Boise private eye goes high-tech

Neal Custer, owner of Custer Agency Inc. in Boise, says his investigators have traveled as far east as Nova Scotia and as far west as Seattle and San Francisco tracking cases down.
Neal Custer, owner of Custer Agency Inc. in Boise, says his investigators have traveled as far east as Nova Scotia and as far west as Seattle and San Francisco tracking cases down.

The old-school movie private investigators never seemed very busy. Whether it was Sherlock Holmes leisurely drinking tea with Watson or Jack Nicholson chain-smoking in a shadowy office in “Chinatown,” private eyes were always available when femme fatales slinked through the door.

That’s not the case for Neal Custer, longtime private detective and owner of Custer Agency Inc. and its subsidiary, Reveal Digital Forensics & Security.

Custer’s agency handled more than 350 cases in 2012 for more than 100 clients, more than enough to keep him and his seven full-time and three part-time employees busy. He started the agency in 1995 and worked out of his home before opening a Boise office at 10796 W. Overland Road in 2012.

Customers come to Custer looking for evidence of embezzlement, employee misconduct, people and asset location, infidelity, child-custody violations and other gumshoe matters. But the Custer Agency also focuses on digital forensics — which include data security, electronic monitoring and other investigations requiring technical expertise.

Custer hopes to top $1 million in revenue in 2014. He declines to disclose profits.

Q: What was your professional background?

A: My first related job was catching shoplifters in a college bookstore during my first year of college. During my three-plus years in the U.S. Marine Corps I spent most of my time working within the military justice system. Between receiving my degree in criminology and starting my own investigative and security business, I spent more than 20 years in investigative and security positions in a federal law enforcement agency, a state law enforcement agency and two Fortune 500 companies.

Q: What’s the story behind the Custer Agency?

A: I started my business after getting burned out on living out of a suitcase and traveling about 70 percent of the time for my job. In all of my previous positions, I worked with attorneys and had good contacts, so I thought it would be an easy transition. I wasn’t prepared for all of the work it took to start and run a business — especially the paperwork.

Q: What are the most frequent scenarios that lead to calls for your services?

A: Sometimes we are needed to investigate suspicions of infidelity. Other times we are asked to perform digital investigations for large corporations or law firms. Occasionally, a client is worried their smartphone has been compromised with spyware, and they want to track down the perpetrator or at least have it removed and have peace of mind again. The only cases we avoid are criminal defense cases. The other possibilities are limitless.

Q: How has technology changed investigation?

A: The agency’s computer forensic specialization came as a direct result of technology evolving and the need for investigators to adapt to the 21st century. In the world of Facebook and smartphones, nearly every person keeps a copy of their darkest secrets and their daily whereabouts in their pocket and on their computer. An investigator ignoring digital evidence in any modern case would simply be turning his back on a gold mine of useful information. By focusing on integrating physical and digital investigative work, Custer Agency has successfully carved out a niche as one of the few investigative firms able to accurately see the whole picture in any case.

Q: How has gathering information changed?

A: One example is the humble “bug,” or listening device or covert recorder. Bugs have been the source of much paranoia and a staple of spy fiction since the Cold War era. While it is true that radio-based transmitters installed in the walls have been used in the past, more often a smartphone is the source of compromise. Instead of wiring up a building or a room to intercept audio and then waiting with a radio receiver inside a van, now a bad guy can just pick up a person’s phone when they aren’t looking — or when they are sleeping — and install spyware. They can then invisibly intercept all text messages, track a person’s location, record phone calls, copy pictures and video and even turn on the microphone in a person’s pocket to listen in. If a phone isn’t password locked, this process can take five minutes.

Q: The movies paint a very juicy and romantic picture of private investigators. How much of your work is exciting, and how much is more mundane than Hollywood has led us to believe?

A: That depends on your idea of “exciting.” It can be exhilarating to follow somebody around and discreetly document them doing things they are not supposed to do. It can be quite an adrenaline rush when you find a specific piece of digital evidence on a subject’s computer that is not supposed to be there. But a movie about a private investigator who was actually good at his job would be quite boring, because there would be no confrontation. The subject would be observed and documented, and they would have no idea any of it was happening.

Q: Do you have Venetian blinds in your office? Do you wear a fedora? Is there a bottle of scotch in your desk? Aren’t any of the Hollywood tropes true?

A: Yes, I have Venetian blinds in my office, but that’s the limit of the classic tropes applying to real life. Fedoras are generally out of place on anybody’s head in the 21st century, and the whole idea of the job is to be discreet and to blend in. Following somebody around dressed like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe is a good way to get some unwanted attention — unless you are conducting surveillance at a Halloween party.

Q: What’s the most unusual or scandalous scenario you’ve investigated?

A: One interesting case involved the owner of a franchise — our client — suspecting that the parent company was secretly and illegally obtaining access to confidential financial records and customer databases. The client started noticing signs of an information leak as well as suspicious computer activity correlating with routine, scheduled maintenance from the parent company. After an arduous and thorough examination of the forensic images of their network, we located a piece of surreptitious monitoring software installed on the administrator machine. This software would log every keystroke, take screen shots every 10 minutes and store the information in an encrypted file. The kicker was the software was installed on the very day the client suspected the information leak started.

Zach Kyle: 377-6464,Twitter: @IDS_zachkyle