The doorman was everyone’s favorite guy. Always ready to do that little something extra to help out, he was charming, personable, and accommodating. He was also, as it turned out, a thief. Over a period of two years, he systematically stole from the apartments of the shareholders at the 430-unit Southgate cooperative in Manhattan.
“It was remarkable,” recalls Paul Gumbinner, the board president. “He talked residents into giving him their keys. He’d say, ‘Oh, Mr. Gumbinner, you’re going out jogging. You don’t have to hold your keys – I’ll hold them.’ Then he’d go on a break and make copies of them.”
With those keys, the doorman began his string of almost imperceptible thefts: a bottle of wine here, a piece of jewelry there – things so small that many people thought they had misplaced the missing items or else didn’t even notice they were gone.
But then, notes Gumbinner, “He went off the deep end and stole a safe.” That theft was hard to miss and led to heightened security in the building. One resident, who had lost a set of binoculars to the thief, bought two miniature video cameras, which he set up in his apartment. One day not long after that, he called Gumbinner and said, “I have a videotape of the doorman entering my apartment and taking things.”
“That’s how we caught him,” says Gumbinner, who adds that he is mystified at why the man had been selected for the job. “God knows how it happened. I don’t know how he was hired. He just slipped through the cracks.”
Such errors happen more often than most boards realize, warns Lynn Whiting, director of management at Argo. “Some boards can be lax or unaware of the need for thorough background checks,” she notes. “It’s common not to do background checks, maybe because the prospective employee is a friend of a friend, or he has good references. But we feel it’s important to do a criminal background check. When someone is a doorman and has access to keys, to your family, and to your home, you have a responsibility as the agent to do a complete check before he’s hired.”
To do that, management companies frequently turn to professionals like Herbert J. Simon, a private investigator with R.J. Montgomery Associates, a New Jersey firm. “Loss prevention equals asset protection,” he observes. “And the only asset that people really care about is people. You can replace a car; you can replace something that’s stolen. But if somebody gets injured, that’s a different story. Then people’s lives are changed forever. So it all boils down to making sure that people are safe. And this is what licensed private detectives do.”
Simon, who has supervised over 4,000 pre-work backgrounds (with costs ranging anywhere from $150 to $500 per background check) for New Jersey-based clients, says there are five areas an investigator typically looks into:
(1) Driving History. Simon suggests that this be examined even if the candidate is not going to operate a vehicle, “because you need a solid character assessment, and this gives it to you. Let’s say that somebody has had their license suspended or revoked. Are they getting caught driving on the revoked list, time after time? That surely is a character assessment. If you are considering a candidate for employment, you want to make sure that, once employed, he will obey the rules and regulations of the employer’s establishment. If we see somebody who is a consistent violator of the law, it can be inferred that the person will not be receptive to obeying rules and regulations that carry less stringent penalties.”
(2) Pre-employment Background Investigation. Unexplained periods of unemployment need to be examined. If somebody has a six-month gap in employment, the worst-case scenario is that he had been incarcerated.
(3) Criminal History Search. Besides checking police records, this also involves talking with people in places where the subject was reported to have lived, not just the current residential address. “The criminal history search is critical,” Simon notes. Is he truthful? Is he who he says he is?
(4) Education. Applying the same truth test, did the candidate go to the schools he said he went to? “You want to detect deception in the paperwork,” notes the investigator. “You’re looking to trust somebody. Trust is a big word.”
(5) Employment. “It’s more difficult to get people to talk about a former employee,” says Simon. “But you want to determine if there were any instances of workplace violence, or sexual harassment, or any anomalous behavior that caused the separation. People are hesitant to discuss such things because of the litigious society we are. But there are ways sometimes of obtaining information. Some people are more willing to talk than others.
Many larger corporations are now just giving all of their employment information to on-line verification services. There’s one that is called The Work Number. You can go to worknumber.com, and there are many corporations that just give their information to these people. They will verify employment position and, sometimes, salary.”
A criminal record doesn’t always disqualify a person, however. A board should use its judgment. Whiting recalls a background check on a candidate for porter that turned up a criminal past: a misdemeanor charge 15 years before for fare-beating (“He jumped a subway turnstile as a teenager,” she explains). The board thought it worthwhile giving the man – who had no other criminal history – a shot at the job. They never regretted it; he became one of the building’s best-liked and hardest-working employees.
Nonetheless, a board must be careful. Notes Simon: “You must keep the external threat external, because once you let them in, you can have the greatest access control in the world – you can have a moat with alligators – but if you let someone get through without questions, then they’re on the inside. It’s critical to know the people that work for you are people that you can trust. “
Sometimes, however, charm wins out over caution, despite all evidence to the contrary. Gumbinner recalls that after Southgate’s thief-doorman was caught, tried, and convicted, the board president had the same conversation with at least four different shareholders. “They all said, ‘Why don’t you give him another chance and hire him back after he serves his time? Anybody can make a mistake.’ I was floored. The truth is that he was everybody’s favorite employee.”