My unusual job: What's it like to be a private detective in Norfolk?
- Credit: Archant
Charlotte Notley is used to hearing all the cliches about being a private investigator.
She’s used to being asked about ‘honey-trapping’ errant husbands, hiding in bushes, tracking cars or whether she skulks in the shadows wearing Trilby hats and macs…but the reality is that Charlotte hides in plain sight.
“The best private investigators don’t draw attention to themselves,” she tells me, “we need to blend into our surroundings. We don’t hide, but that doesn’t mean you’ll know we’re watching you…”
As a case in point, Charlotte’s company Taylor Investigations has moved into a high-profile new office in the middle of Norwich, which boasts a prominent sign: it’s the highly-visible ‘shop front’ she’s always wanted.
The firm has just celebrated its sixth year and continues to grow, operating locally, nationally and internationally on a wide range of cases.
“When people hear what I do, the first thing they say is ‘it sounds so exciting!’ and sometimes it is, but it’s not like the TV programmes and films,” Charlotte says.
“A lot of what I do is office-based. I’m not in bars trying to get men to cheat on their wives or watching people from the bushes outside their houses, but I am helping to reunite friends and loved ones, chasing down debtors and finding their assets, putting together family trees and serving legal papers.
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“The important thing for me is that I am making a real difference to my clients’ lives.
“No one day is the same, but one thing doesn’t change: the people who come to us are looking for answers,” Charlotte tells me, “and we are here to provide them.”
Having moved to Norfolk from Kent when she was 11, Charlotte and her family settled in Attleborough and she joined the high school, where she took GCSEs and A levels.
“My sociology teacher was really inspiring and when we learned about crime and deviance I found it fascinating,” said Charlotte.
“Looking back, that’s probably where all this started!”
She won a place to study criminology at university in Sheffield, studied in Australia for six months as part of her degree and joined South Yorkshire Police as she was graduating.
“I loved being in the police and the people I worked with,” said Charlotte, “but it would frustrate me that I couldn’t really affect any change. I wanted to see jobs through to the end, but that’s not always how being in the police works. You do your bit and often the case moves on to someone else.”
After five years, Charlotte decided she wanted to be closer to home and asked for a transfer to Cambridgeshire Police: as she waited to start her new posting, and back home with her Mum, she decided a new direction was needed.
“I did love the police but I was also burnt out – I’d seen so much and enough was enough.”
She took a role in a children’s home as she started to look into the possibility of becoming a private investigator.
“I realised that I wanted to use the skills I’d learned – I had £150, a laptop and a sofa to work from, but it was enough to start Taylor Investigations and I haven’t looked back.”
Charlotte’s first base was an office in Wymondham, fast forward to 2022 and she’s in the middle of Norwich on Rose Lane with her team and two floors to accommodate more in the near future.
“I always wanted a ‘shop front’, a very public office – people can just walk in off the street and come and talk to us and it’s taken away that air of mystery that people seem to associate with private investigators,” said Charlotte.
“I think if people knew all the ways we could potentially help them, it would make what we do seem far more mainstream.
“I think people also think that the kind of work we do is incredibly expensive, but our services start at £60 plus VAT for a desktop person trace and if we don’t find the person, you won’t have to pay.”
On her opening day, Charlotte’s team not only threw a party, they also served eight legal documents and took on four cases – this is definitely not a job for those that like a simple 9am to 5pm life.
Charlotte’s first ever person trace was for a man living in France who wanted to find a school friend who he had studied with in the 1960s.
“The client’s wife had died and he wanted to trace his first love,” she said.
“All he could remember was her first name, that she was a dancer and an actress and that she married someone who used to work in TV – we had so little to work with, but we managed to track down the husband and had a chat with him on email.
“He told us that his wife was who we were looking for, but that she’d sadly died three years previously.
“Obviously we had to go back to the client with sad news, but the lady’s husband told us that she’d talked about him regularly, so we were able to tell him that, at least.
“We are here to find answers for people: they may be answers they want to hear, they may be answers that are difficult to hear, but at the end of the day, my motto is that there is only one truth. I am here to find the truth.”
She added: “Tracing is probably the most common service we provide for when people are looking for a debtor, a lost loved one, a beneficiary to an estate or even a biological parent.
“It’s my favourite part of the job and makes me feel a bit like Davina McCall in Long Lost Family sometimes! There’s a real feeling of accomplishment when you can give someone the closure they’ve been looking for all their lives.”
Taylor Investigations is a member of the Association of British Investigators – which works with the Law Society in England and Wales - and adheres to a strict code of conduct.
And Charlotte is passionate about educating people about her industry: from clients to the public: “Education is an important part of what I do and I deliver talks to the legal and finance sector to make sure that they are aware of all investigative avenues that are open to them.
“It’s also important to let the public know that we’re not some shady organisation, we’re right here in the middle of the city and we aren’t hiding.
“We are discreet and we deal with very private matters with the utmost confidentiality, but we don’t have to lie to our friends and family about what we do: it’s not like MI5!
“Obviously our surveillance agents are discreet about what they do for obvious reasons – they are generally former police or military with Home Office surveillance training – but we want our industry to be up-front about what we offer.”
Charlotte regularly helps employers with a range of issues including payroll fraud, ‘creative’ expenses claims, inflated commissions, falsifying CVs or references, calling in sick while working elsewhere, theft of digital files and data and staff secretly working for competitors.
Her team offers investigation services and process serving to the legal sector, insolvency and companies throughout the UK and worldwide and also helps private clients.
“During lockdown, we were asked to serve a divorce petition on a man who lived on his boat just off the coast of Essex – it turned into a battle of wills!” says Charlotte.
“We had to wait for days but we knew he had to come ashore eventually to get some food, but he went down to the last tin! As he stepped out of his dinghy to go food shopping we served the documents – he was quite good about it in the end!
“Touch wood, we’ve never had any problems with process serving – we treat people with respect and they treat us with respect too. They appreciate we’re doing our job.”
What Charlotte doesn’t do is spy on spouses for suspicious husbands or wives: instead, she offers some cost-effective advice – spend the money on a good divorce lawyer, instead.
“And then we can help serve the divorce papers…” she says.
“A co-habitation investigation is different because sometimes it’s needed in post-divorce maintenance cases, financial settlement cases or child custody cases. But I am not going to try to catch your other half out with someone else!”
In addition to fighting fraud and bad debtors, Charlotte is successfully battling the preconceptions about private investigators, including a significant degree of sexism.
“There are more women coming into the industry and more younger people but it is very male-dominated and people always seem surprised firstly that I’m a woman and secondly that I’m in charge,” she says.
“I went to a GDPR seminar and a man said to me ‘I think you should be in a different room’. He just couldn’t get his head round how someone young and a woman could be doing what he was doing.
“I am not here to prove anything, the only people I need to impress are my clients and as long as they’re happy, I’m happy.”
Charlotte married husband Rick, a marketing manager and brand expert who runs his own company RIMANO, in September last year and the pair love to travel: when they find time. The job is, she says, fairly all-consuming as the business grows.
“I love it, though,” she tells me, “I wouldn’t work the 80 or 90-hour weeks if I didn’t! The satisfaction you get when you crack a case or when you get a result is amazing.
We end our conversation with a warning for those intent on bending the law.
“Believe me, it’s scary what I can find out about you with just an email address – I don’t need to do anything illegal, it’s all there waiting for me to discover,” Charlotte says.
“Every action you take leaves a trace. And if it leaves a trace – I will find it…”