Former FBI agent detects to protect
Owner of Northport Security helps businesses find hidden microphones, cameras, recorders and phone taps.
As a former FBI investigator who used wiretaps to catch criminals, Marty Vander Vliet is now applying his skills for the private sector.
Vander Vliet founded Northport Security in 2016 after retiring from his 26-year career as a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigations, working in Detroit for 15 years and Grand Rapids for 11 years.
His new firm, a one-man operation in Ada, helps clients concerned about personal safety, privacy or intellectual property protection to uncover the same types of technological surveillance devices he used to install.
Northport’s services include electronic countermeasures for corporate and residential clients, hotel and conference rooms, vehicles, aircraft, yachts, locker rooms and due diligence/background investigations.
“I (did) a lot of background investigations when I was in Detroit,” Vander Vliet said. “The FBI investigates federal judges, White House appointees and fellow FBI agents, among others.”
In Detroit, Vander Vliet investigated bank robberies, violent criminal gangs and narcotics cases.
Sixteen years ago, he earned certification as a technically trained agent, or tech agent, installing court-ordered electronic surveillance equipment.
He said this experience has given him the edge in performing “sweeps” for devices in the private sector.
“I’m familiar with the job because I’ve put all those devices in myself, and I’ve had a lot of experience looking for them in FBI facilities all over the country, as well as embassies around the world,” he said. “I’ve been to some places I wouldn’t pay to go to.”
This includes Colombia, Panama, Argentina, Morocco and Singapore, as well as cities such as Prague and Istanbul.
“Most people don’t realize the FBI has legal attaché, or ‘legat,’ offices in 80 embassies around the world,” Vander Vliet said. “When there’s a criminal matter that has a foreign nexus, that’s where the ‘legats’ would come in. Let’s say somebody is a fugitive, and they flee to London, they’ll contact the London office for help.”
Vander Vliet said other security firms in West Michigan specialize in security for buildings, active-shooter training and armed security personnel, but his business is focused on detection.
As a licensed private investigator, he works primarily with corporate clients striving to protect their trade secrets in boardrooms, C-suites, executives’ homes, or in factories and laboratories.
He also works with schools and nonprofits, which he said are increasingly at risk for compromised physical privacy.
“I’m looking for people who put in microphones, cameras, transmitters and recorders. It can range from people who are spies from foreign countries, such as Russia or China, to someone who would put a camera in some girl’s locker,” he said.
Vander Vliet can’t release names of his clients or discuss specific cases for confidentiality reasons, but he pointed to examples publicly reported that might be similar, such as former Rockford High School crew coach Timothy Warren Vallier, who was caught with more than 100 videos he recorded of naked girls in changing rooms.
In May, Vallier was sentenced to 22 years in prison for attempted sexual exploitation of children.
Other cases involved covert spying by doctors, athletic trainers, YMCA employees, lifeguards, landlords — even student-to-student spying.
Often, Vander Vliet said the perpetrators purchased the surveillance devices for as little as $20 on retail websites that billed them as “nanny cams.”
He showed the Business Journal a collection of devices — all of which were purchased online — that he demonstrates to clients so they know what to look for. The collection includes cameras in pens, USB flash drives, USB chargers with SD cards, and adhesive coat hooks that can be placed on the back of restroom stall doors and later removed.
He said unless companies have had an instance of illegal surveillance revealed publicly, oftentimes they will do their investigations quietly and internally, which is problematic.
“If you’re not trained, you wouldn’t find them,” he said. “If it’s done well, you won’t see it, even if it’s there.”
Vander Vliet said the No. 1 approach companies and individuals wishing to protect themselves can take is to “be aware” of surroundings, especially in private areas.
“You just look around and say, ‘Is that object fitting the environment where it’s at?’ If you go into a restroom, ask yourself, ‘Does that object go there?’ Is there a smoke detector that looks out of place? Is there something sitting out, like an air freshener, a tissue box, do any of those things have a tiny outward-facing hole? Or if something’s positioned oddly, like toward a shower.
“Those devices have to have a line of sight and a camera.”
Vander Vliet said companies should be aware that building security often won’t help.
“In most of these cases, it’s somebody on the inside. It’s not somebody breaking in from the outside; it’s somebody unhappy with their work situation or being paid off by somebody on the outside,” he said.
“You could have great locks and access control in your building, but if that person is on the inside, it doesn’t matter.”
With his extensive background in surveillance, Vander Vliet said it can be hard to switch off work mode.
“(It) drives my wife nuts when we’re watching movies and I say, ‘It’s not possible; they can’t put a transmitter in that location,’” he said, chuckling.
“I find it funny if it’s a Jason Bourne movie, where they stick a transparent transmitter on someone’s collar, and there’s no apparent battery to power it.”
He said the scary thing is as technology continues to advance, the devices get smaller and sneakier.
“It’s amazing how people can spy in ways they couldn’t even 10 years ago,” he said. “Your cellphone is the ideal eavesdropping device. If I put a $200 program on there, I can turn on the mic, the camera, read your emails and steal your passwords.
“I’ve done it myself in the FBI. It’s not an abstract thing.”
Vander Vliet said he believes he gets clients from word-of-mouth more than marketing because of the trust factor. When people hear of his background, they are more likely to sign on the dotted line.
“People aren’t going to hire you without knowing something about you or somebody else vouching for you because you are in people’s most private areas,” he said. “They need to trust you’re not going to talk about them afterward. It’s being able to keep your mouth shut when it’s a private matter, almost like handling classified information.”
After almost three decades flying solo, Vander Vliet said retirement from the FBI presented him with the right opportunity.
“I worked by myself for a long time. But I just enjoy getting out and meeting people, hearing their stories and going into different businesses and organizations,” he said.
“You get a feeling of satisfaction about what you did that helped somebody. You hopefully made a difference.”