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COMPUTER-ARMED AGENCY STALKS BUSINESS BANDITS

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Armed with computer terminals instead of guns, databases rather than informants, a high-powered detective agency has found some lucrative action stalking the bandits of the business world.

Whether trying to nail corrupt employees who steal time or products from a firm or tracing a con artist who bilked investors of their cash, Clouthier & Gotz has developed the high-tech weapons needed for quick and accurate investigations.OK, so the private eyes wear pressed suits and ties and work in a modern office building in suburban Contra Costa County. Gumshoes like Sam Spade they're not, and that's the way they like it.

Give these guys a Social Security number and within seconds they'll have a name, occupation, address, previous address and other vital information about a person. With a little more time, they'll find the person's bank accounts and other assets, pinpoint spending habits and come up with just about any other information needed to compile a profile.

"I can get tons of stuff on a person," said Greg Clouthier, who founded the firm. "A lot of businesses come to us to find people and find out where their money is. And we usually find what they're looking for."

Clouthier, 42, a former Army electronics expert from Philadelphia who went on to design and market surveillance and communications systems for businesses, stumbled into detective work in 1979 when a lawyer asked him to find a salesman needed as a witness in a trial.

"It only took me two hours, and I got $500," said Clouthier, who quickly switched careers. Last year, he teamed up with Joe Gotz, 48, an investigator with 20 years of police experience and a top-notch private sleuth since 1981.

With $85,000 worth of high-tech gear and six experienced operatives, the firm has such a good reputation in the field that half of its clients are other private investigators. The remainder of its work comes from businesses and attorneys, including domestic cases, many from other states.

Clouthier believes the tracking down and uncovering of corruption and theft within the business community is virtually an untapped area in which investigative services could save companies millions of dollars.

"In business, most people don't even think of using a private investigator," said Clouthier. "Executives will sit in a board room, admit they have a terrible problem, but they won't usually react.

"For some reason, only lawyers say `get an investigator, find out the facts.' Most companies and corporations don't even know we exist."

The companies that do hire detectives, however, can reap enormous benefits in the long run by ridding themselves of dishonest employees and shady associations, Clouthier said. Oftentimes, extensive surveillance is needed to uncover corruption, and that's when his detectives hit the streets with their bugging devices and video cameras.

"Employees can steal both goods and time," said Clouthier, adding that many companies are reluctant to investigate these thefts, which they figure are part of the cost of doing business.

One construction company, he said, had lost some $800,000 in heavy machines, including an earth-mover, lumber, 10 to 15 handsaws a month, and dozens of televisions and microwaves destined for model homes but didn't know what to do.

"I told them to stop it. Use videotapes, bring charges, have people arrested. Who can do this? We can. That's what we're here for."

Another typical problem, Clouth-ier said, is employees who go into business with the company's equipment during working hours.

"We recently nailed five employees from top management to the bottom who all had different businesses operating within a big company. They were fired. We did an undercover investigation with videotapes."

Clouthier said a simple background check often can uncover an errant employee by pinpointing heavy debts, excessive spending or other tipoffs. Costs for the detectives' services range from less than $100 for a simple search to thousands of dollars for involved investigations.

"We pay for ourselves," said Clouthier. "When you compare our costs to what our clients are losing or risking, we're a drop in the bucket."

In one case, he said, an executive was giving big real estate contracts to a woman he was having an affair with instead of taking competitive bids. "It was great for him, but it cost his company hundreds of thousands of dollars," Clouthier said.

One of the firm's specialties is finding bank accounts in the United States and abroad. It also can do background checks on businesses, trace people dodging creditors and assist insurance companies in claims investigations.

"Greg is great on the equipment and I know a lot of people," said Gotz, who pointed out that their connections are worldwide, including Interpol and Scotland Yard.

A current case involved a so-called developer who bilked a rich businessman and other investors of some $50 million before disappearing. When authorities failed to unearth any leads, the businessman, who lost $2 million in the scam, turned to the detective agency.

Using the computer, telephone and a trip to Los Angeles, the detective agency turned up in-depth background and asset information about the alleged con man, including bank accounts in other states and foreign countries. Clouthier said he turned the information over to federal authorities, who now are working to build a case.

"I gave them boxes of information," Clouthier said. "We're the only ones who found anything."