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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Undercover expat plies the Penh's underworld

Undercover expat plies the Penh's underworld

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Trust no one: In the hands of "Filipe Ylan Cordell", a mobile phone is a powerful surveillance tool.

It can be tough to know whom to trust in Cambodia’s seamy capital city – which is why one undercover expatriate is making a living as a private investigator

The sponsor wanted to know: would she cheat? would she go home with a customer? Apparently she makes a lot of money ...

PHNOM Penh's private eye points to a bar girl and then to a man in white button-up shirt a few seats away and tells me he's sleeping with her. He's certain.

The man has been hunched over his drink since we arrived at the bar, hardly acknowledging the woman. How does he know?
"I've looked into it," he said, declining to elaborate further.

Moments later, the bar girl comes up to the detective and playfully hits him on the shoulder. With a little sweet talk and a friendly smile, it doesn't take long for the private investigator (PI) to make her spill the beans.

Suspicious
She tells him the man in the white shirt is a "special friend" - confirming the PI's story - but the woman denies she'll sleep with him again tonight.
The girly bar gumshoe doesn't believe her.

At the end of the night, we watch the man walks upstairs - the same floor as the woman's bedroom. The Khmer Private Eye was right, again.
Felipe Ylan Cordell, one of three names the detective goes by, started private detective work only about four months ago and says he has finished 16 cases. But he says he has yet to be surprised.

"The core of my business is from old, unmarried foreign men who have fallen in love with a Khmer girl who may be living a double life," he said.
Of the sixteen cases, Cordell has only found one case of a target remaining faithful.
"Bad odds for foreigners," he said.

Surveillance
To help with his investigation, Cordell has an array of Bond-film gadgets, including a pen with a tiny camera that can record sounds and video from 15 metres away. He can even monitor and control someone else's mobile phone.

He makes his client give the target a mobile phone with special software that allows an outside user to read texts and listen to a person's calls.
"When their phones ring, my phone rings," he said. "The cell phone is the most amazing weapon for surveillance."

So long as the phone's on, he says, he can turn it into a listening device, transforming his mark's phone into a bug.

The detective also employs a motodop and two tuk-tuk drivers to follow people, helping him discreetly follow a target.
"The surveillance isn't always me. I have eyes everywhere," he said.

But the best source, he says, doesn't involve fancy technology or motodops waiting in the shadows. Often, the targets themselves tell him they're cheating.

Boastful
"As soon as they know I'm not a potential client, they boast about it. They laugh about it," he said.
Cordell doesn't limit himself to investigating women, though. Sometimes the bar girls hire him.

One woman - a bar girl before her boyfriend told her stop working - rang up Cordell and asked for help. Her Australian boyfriend told her they had to stop seeing each other for a month because his wife was visiting.

"She knew about the wife and was fine with it, but she suspected the boyfriend was just using it as an excuse to visit other bar girls," he said.

Adrenaline rush
But the woman did not have the money to pay for Cordell's detective work, so she somehow extracted the money from her boyfriend, he said.
"It's my favourite case because the man paid for his own investigation," Cordell said. "It was especially satisfying because he was guilty."

Thinking about the case brings a smile to his face. Though he has never been in physical danger in his job, he says there's an adrenaline rush.
Not guilty

"I'm getting a buzz from the business," he said.

He says that he has never felt particularly guilty about snooping on people's private lives, though he refuses to investigate a case if the couple have children because he doesn't want to break up families.

"But if I decide to take a case on," he said, "then I've decided to do objectively," adding "I don't judge who's in the right or who's in the wrong."
The bar girl comes back to our table with another round of beers and pokes Cordell in the back, challenging him to a game of pool.
Professional distance?

He tells me he normally doesn't get involved with the target. When he's working, he makes it clear that he's not interested in any of the girls.
Except once, when he took a target home.

"The sponsor wanted to know, would she cheat? Would she go home with a customer?" he said.
"Apparently she makes a lot of money - even more than a detective," he added.

Cordell charges US$300 plus expenses - which usually just consists of a few drinks - for a three-day investigation.
He says he's expanding his business to include more serious investigative work, and that he's even training another full-time PI to help.

"I see my company as one day being outside help for those companies that have the contacts and need someone to take an investigation further," he said.

But he added that he doesn't see a shortage of work from the bars anytime soon "so long as 50- or 60-year-old obese foreign men are bedding gorgeous 20-year-olds".

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