It’s 6am and Rick Raymond has already been on the clock for two hours. He’s dressed entirely in black, and sitting in a black Kia SUV that’s hidden behind some trees in a grassy field. He’s studying the road a few yards away with intense concentration, waiting to see if a local Orlando, Florida resident, who works in home repairs, will be leaving his house this morning. He shouldn’t be, given that he’s supposedly recovering from a serious car accident. But either way, Raymond will be watching.

sick

Raymond, who operates out of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, is a professional private detectives. Since 1998, he’s taken on a variety of cases — between 275 and 300 a year, by his estimate — everything from cheating spouses to civil criminal investigations. But lately, a large percentage of his business has been corporate surveillance, spying on employees suspected of medical fraud. In other words, workers who take “sick days” when they are not, in fact, sick.

Raymond tries to be open-minded, assuming that everybody he investigates is innocent until proven guilty. But from his experience, “80 to 85% of the time, there’s definitely fraud happening.”

He isn’t the only one who’s noticed. Playing hooky is statistically on the rise among working professionals. Kronos Incorporated, a company in Chelmsford, Massachusetts that specializes in improving workforce productivity, conducted a survey earlier this year and found that 57 percent of salaried employees take sick days when they’re not really sick. In similar surveys conducted from 2006 to 2008, the number hovered between 37 and 39 percent. It would appear that the workplace has become like an adult version of the 1986 teen comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

But these grown-up versions of Ferris Bueller, who are skipping out of office jobs rather than high school classes, aren’t necessarily getting away with it. It’s no mystery that employers have long since monitored their staffs without their knowledge. Back in 2000, a study by the American Management Association revealed that 73% of companies were spying on their employees, usually by keeping a careful watch on their computer and phone activity. And in 2006, Hewlett-Packard was involved in a scandal after hiring private investigators to spy on their board members (in an attempt to identify which of them was leaking information to the media). But there’s been little or no statistical evidence of employee surveillance in recent years.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Frank M. Ahearn, a privacy expert and private investigator who has worked on both sides — he’s helped “catch people who were supposed to be at work but aren’t” and also advised people who want to elude their bosses — claims that neither he or any other investigative professional can share details on the companies that’ve worked for. “Private investigators have to abide by a strict client privacy agreement which is a condition of licensing,” he says. It’s a slightly less frightening way of saying that Big Brother is probably watching you, and he doesn’t have to admit it.

Companies hiring detectives to spy on their employees may sound illicit, but it’s actually completely legit. Raybestos Products Company, a car parts manufacturer in Crawfordsville, Indiana, hired an off-duty police officer in 2008 to track one of their employees, Diana Vail, after they suspected she was abusing her paid medical leave. She was subsequently fired, and Vail sued her former employer. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago dismissed her lawsuit, and a panel of judges said in a statement that surveillance “may not be preferred employer behavior” but was not technically unlawful.

Susan Kline, a partner at the Baker & Daniels law firm in Indianapolis, Indiana, believes that many employers have been emboldened by this case. “It encouraged them to consider hiring their own private detectives,” she says. It also set a precedent that simply having “reasonable suspicion” is enough justification for employee surveillance. However, she warns that it’s still a legal tightrope, and companies should only use professionals who understand the law, and the subtle differences between surveillance and stalking. “Don’t hire your 18-year-old cousin who’s looking for a summer job and doesn’t have anything else to do,” she says.
But professionals don’t come cheap. Alliance Worldwide Investigative Group, a large investigation firm in Clifton Park, New York with 30-plus employees, charges $75 per hour per investigator. And those hours can add up. According to Alliance CEO and president Mario Pecoraro, a successful surveillance requires establishing a pattern of activity. “That can sometimes require multiple days or even weeks,” he says.

Those companies that hire investigators may be shocked by what they discover. Few of the workers who fake illnesses are staying at home and out of sight. Raymond recalls a case he investigated earlier this year, involving an employee at a Florida health organization who had called in sick with the flu for three days. Raymond followed her and found that she was actually visiting the Universal Studios theme park. “You know how on some of those roller coasters, they take your picture at a really sharp turn, and then you can buy it at a kiosk at the end? She went on three rides, and I bought all three of her pictures, which had the date at the bottom.” When confronted by her employers with the evidence, her first response was, ‘That’s not me!’ They showed her more photos and video that Raymond had taken, which featured her eating and laughing and even being an audience volunteer at an animal show. Her only defense was “I don’t even remember that!” She was, of course, fired.

