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Private investigators are victims in alleged scam

For the private investigators who authorities say became victims of Kevin Sianez, the job wasn’t the cloaked adventure and jaded triumph of Hollywood. Many were just scraping by, trying to pick up scarce jobs via the Internet when they crossed paths with the one-time police officer.

Dave Qualls of Qualls Investigations in Elkton, Md., said he did a surveillance job in 2006 as a subcontractor for Orange County-based Sianez, who found Qualls through an online search. Qualls spent two weeks on the job and sent Sianez the results. It wasn’t until after Qualls received weeks of promises to pay — and an overnight envelope that arrived empty — that he began to believe he’d been scammed.

The police didn’t help, saying it was a civil matter, so Qualls took to the Internet to warn others. But almost as soon as he posted a complaint, one appeared attacking his business. Others who were allegedly defrauded and tried to give warning also said they found themselves under attack and without recourse. Some said they had to change their business names, while others — such as Qualls — decided it just wasn’t worth the effort to fight back.

“I said: ‘I’m done. I don’t want all this stuff. I’m just a small company. I’ll just take that money as a loss,’” he said. “And that’s what I did.”

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Orange County prosecutors now say that Sianez, 53, posed as a licensed private investigator in several states and allegedly scammed not just the scorned lovers and ex-spouses who found his business online, but also the real private investigators who might have known better. Those who went to the police were often told it was a civil matter. And those who tried to warn others believe Sianez came after them with a vengeance.

“He drew from that skill set as a police officer to do what he was doing,” said private investigator Lori Johnson. “He knows where the envelope is and how far he could push the line. He knows when the police will get involved, and he teetered there on the line.”

Johnson believes there are many more people pretending to be licensed investigators on the Internet scamming those who hire them.

“It’s rampant,” she said. “Because of the economy, it is an epidemic in our industry.”

Sianez is expected to be arraigned this week in Orange County on 63 counts, including grand theft, second-degree commercial burglary, possession of a firearm by a felon, theft, identity theft, perjury, computer access and fraud, and possession of ammunition by a prohibited person. In addition, he is accused of engaging in a conspiracy to commit sexual assault of an animal by posting ads on Craigslist to have women engage in bestiality with his dog, authorities said.

His attorney did not return calls seeking comment.

Sianez is a former Santa Ana and Stanton police officer who’d been convicted of theft and stalking. Prosecutors said he has never been a licensed private investigator.

Between 2005 and this year, he used the Internet to advertise investigative services under different names — KMS Investigations, Fore-Front Investigations and 4Front Investigations, prosecutors said. At times he even dictated investigation reports to his secretary off the top of his head, making up details to tell his clients, said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Israel Claustro.

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David Hough, owner of Eye on Vermont Investigation in Barre, Vt., said Sianez subcontracted him to do a job. Hough was wary of being scammed, he said, so he refused to turn over what he found until payment arrived. It took days — and one false invoice — but Hough got his money, he said.

A few months later, Hough got a call informing him that he was under investigation in Vermont for defrauding Sianez. The investigation was quickly dropped when the investigator realized Sianez was the target of dozens of complaints, Hough said.

In 2008, Johnson, of Empire Specialized Investigations in Newport Beach, was looking for references to her business on the Internet when she came across a series of complaints against Sianez. There were dozens, if not more, dating from 2005.

“They were basically crying on these listings, saying they’d spent the last little bit of their money,” she said. “They were distraught....And they had no advocate. Nobody was doing anything.”

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Johnson began investigating Sianez. She checked with the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, the agency that licenses private investigators, to see if Sianez was licensed. She checked other states as well and found no records. She posted a note on her business website warning people against working with Sianez.

Not long after, she said, she got a call from a man who claimed to be Sianez’s lawyer warning her to take the note down. When she asked for his State Bar number and where he graduated, Johnson said, the man hung up.

A couple of minutes later, she said, a man with the same voice called back from the same number. If Johnson didn’t take down the postings, the man told her, he was going to burn her house.

Local detectives investigated but didn’t get far.

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After that, Johnson called the state licensing board, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and even the postmaster general once a month to see if anything could be done. Most of the time, she said, she was told they just didn’t have the resources.

Then, earlier this year, she discovered that the Orange County district attorney’s office was investigating the claims against Sianez, culminating in the charges against him.

Johnson said her pleas of getting “somebody do something” were finally answered.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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