Credit: François LOCHON / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

For New Zealand-born Private Investigator, Julia Robson, she did not know that eight years of her career would lead her into one of the most “twisted” cases she had ever come across, or furthermore, that she would share her story on the global sound waves years after. Behind the newest and most chilling crime podcasts, Chasing Charlie is the unsettling true tale of one man and his many women, cons and evasions of law enforcement and with a project that initially begun in 2016, also reveals the tactics and strategies of one of Australia’s most successful Private Investigators.

Hollywood films and television would have you believe that a PI skulks around the city, tailing vehicles and conducting stakeouts across the street with binoculars in-hand. However, as Julia Robson tells ICON, modern PI is far more advanced with almost everything done via social media and the internet. “These days everyone has some kind of element of digital footprint. So, it’s not just doing surveillance on someone in real life and seeing which houses they are going to and their daily routine. It’s also about understanding their behaviours when they go online. It’s about analysing both their online and offline worlds and coming up with some kind of answer to your question.”

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Whilst Chasing Charlie would initially have you believe that women are the only victims of modern-day grooming, the twisted secrets and cons of such man can spread far and wide. And according to Robson, this story reaches across the globe – “UK, France, America, Portugal” – she hints to ICON. With a cyber crime that can hit anyone at anytime, I can only describe Chasing Charlie as essential listening, even to live vicariously through one of the most interesting occupations in the country.

Amid the release of the seven-part podcast, ICON caught up with Robson to speak on the complexities of such a conman and how to tap into your own instincts.

ICON: How did you get into this line of work?

Julia Robson: “I was originally a Police Officer in New Zealand. I then went to the UK and worked as a Corporate Investigator and it was around the time, 2008 when Facebook and social media became really popular and my friends were online dating. So they came to me and said look, ‘We’ve met this guy online, we’re trying out the online dating world, can you tell us what you know about my potential date.’ And I just realised that probably a lot of other investigators that are a lot older than me and probably don’t know how to switch on a computer and I thought ok, I can help you.”

You’ve worked on some huge cases before. How did this one differ?

JR: “With this particular circumstance, Charlie is a pretty complex character. So, not only was he grooming women online, but he was also taking it offline and meeting them in person. Which is a whole other level to the typical romance scammers and organised crime gangs that operate in the online world. They tend to be overseas, the don’t usually meet their victims in person. So, it just really took it to a whole other level that I wasn’t really used to.”

What pushed you to create this podcast?

JR: “I started off the podcast with the permission and full support of Vivien. She said look, let’s start a podcast and get people to ring in with clues as to where Charlie is now, and it was really to bring awareness that this guy was out there causing all this distraction.

“But as the podcast started to unfold, I realised that there were at least quite a few different twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting so it just took the podcast into a whole other direction.”

Who are the women that get caught out by someone like Charlie?

JR: “It’s not just women, for Charlie in particular, anyone he comes into contact with he will work out some kind of vulnerability of that person. Whether it’s by dating them or it’s by trying to sell them a product or offering to do work for them. But the reality is that taking Charlie out from it, whether it’s a man or female going online to meet someone, chances are there is a potential of being scammed.”

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What is the first thing you do when approaching a new case?

JR: “In the podcast I explain that the first thing I need to do is clear my workspace and have a nice clean workspace. The reason why is as soon as I start digging deep online I’ve got tabs everywhere and messages and notes so I like to make sure I have a nice clean workspace and I will just pull up multiple tabs on multiple screens and just find out everything I can. So, it’s just a deep dive into all the identified information that I have to work with.”

What are the qualities or behaviours of someone like Charlie and how can you spot this before you’re too far deep?

JR: “It is very hard to spot because he is very good at what he does. So ultimately, he’s very charismatic, he wants you to talk as much as possible because while you’re talking it’s almost like an interview process.

“He’s studying what you’re saying and working out where you can be vulnerable and how he can manipulate you.”

That in the sense is the whole element of grooming. You don’t really realise that you’ve been scammed until you’re in too deep.”

How often do you see this kind of manipulation?

JR: “It’s more common than people realise and the thing is people don’t like to talk about it because of embarrassment and shame. But if they had any kind of idea of how frequent this was happening and how often people were ringing me up and telling me these types of situations, they would be very shocked.”

You refer to having to “trust your gut” throughout the podcast. Did it ever fail you?

JR: “I think professionally speaking I would like to think I’ve honed my skills for a while now and obviously in a professional capacity, I don’t have that emotion involved and as soon as you add in the emotion, that’s when things go a little bit haywire.”

How can we tap into our own instinct?

JR: “First and foremost, as soon as money is ever involved, it needs to be treated as a business transaction and appropriate due diligence needs to be taken. It is no longer just lending money to friends and family; it is a business transaction. Secondly, in terms of when you’re meeting someone online dating, the sooner you can meet them in person that’s a little bit difficult in these circumstances, but the better…

“…because the longer you stay online, the higher the likelihood they can groom you.”

I think it comes back to these days that most people have some kind of digital footprint. A lot of these dating sites offer a Facebook page they’re connected to. Say you’ve got a certain number of mutual interests and it’s these types of things that if all of a sudden you are getting a blank page or you don’t know anything about this individual then you need to keep your guard up until you can verify those sorts of things.”

What is your advice for the family and friends of these people who recognise that they might be being groomed?

JR: “First and foremost, I’d say get some professional advice. We do a lot of work for friends and family that are concerned about their loved ones and sometimes if we do find something that really needs to be addressed quickly, then we can go and speak to them on their behalf and we see that happening quite a bit. But it can be really difficult for friends and family to speak to them because the person that is in love or has been groomed doesn’t want to hear it. It’s one of these things that needs to be treated with a certain type of sensitivity but also you need to get facts before you present it to them and make them aware that something is wrong.”

How did this case change your personal life?

JR: “As it transpires, there’s certain events that happen in my life that cause me to bury my head and delve deep into this because it’s easier not to focus on what’s going on in my personal life. In that way it was quite cathartic but, in another sense, it’s freed up a lot of my spare time now. I’m due an overdue holiday once it’s all over. But it’s just reinforced how passionate I am about this line of work.”

What do you hope listeners take from this podcast?

JR: “I hope people understand the bravery of these women speaking out and they recognise that this is not an isolated problem. It’s happening a lot; people just aren’t speaking about it. I hope that if people think they may be in a similar situation they feel confident enough that they can reach out for help and I also think it’s important for people to understand what Private Investigators do because just like you said at the beginning of this conversation there is a lot of misconceptions around what an investigator does in this day and age.”

You can listen to ‘Chasing Charlie’ on Acast here.

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