Cases like this are hardly rare. As any private investigator will attest, workers who play hooky are becoming increasingly brazen. This last summer, a middle school teacher in Middletown, Pennsylvania named Leslie Herneisey, a three-time Teacher of the Year nominee, pretended to have an inoperable brain tumor so that she could take extended sick leave. (Her ruse only ended after some suspicious colleagues called her neurosurgeon.) In 2009, four firefighters in Haverhill, Massachusetts were suspended after the mayor hired a private investigator, who caught them attending hockey games and other blatantly non-sick activities.
It might seem bizarre that workers are taking such dangerous risks in the midst of an economic recession. But Joyce Maroney, the Senior Director at Kronos Inc., suspects that it has less to do with foolish confidence than a general lack of enthusiasm for their jobs. “People are staying in jobs they don’t like because of a fear that there won’t be another job out there in the market,” she says. As a result, they’re more inclined to call in sick when they’re not actually sick. “With less job satisfaction, there’s a greater propensity for sick time abuse.”

Studies seem to back her up. In July, the global HR company Hewitt Associates reported that 46 percent of organizations had a decline in employee engagement levels for the first half of 2010, the largest decline in 15 years. But while employees may be less engaged in their jobs, they’re definitely more engaged in finding new and creative ways to get out of work. “It’s all about technology these days,” says Ahearn. “If you understand how to use it effectively, you can appear to be anywhere.” He remembers working with a client that issued each of his employees a cellphone with a GPS tracking system. “He thought it was foolproof,” Ahearn says, until he learned that one employee had Fed-Exed his phone to the hotel where he was supposed to be on a business trip while he took a vacation to a more exotic locale.

“It’s like a duel between bosses and their employees,” Ahearn says. “Whoever’s better at the technology usually wins.”

One of the most popular toys among adult Ferris Buellers are SpoofCards. Sold on the Web by New Jersey-based TelTech Systems, a SpoofCard is similar to a calling card. A customer calls a toll free number, enters his pin number and then the 10-digit phone number of his choosing. When he calls in sick to work, his boss will see this number on the caller ID and assume the employee is at home in bed, when he may actually be on the beach in Hawaii.

Meir Cohen, the president of TelTech Systems, insists that SpoofCards don’t pose any ethical dilemma. “We’ve had people misuse the technology occasionally for illegal purposes,” he says. “But the majority of people use it to protect their privacy. If you have a boss that’s prying into your personal life, this is a great tool.”
He also mentions a new TelTech product called LiarCard, which uses voice analysis to determine if somebody is being dishonest. “We have companies in the corporate world that use the LiarCard for HR purposes,” he says, “to find out if their employees are lying to them.” Not surprisingly, he doesn’t see the irony in selling a service to one customer that’s designed to entrap another customer. “We want to help everyone,” he says happily.

And the irony doesn’t end there. As the Roman poet Juvenal once wrote: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, roughly translated as “Who watches the watchmen?” Rick Raymond, who worked as a recruiting and training director for a large detective firm before he became a private investigator, knows from personal experience that it’s a valid question. He remembers sending out a rookie investigator with a seasoned veteran to do a routine surveillance. Later that same day, a secretary from the firm went to lunch at an Outback Steakhouse and witnessed both detectives drinking beer and eating cheese fries. “They were there before she showed up,” he says. “And they were still there, watching football and drinking beer, two hours later when she left.” When the pair submitted their surveillance logs for the week, they failed to mention their afternoon-long drinking break. Both detectives denied any wrongdoing, and were immediately fired.

As for Raymond, he takes his job a bit more seriously. Several hours later, he’s still sitting in his SUV, still waiting and watching his target as the sun comes up. He’ll stay hidden in the grassy field until later that afternoon or his target makes a move, whichever comes first. “If you’re in this business long enough, you learn patience,” he says.

He’s also learned to appreciate the absurdity of the boss-employee relationship. He’s seen employees who think they can get away with murder, and employers who are almost Orwellian in their paranoia. “I remember one time, a worker was brought into a room and shown all the video surveillance I’d done on him. He’d created some elaborate hoax to go on a cruise when he was supposed to be sick. He actually said to his boss, ‘I cannot believe you’d be so sneaky!’” Raymond laughs long and hard. “The hypocrisy is just amazing.”

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the December 2, 2010 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.)