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Tuesday, Nov 28, 2023

Fast track

A very bankable television star recently visited The Chameleon Group Inc. to research a sitcom built around the theme of a private investigation agency. “Why?” asked agency President Kosh Haimovitch. “There’s nothing funny about what we do.” To Haimovitch and his partner Muky Cohen, co-principals of the Canoga Park-based private investigation agency, the image that has fired the imaginations of writers and filmmakers for decades is pure fantasy. There are no mysterious strangers, midnight meetings or gin-soaked heroes battling evil in back-street bars. “Thomas Magnum, he investigates in a Ferrari,” sniffs Haimovitch. “A lot of people watch a lot of TV here. That’s not what we do.” Instead, Chameleon investigators spend most of their time performing asset searches, insurance fraud investigations and background checks. The agency also provides bodyguards, security consulting for homes and offices and security guards for office buildings and warehouses. It may not be the stuff of high drama, but it has been lucrative. Founded in 1992 with five employees, Chameleon’s first-year revenues were $250,000. By the end of 1997, the company had grown to 60 employees and posted $3.8 million in revenues. Haimovitch and Cohen are both former members of the Israeli Defense Force, where they specialized in anti-terror and intelligence operations. They met in Los Angeles when Cohen was a partner with another security company, Professional Security Consultants, and Haimovitch was starting up his own investigation agency. They decided to team up, and Cohen now handles security while Haimovitch heads up investigations. About half of Chameleon’s business comes from its security work. The other half comes from companies like Levi Strauss & Co., Pacific Bell, insurance companies and law firms. These companies need help collecting debts, determining if clients are reliable and trustworthy, locating witnesses, and investigating white-collar crimes. The partners work in a field filled with competitors, but clients say Chameleon distinguishes itself by taking time to understand the client’s business. “They don’t look at doing these investigations as just a source of a fee,” said private practice attorney Dan Champion, who began working with Chameleon when he headed up the creditors’ rights division of Graham & James LLP in L.A. “They’ve always taken an interest in the reason I need the information. They work on these things because they believe they are doing important things.” Chameleon investigators stay particularly busy conducting asset searches for companies trying to collect debts from individuals who have disappeared or companies that have gone bankrupt. These types of investigations can cost $250 for simple cases to as much as $200,000 for trickier cases that can take years to resolve. “We represent the stubborn people. They have principles and they’re willing to go all the way,” Haimovitch says. One recent case, involving a man who had embezzled $12.5 million from the insurance company that employed him, took two years to complete. When Chameleon finally caught up with the perpetrator, he was running a company doing business as “Catch Me If You Can.” “With a crook like that, who’s so arrogant, you do the basics,” said Haimovitch. “You know that you won’t find too many things doing the basics, but if you can figure out the guy is loaded with money, the money must be somewhere. You have to outsmart him.” “For that, you need field work,” added Cohen, finishing his partner’s sentence. Indeed, rather than rely on computer database searches, which often provide a lot of extraneous information, Chameleon relies on a staff of about 10 field operators. “I liked the detail they were able to give me,” said Champion. “They were able to find more information than other companies.” Chameleon operatives also have posed undercover to identify manufacturers and sellers of counterfeit Levi-Strauss apparel. “They write good reports,” said Hap Wheale, regional investigations director for the San Francisco-based apparel maker. “They are factual, there’s not a lot of innuendo. I don’t ask where they get their information, but I have found out it’s reliable. Plus, Kosh seems to have a large network of sources. The wider you can cast your net, the more information you’ll come up with.” In criminal law cases, investigators have to get to a crime scene quickly, before it is tampered with, and find witnesses in time for court appearances. “By its nature, the investigation business is a time-sensitive business,” said Mark Werksman, a criminal defense attorney in downtown L.A., who uses the firm to help build defenses. “Every time I ask Kosh and his people to do something, they do it quickly and reliably and their fees are reasonable.” Unlike many investigation firms, Chameleon shies away from divorce cases. “They’re such sad stories that neither Kosh nor I can handle it,” said Cohen. And while the company does provide debugging services, “in 99 percent of the cases (when it is requested), they’re not bugged,” said Cohen. Among the security work Chameleon performs, personal protection is perhaps the most demanding, requiring a combination of brawn and sensitivity. David Shoshan, the president of D & S; Distributors, a Woodland Hills company that distributes Citizen electronics, turned to the agency after he was stabbed in his office parking lot. Shoshan, whose injuries were nearly fatal, fought with his assailants, and he feared that they would try to make sure he didn’t identify them. “If God saved my life the first time, these guys saved my life the second time,” said Shoshan. “Besides being bodyguards, they were nurses and friends.” Security also may be the agency’s biggest avenue for growth. Chameleon is setting up a division called SAFE, Security Association for Entertainers, that offers celebrities and wealthy business people sophisticated personal protection services using electronic tracking devices and cameras that can be installed into cars. The company also has teamed with Cyber-Tracker and Mitchell Kamarck, an intellectual property law attorney with Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman LLP, to offer services to track and prosecute companies displaying celebrity images (often unclothed) over the Internet without their permission. In the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana and the well-publicized celebrity stalking cases, the investigators believe they can double or triple their size over the next five years. “We’re not dreaming,” said Haimovitch. “It’s a growing industry.” The Chameleon Group Inc. Year Founded: 1992 Headquarters: Canoga Park Core Business: Full-service investigation and security company Revenues in 1992: $250,000 Revenues in 1997: $3.8 million Employees in 1992: 5 Employees in 1998: 60 (mostly security guards) Top Executives: Co-owners Kosh Haimovitch, president, and Muky Cohen, vice president Goal: To double or triple in size by expanding services offered in security and investigations Driving Force: The rising demand for security and the growing understanding that knowledge is power

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