Private Investigators, Don’t Get Roped into Spying on Dissidents! 10 Red Flags to Protect your Agency & Reputation

Are You Unwittingly Spying? Tips for Private Investigators to Avoid Becoming Pawns in Dissident Surveillance Schemes

By Lael Henterly


Think you’re too smart to accept an assignment from a shady foreign government? Think again. U.S. investigators keep getting caught up in schemes to gather intel on perceived threats to authoritarian regimes. Remember, these aren’t run-of-the-mill bad clients. They’re savvy intelligence operatives who know all the tricks. With transnational repression rising, it pays to be extra vigilant. This post will examine how oppressive regimes weaponize U.S. private investigators and how investigators can avoid unwittingly accepting sketchy cases.

The Great Wall of Silence: China\’s Efforts to Muzzle Dissidents

The Chinese Communist Party has long relied on private investigators to keep tabs on dissidents in China and Hong Kong. The effort went global in recent years, with China employing U.S. private investigators to spy on Chinese dissidents and other expatriates to support its international fugitive-apprehension programs, Operation Fox Hunt and Operation Sky Net. Since the dragnet launched in 2014, China claims they’ve brought 8,000 expatriates home. Private investigators played a role in more than a few of those cases.

China Isn\’t the Only Country Using U.S. Private Investigators to Spy on Critics: 

China isn’t the only country using U.S. investigators and intelligence gatherers to surveil and harass dissidents abroad. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and others have enlisted American PIs to keep tabs on their citizens abroad.

Private Eyes Unwittingly Cast as Spies in the Dissident Surveillance Game

    • In 2016, New Jersey Private Investigator Michael McMahon, an accomplished former NYPD detective, received an unexpected assignment via his website from a woman who claimed to own a translation business. The new client explained that she was representing a Chinese client seeking to recover money stolen from a Chinese construction company. Could he conduct surveillance on the alleged thief, who was living in New Jersey? Everything seemed legit to McMahon — he even received a check from the translation company for the work. In 2020, a federal grand jury indicted McMahon and six others for conspiring to act as foreign government agents and stalking.
    • In 2020, seasoned private investigator Michael McKeever received an unremarkable request via his website: an international client wanted him to track down a debtor who fled Dubai and was hiding in Brooklyn. McKeever was deep into the surveillance gig when the FBI reached out and gave him a heads-up that his client wasn’t who he thought. Instead, McKeever learned he unwittingly played a role in an alleged plot by Iranian intelligence agents to kidnap Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad, a vocal critic of Iran\’s human rights abuses.
    • In 2022, a grand jury returned an indictment alleging that Irvine, CA PI Derrick Taylor, a former federal agent with the Department of Homeland Security, Security Guard Matthew Ziburis, and others participated in a sinister surveillance scheme. Prosecutors claim Taylor worked his connections in the government to infiltrate a restricted federal database and get his hands on sensitive information about U.S.-based Chinese dissidents. The Chinese operatives weaponized Taylor’s information haul –which included passport photos, flight records, and immigration records — in a sophisticated surveillance operation. The goal? To discredit a Los Angeles artist and destroy a piece of his anti-Beijing artwork, a massive sculpture in the Mojave desert envisioning Chinese President Xi Jinping\’s head as a coronavirus molecule. The private detectives posed as art buyers to meet with the artist and hid surveillance gear in his studio and car.

Unmasking Assignments That Could Hush, Harass, or Intimidate Dissidents

Don’t get roped into providing information that a foreign government could weaponize to silence, intimidate or harass dissidents. The cases that led to the indictments discussed above began as run-of-the-mill assignments. Be especially attuned to client inquiries for:

          • Background investigations: information on addresses, vehicles, family members, and associates.
          • Travel history: information on when someone entered or exited the country.
          • Asset recovery: judgment recovery connected to a business venture or investment.
          • Round-the-clock surveillance: watching someone around the clock and reporting on life patterns.
          • Monitoring acquaintances: surveillance of family and friends.
          • Proof of life: confirming someone is alive and well.
          • State of mind: information on someone’s emotional state and body language.

Let clients who set off alarms know you’ll be conducting due diligence on them before beginning work and billing against their retainer for the time it takes.

Pro tip from Private Investigator Jim Cronin: \”I would suggest telling the prospective client that the first thing you will be doing is checking up on THEM, and that they will be paying for it!\”

Red Flags for Spotting Transnational Repression Before it Hits Your Caseload

After reading through the complaints in these cases, I came up with a few red flags that you can use to avoid these clients. Look for these as you conduct client due diligence before accepting a case:

      1. Vulnerable targets: If a client requests a background check on someone whose Twitter feed is bursting with criticism of an oppressive regime or its leader, steer clear. 
      2. Pressure: If you\’re feeling pressured to take on a project monitoring gathering information on individuals who are known dissidents or political opponents, that\’s a major red flag. 
      3. Dodgy payment arrangements: If the client wants to transfer money through shady third-party entities, pay you via a dead drop, or with stacks of gift cards, don’t take the case.
      4. Follow the money: If a client can\’t explain where the funding for the project originated, walk.
      5. Too good to be true: A client willing to pay $100K to collect on a $5K judgment is involved in something dicey. 
      6. Evasive Encounters: If the potential client is being cagey about the purpose of the investigation or who the puppet master is, be wary. 
      7. Lack of transparency: If a client won’t tell you who they’re working for, why they want the information, or how they plan to use it, the best course is to abort.
      8. Friends in high places: Avoid working with clients connected to governments, organizations, or corporations known for human rights abuses or suppressing dissent.
      9. Something feels off: When in doubt, trust your instincts. If something about an investigation doesn\’t sit right with you, trust your gut and decline the project. 
      10. Missing goalposts: If a client won’t explain the investigation\’s end goal, steer clear. 

When in doubt, defer to your ethical compass. Never take cases that compromise your professional ethics in ways big or small. That’s how we raise the bar in our profession!

Sound the Alarm: Collaborate, Consult, and Commit to Ethical Investigations

Contact other private investigators if you encounter a client who sets off alarm bells. Not sure whether there\’s cause for concern? Seek guidance from more experienced investigators, especially tose working internationally or with counterintelligence backgrounds. We\’ve got plenty of those here at PNAI, and our members take pride in serving as mentors. The FBI is well aware of this problem and would love to hear about any suspicious incidents.

Becoming a Pacific Northwest Association of Investigators member will give you access to a team of accomplished and experienced Washington investigators. Most importantly, our investigators uphold the highest ethical standard — we don\’t cut corners or work with dubious clients. Our comprehensive screening process weeds out candidates with problematic backgrounds. When clients hire a PNAI investigator, they know they\’re working with a member of an organization that holds its members to the highest professional and ethical standards. Not a PNAI member? Team up with Washington\’s Finest Ethical Investigators — Join today!

1 thought on “Private Investigators, Don’t Get Roped into Spying on Dissidents! 10 Red Flags to Protect your Agency & Reputation”

  1. An excellent and timely post.

    The CCP has many front organizations and Americans don’t realize that all business in China or owned in China and operating overseas is controlled in some measure by the government. Another tool to use in your due diligence kit bag are the US Government lists of companies that are known to have ties with the CCP and specifically the PLA.

    One such list is here:

    Keep in mind the CCP also runs influence operations that will coerce through various mechanisms American companies to conduct their operations, willingly or unwillingly. Even a company owned by Americans in America is susceptible and strong economic ties with the CCP is another Red Flag to look for.

    Thanks again for highlighting this critical issue.

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