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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Elementary, My Dear Watsonov

When sleuths from the Maigret Detective Agency saw shabbily dressed people standing in line outside an apartment building recently, they suspected another con job might be under way.

Sure enough, two days later, an angry crowd showed up at Maigret's Stoleshnikov Pereulok office demanding that the investigators track down the men who had duped them into purchasing nonexistent mineral water.

In Soviet times, citizens had no option but to turn to the militsia, or police, for crime-related troubles. But now, they can turn to one of Russia's 1,500 registered private investigators for services ranging from tracking suspected unfaithful spouses to checking the backgrounds of potential business partners.

"Our work is a reflection of today's Russia, where people have become more creative at cheating others out of their money or possessions than making an honest living," said Vladimir Katsitadze, 50, the mustachioed director of the 6-year-old Intersysk Detective Agency. In Moscow alone, there are 15 such registered agencies. Like most private eyes, Katsitadze is a former militsia investigator, whose firm attempts to prevent and investigate cons and swindles.

After 20 years with the police, Valery Melnikov, 40, also became a private eye and is now deputy director of Maigret. Wearing a polka dot tie and yellow shoes and at 2 meters and 250 pounds, Melnikov looks as though he could twist iron with bare hands. "You can't become a detective in three months, and we don't have time to train people here," Melnikov said. "We need them to solve cases."

Although Melnikov expressed a contempt for the swindlers he pursues, he conceded that his quarry are amazingly inventive in their quest for the easy ruble. But their greed, he said, can also be their own worst enemy.

In one case he handled, two men duped some Siberians out of a "huge shipment" of vodka. The irate, swindled Siberians hired Melnikov, who eventually tracked down a secretary who had worked for the con men but was never paid. At one point during her job, she had become suspicious of her bosses and rifled through their pockets, discovering their passports and true names, which she readily supplied to Melnikov.

"This was a delicious case. Greed and stupidity were the criminals' undoing," chuckled Melnikov. The swindlers were arrested and sent to prison.

Solving cases can take from several hours to months, said Alexei Shlyapnikov, founder of Maigret. Tracking down missing persons is the most taxing and time-consuming.

"Out of the 100 missing persons cases we had in the past six years, we solved 30. Only one of them was alive," said Shlyapnikov, 45, who employs between eight and 25 detectives, depending on the workload.

Detectives warned against inexperienced investigators, who may charge lower prices than the registered agencies, but are less likely to get the job done right. Handwritten flyers advertising PI services can be found glued to lampposts all over Moscow. "These are one-man operations with an amateur PI, who may or may not have a license," Katsitadze said. "They usually do not sign contracts with their clients and do not even have an office."

But many people opt for these often shady organizations because of the high fees charged by registered agencies, which range from about $500 for a background check to $1,000 for a missing persons case. Tracking down a domestic car costs around $1,500, while locating a foreign car can cost up to $3,000.

Having someone shadowed -- the most expensive service detectives offer at $500 to $1,000 a day -- is a favorite among older women living with younger men, Melnikov said.

"It is especially bad in the spring," he said. "Blame it on hormones or vitamin deficiency after the long Russian winter. We are getting eight calls a week these days.