down.» What is indisputable is the fact that a private investigation that does «not violate the personal or public rights to privacy of the third party» (according to the law) is a hat trick in which the lines between what is legal and what is not will be inevitably blurred. Many investigators partly blame the clients for the state of affairs, saying that they often insist on having a surveillance job done even when they know it is illegal. Stoltidis explains: «It is not illegal for me to go to a club or some other location in order to see if a certain individual is there. The interested party could get the same information by sending a friend or a relative. A violation of privacy laws would be if I continued my surveillance of the individual after he or she has left the public space. One has to be very careful, therefore, because there are many who would pay large sums of money to have just that done.» Other investigators argue that operating laws have become so restricted that the only jobs they can realistically take on are searching for stolen items or missing animals, which, according to Law 3206, is one of the things private investigators are allowed to do. They cite examples from other European countries, such as the United Kingdom, where detective firms are also commissioned to deliver court documents or work with social services in investigating cases of legibility for special benefits. Giorgos Tsoukalis, another Greek PI, disagrees with his colleagues: «The law is moving in the right direction because it has helped clear the field of the profession,» he argued. «The scope of activity is still very broad, because other than finding missing people or objects, we are also allowed to participate in crime-solving operations.»