For $5,500, BU trains gumshoes
By Paysha Stockton, Globe Correspondent | May 8, 2005
Some jobs just sound sexy. Super model. Foreign correspondent.
''I've secretly always had this little fantasy to be a private eye,"
confessed 22-year-old Abby Ritchie, a social worker in Boston. She
and pal Alex Higgins, 23, used to spy on Ritchie's older sister at
her high school parties in Newton, lurking outside in Higgins's Ford
Explorer with their video camera and journal.
''We did our own surveillance," said Ritchie, laughing. ''It has
tinted windows, so we could hide."
So when Ritchie's father saw the ad for a new professional
investigation certificate course at the Boston University Center for
Professional Education, he dared his daughter to check it out. She
showed up, along with a dozen other potential gumshoes, at a recent
informational session at the center's Waltham office.
''It was interesting," said Ritchie, of the meeting with instructors
Thomas Shamshak and John LeClair, both private investigators and
former police officers.
Shamshak, the program's director and president of the Licensed
Private Detectives Association of Massachusetts, knows how to find
people and dig up dirt. He also knows how to uncover financial and
legal records, how to loosen lips, and how to catch folks in places
they shouldn't be.
Students who take the six-month, $5,500 certificate course, which
meets on Saturdays, will benefit from his knowledge, he said. The
class will focus on tracing people, interviewing, locating and
analyzing financial and court records, writing reports,
investigating criminal and fraud complaints, going undercover, and,
of course, surveillance.
Tracking ''targets" is a crucial part of the class, added LeClair,
who will teach surveillance. Homework assignments will involve
following and documenting subjects with video and digital cameras.
''You're going to be going out and doing photos in parking lots," he
said, adding students will learn how to take pictures
surreptitiously and log license plates.
Yep, some stereotypes hold true, the investigators said. Spouses
really do hire private investigators to uncover each other's sins --
what Shamshak calls ''cheating spouse" cases. Those are tough, he
said; he gives people the bad news over coffee, gently.
''Can you imagine telling somebody, 'Your spouse is with somebody
else?' " he asked. ''It's horrible stuff."
But many P.I. stereotypes are pure Hollywood. Neither Shamshak nor
LeClair, for instance, appeared rumpled, wore fedoras, or smoked
cigars during the meeting. And, unlike investigators in TV dramas
like ''Eyes," they don't get personal with clients, Shamshak said.
Most people don't know how broad private investigative work is, he
said. P.I.s work for insurance companies and the government,
investigating fraudulent labor and welfare claims. They help police
and district attorneys with cold cases and internal investigations.
They locate assets, help find missing children, and run background
checks on high-profile employment candidates, Shamshak said.
Basically, private investigators are paid to find any information
imaginable and compile it into tidy, indexed reports. ''No two days
are the same," Shamshak said. ''You never know what that phone call
is going to bring."
State laws governing private investigators vary, but in
Massachusetts they must be licensed, a designation apprentices gain
by working as investigators for other firms, security companies, or
lawyers for three years.
Police officers with three years of experience can bypass the
requirement. But for others, it can be a tough business to break
into, Shamshak said. The class will help wannabes gain experience
and hopefully vault them into jobs that pay between $15 and $20 per
hour, he said.
The field is growing, Shamshak said. And women investigators, who
are rare, are needed.
After the session, Cindy Pelletier, 48, mulled it over with her
friend, Rhoda Merriam, 50. The women drove nearly 60 miles from
Baldwinville to the session because Pelletier is facing a layoff and
exploring career options.
She was surprised by Shamshak, with his closely cropped, balding
white hair, crisp dark suit, and tie. ''He looked like a cop," she
said. ''He was pretty polished."
Being a private eye sounds fun, she said. She thinks she could do
it. Merriam, who saw the course ad and encouraged Pelletier, piped
in: ''She's so nosy!"
Pelletier laughed. She might sign up. It's cool to find out these
jobs really exist, she said. ''You say, 'I always wanted to do
that.' But the opportunity is there."
The Boston University Center for Professional Education's
Certificate in Professional Investigation course begins June 4 at
the Bay Colony Corporate Center, 1050 Winter St., Suite 1400, in
Waltham. Future classes will be held on the Boston campus. For more
information, go to www.bu.edu/professional or call 617-353-4497.