Saturday, April 10, 2010

Don't Talk To Me, I Might Be Working

Simon Wood

My bio says I’m an occasional private investigator and I am, although I play girl Friday to my wife. She’s the one with a PI ticket. I’m the one with the sassy attitude and the legs that don’t stop, if I do say so myself—or should I say I’m Hawk to her Spenser.

We aren’t PIs by design. Like so many things in my life, it was something I kinda fell into. Ten years ago, my wife and I were struggling to make ends meet. I’d been unemployed for nearly 18 months with nothing on the horizon and paying off her college loans wasn’t helping. We needed to supplement our income and we tried doing that with mystery shopping. If you don’t know what mystery shopping is, it’s where people go into various establishments and ensure the store has the right promotions in the right place and the staff say and do the things corporate wants them to do. We signed on with a couple of agencies and started “shopping” various places. We shopped supermarkets, fast food joints, movie theaters, electronics stores and oil changers to name a few. Now, there wasn’t a lot of money in it, but everything we purchased we got to keep. So effectively, we got a lot of essentials and some of our entertainment for free.

We did so well that we were promoted to restaurants. We ate at national chain restaurants and some very fancy restaurants (famous chef fancy). We must have eaten at virtually every 5-star restaurant in San Francisco. Our next promotion led to hotels. Finally, a call came with the intriguing offer. “Do you want to shop casinos?” Sure, was our answer. For several years, my wife and I would fly to Vegas or one of the larger Indian casinos in California, posing as ourselves just taking in the sights, but all the time vetting the hotel, the casino and its staff. Usually, there was a special assignment which involved investigating someone in particular, such as a barman suspected of stealing from the register or the concierge offering personal services or dealers suspected of cheating at the tables.

It sounds fun and it is, but it’s also a lot of hard work. You are essentially working undercover, playing a role. You might turn up to a casino as a high roller staying in the penthouse suites. Me, a regular Target shopper, needs to pull off the image of a high roller, which means having a cover story, knowing how much to tip, pretending to be used to receiving personal service. When we worked a restaurant, it usually meant hanging out in the bar watching the bartender to ensure he wasn’t snagging cash sales or pouring drinks incorrectly. This is fine when the bar is busy, but not when it’s empty. You kinda stick out. Restaurants often wanted to move you to your table early, so we need a reason to stay. We learned to have stories on tap. We would be waiting for friends meeting for drinks, but not staying for dinner then answering phantom cell phone calls when those friends couldn’t make it. There's also the detail work to contend with. There is a lot of paperwork. Every detail needs to be recorded. You need the description of every person you meet. That needs to be cross referenced by a time. That conversation needs to be remembered and noted down. My wife and I divided the duties. I would take names and descriptions and she would note times and conversations. All this starts to add up. A three night stay at a casino results in a 20,000-word report.



Why so much detail? Our report could lead (and has led) to someone losing their job and if criminal charges are brought, we may have to testify. Luckily, we've never had to testify, but our actions have had repercussions. My wife once shopped a store where the person she reported on was dismissed. Fast forward to a few weeks later, when I received a call telling me my wife can't return to the store and we can't shop the store again. The reason was that our report said when and where everything took place. The fired employee told her coworkers these times and date. The coworkers rewound the security tapes back to that time, got a description of my wife, found her name, presumably from the credit card used, and handed that info to other coworkers and kept it handy so that if my wife returned they could enact a little revenge out back. The store manager found my wife’s details on a sheet of paper pinned underneath a checkout and phoned it in to the agency. There have been a couple of other queasy moments along the way, where the situation could have gone sideways. The most memorable was receiving a phone call from the agency owners on the way to a job saying, “It’s off. Abort. Don’t go in there.” It was funny, silly and a tad scary.

With the downturn in the economy, it means we don’t get as many calls to run off to Vegas anymore. That’s a shame, because it’s fun gambling with someone else’s money. It does give me the time to convert our adventures into a fun mystery series. It would be criminal not to.

Simon Wood is an ex-racecar driver, a licensed pilot and an occasional private investigator. His next novel is the thriller, Terminated, dealing with workplace violence. It debuts on June 1st. He's the Anthony Award winning author of Working Stiffs, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper and We All Fall Down. As Simon Janus, he's the author of The Scrubs and Road Rash. Curious people can learn more at www.simonwood.net.

12 comments:

Marlyn said...

I've thought about doing the Mystery Shopper thing occasionally, but the idea of all the paperwork dissuaded me. That, plus they want you to start out eating at fast-food restaurants, which I just won't do.

Stephen Tremp said...

Hi Sandra, Thanks for the FB hookup. I have to admit female authors come up with some of the best titles fo their books. I've seen the Death Will Help You Leave Him book cover on a blog somewhere.

Stephen Tremp

Debbi said...

I've considered doing the Mystery Shopper thing, too. I must say, if it weren't for all that time and paperwork, I'd be intrigued.

Sounds like there are loads of stories a writer could get out of that job.

BTW, Simon, nice shot of you and the cop. ;)

Julia Buckley said...

Simon, this is very interesting! You can't say that your life lacks variety. :)

Camille Minichino said...

That arresting officer looks way too happy.

Simon Wood said...

Thanks for having me at Poe's. Sorry, I'm hitting so late, but I've been building furniture. :-)

Sandra Parshall said...

Hi, Simon. Thanks for visiting.

I honestly don't think I could do the Mystery Shopper thing if it meant getting anybody fired. I can come to a rolling boil as quickly as the next customer if I'm treated rudely or served food I didn't order, but... these days? with the economy still circling the drain? I wouldn't have the heart to rat on anybody.

But what rich material for a crime story!

Gram said...

Great post. Verrrrry in-ter-esting...

Simon Wood said...

Yes, there is work afoot to turn this into a series.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I don't understand why everyone is saying Mystery Shopper. What's wrong with "undercover investigator"--especially since I can imagine things getting ugly, or at least lively, if you got caught in the wrong circumstances.

Simon Wood said...

We've had a couple close calls in our time. Once with a pit boss that had my heart racing...

Joan Swan said...

OMG, I was a mystery shopper for a while, too! I never considered how it could lead into more of an investigation, but I did shops (typically at bars) where there were specific instructions to watch what happened to every dollar that changed hands...noting where tips went, if free drinks/appetizers were given, too much liquor used in a drink, etc.

My gosh, now that I think back...there were some audio surveillence involved, taped phone calls...

Funny to meet someone else who's done MS. Not something you hear about everyday.

Thanks for sharing your fun stories.