28 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

John Cutter: The Private Investigator

Former New York cop John Cutter on the scary world that is the internet, how to disappear, and being spotted while tailing people…

By Mike Peake
1 Mar 2016 | 10:05 am
  • John says modern sleuths have little in common to the ones traditionally portrayed in Hollywood – there’s no guns or shootings or chases.


How did you get into private detective work, John?

I spent 25 years in the New York city police department primarily involved in the investigative arena. It seemed like a natural progression when I left – I wanted to continue doing something I was good at.

When investigating, what freedoms do you have now that you didn’t have before?

There’s a double-edged sword to the freedoms we have here in the US. You have the ability to talk to people in certain circumstances without having to read them their rights, but they also have the freedom to tell you to go away because they don’t want to talk to you.

What’s a typical day for you?

Developing clients, investigation work – and we do everything from background checks, or due diligence as it’s called – for high-level money lenders, all the way down to the standard kind of investigation into marital infidelity or workers’ compensation insurance when someone claims they’ve been hurt at work and we have to find out if they really were. A typical day is never the same day twice.

PI’s are illegal here in the UAE – what would be a good way for someone to legally find out if a partner was cheating?

People are creatures of habit and when they start to become involved in situations like cheating, their partner usually instinctively knows because their patterns change. They no longer leave their cell phone unattended when they go inside to get a drink, for example. But their social media habits, ironically, often don’t change and sometimes they’ll put stuff there about what they’re doing and expect that their spouse isn’t going to find out. Those are places you can look that don’t involve any photographic evidence or following anybody.

How often, when someone is suspected of cheating, does that turn out to be the case?

I’d say it’s 85-90 per cent.

What makes a good investigator?

Having good intuition and being able to blend into your surroundings regardless of what you look like – almost, in some sense, becoming an actor so people are unaware that you’re there. Also, the ability to talk to people and develop information without them realising you’re doing it. It’s a skill to get them to answer things that, if they were sitting in an interview room across the desk from you, they wouldn’t answer in a million years. And yet right there in the coffee shop you get them giving you the details your client is looking for.

Do private investigators ever get attacked?

Very seldom. It’s not like TV in the olden days with Magnum PI and The Rockford Files and lots of guns and shooting and chases – that’s all for Hollywood. A PI’s work is different every day, but you don’t generally get involved in physical altercations because there are certain legal boundaries and you certainly don’t want to put yourself in a position where you’re creating hostility. Once in a blue moon somebody during surveillance will get ‘made’, which means they’ve been spotted by the person they’re following, and there will be a confrontation. But violence rarely ensues.

What’s a better attribute in your line of work: a fearsome snarl or a winning smile?

A friendly smile. It’s the ability to talk to someone and be empathetic to them, because most people who are involved in something they shouldn’t be, generally want to confess their sins and talk to people. Another skill is to remain quiet. Once a person starts talking, let them talk. Don’t interrupt them with minute details.

Would we all be surprised by how much is out there online about each of us?

Absolutely. The internet is really a scary world. I’ve done work for corporate CEOs who have nothing ‘out there’ and everything online about them is very vanilla, but the minute you type in their daughter or son’s name you’d be shocked at how much you find. You have to be very careful, especially with young children, because what goes out into the internet develops a life of its own.

Are people really missing out on jobs because of ill-advised Facebook and Twitter posts?

I can tell you just from a law enforcement perspective that many people have gone for jobs in the industry and they’ve eliminated their Facebook and Twitter accounts but what they don’t know is that there’s a thing called cache memory out there. Different companies are able to get into that because it’s there, it’s public record.

What gadgets do you typically have?

Obviously we use a lot of undercover cameras, which can be anything from a pen in your pocket to a key fob to a clock 
on a desk or ones designed to look like smoke alarms. In the US it’s illegal to listen to people unless you’re engaged in the conversation so there’s generally no audio, but video is allowed and it’s amazing how shocking some of the footage can be.

Like what?

We had a case recently where product was going missing from the offices of a major company. We set up covert cameras and caught some people who were not part of the organisation but who were doing some work there sneaking in and helping themselves.

By Mike Peake

By Mike Peake