Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

A blog for PIs and writers/readers of the PI genre

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Archive for the ‘Q&As’ Category

Answering Writers’ Questions About Private Forensic Labs

Posted by Writing PIs on April 14, 2014

Below are writers’ questions about private forensic labs, and our answers.

Writer’s Question: Where can someone find a private forensic lab?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes: Personally, we network with other private investigators, lawyers, addiction treatment personnel, even coroners about good DEA-approved private forensic toxicology labs. We searched to see if there’s a list of these labs online and found the following:

Writer’s Question: Are all of these labs available to civilians?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes:In the link above, the specification to be on the list requires that the lab routinely performs tests for private as well as public agencies.

Writer’s Question: How much do these labs charge civilians?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes:In our personal experience (working with civilian client-cases that require chemical analytics), the cost has been about $250 per sample for drug testing. Urine testing is between $20-$150. Hair sample testing in the $120 range. If you’re needing more specific info for a story, contact a local lab and ask their prices (our experience has been that lab personnel are very accessible and can clearly explain testing methods).

Writer’s Question: What if a civilian suspected someone wanted to poison a relative?  Can they go to a lab and be upfront about their concerns?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes: Funny you should ask. We actually had a private lab chemist chat with us about a case she recently had that came into her office. A mother suspected her daughter was poisoning her (putting chemicals into the mother’s nightly glass of wine). The chemist at the lab told us the mother was right — they found toxic chemicals in the sample the mother brought into the lab.

Photo courtesy of Mick Stephenson

Photo courtesy of Mick Stephenson

Writer’s Question: What is the process? What paperwork would the PI/civilian have to complete? Does the lab call/mail results? How long does it take to get results?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes: All that’s necessary is chain of custody material:  That the sample was captured and handled carefully by the PI, and that it was then sealed and sent in a bag to the lab. In our experience, the lab has faxed us a simple form where we document what we requested to be tested, and how we are paying for their service (like any other business, they want the money upfront).

Regarding how the lab sends results, we typically have received results by fax and email.  We have also called the lab to inquire on the status of tests, and have found lab personnel to be very accommodating — they will take the time to answer our questions, explain their turnaround time for results, and so forth.  If they aren’t busy, we typically get results in 72 hours, sometimes a bit longer.

Writer’s Question: What evidence, if any, would the lab be required to report to law enforcement officials?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes:They don’t have a requirement to report to law enforcement.

Writer’s Question: Is there a time limit or other conditions that affect if results would be unattainable or inconclusive?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes: Samples don’t lose markers for chemicals unless they are kept under poor conditions (moisture, or heat such as light).

Have a great week, Writing PIs
Click on cover to go to book's Amazon page

Click on cover to go to book’s Amazon page

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Can a Private Investigator Obtain a Police File?

Posted by Writing PIs on March 10, 2014

private investigator

A writer asks how a P.I. might obtain a law enforcement report.

Writer’s Question: In the book I’m trying to write, the sister of a woman is missing. The police have finished their investigation and decided that the woman ran off. (Maybe not closed the investigation, not sure how that works in real life.) Her sister doesn’t believe that, so goes to my P.I. for help. My questions are: Can a P.I. get the file on the woman from the authorities? Is there sharing and corporation or is there conflict between them?

Answer: It’s very difficult for anyone from the private sector to obtain an open investigation file, although any private citizen can obtain access to a closed file.

But back to an open investigation file: Law enforcement officials might share verbal conclusions, but they would not share the entire body of the file. Often, there is conflict (or at least a lack of cooperation) between the private and public sectors. Things get even more complicated when you factor in the federal agencies because they consider most local law enforcement to be inferior agencies. For example, federal agencies frequently defer missing person investigations to local authorities absent special factors, which include kidnap with inter-state transport, kidnap with ransom, child kidnap, international kidnap, and  kidnapping related to international or domestic terrorism.

Saying that, there are a number of famous cases where private investigators have solved missing person and homicide cases. Not so long ago, several retired El Paso County Colorado law enforcement agents formed a private investigations agency that uncovered a serial murderer responsible for anywhere between 7-30 deaths (many of which had been unsolved for more than 10 years). This is an example of dedicated law enforcement work by those in the private sector, although we also surmise they must have had a tremendous amount of cooperation from their former agencies.


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P.I. Tips: Answering Writers’ Questions About Fraud Investigations

Posted by Writing PIs on September 19, 2013

woman looking thru mag glass black and white2

Writer’s Question: What makes fraud different from an average garden-variety argument over a broken-down business deal?

Answer: We look for signs of one person (or several persons) who hide important information or who abuses his/her position in a business relationship.  An example of this would be an accountant who knowingly misrepresents the financial condition of a company.  Another example is a business manager who willingly hides lawsuits against his/her company from a potential purchaser.

Writer’s Question: Can someone be guilty of fraud in a divorce proceeding? fedora black and white

Answer: Yes.  When one partner hides income or assets, or even hides the fact of remarriage (when that remarried partner is still receiving maintenance from the former spouse), you find fraudulent misrepresentations that can be the subject of a separate civil lawsuit for fraud.  Keep in mind that any divorce proceeding is the dissolution of a marriage partnership that mimics a business partnership.  In both instances, you can have misrepresentation and reliance on those misrepresentations.

Writer’s Question: As investigators, what do you look for when you are asked to find fraud?

Answer: Like most investigations, a fraud investigation begins in public records, where we look to uncover business acquisitions and acquisitions of personal property that show an unusual amount of income that the partner investigated is otherwise unable to access.  For example, if a business owner who is selling a corporation that’s in financial trouble, has recently purchased a new car, a new house, and a boat — information we’ve dug up through property, vehicle and boat ownership records — we know that he/she is likely to have emptied corporate assets to make these purchases in his/her name.  What did the owner think h/she was accomplishing by purchasing these personal property items?  Hiding money.  Why didn’t h/she think they’d be caught?  Well, sad to say this, but often people just do dumb things, probably because they’ve gotten away with such acts in the past, too.  The flip side is people often don’t think someone else, such as a law firm/investigator, is going to dig for this information.

Have a great week, Writing PIs

To go to book's Amazon page, click on cover

To go to book’s Amazon page, click on cover

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Answering Writers’ Questions About Private Detectives: Stalking Charges and Credit Card Records

Posted by Writing PIs on August 15, 2013

The Writing PIs

The Writing PIs

Today we’re answering writers’ questions about tracking credit cards and what happens when law enforcement is called on a PI.

English: First 4 digits of a credit card

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WRITER’S QUESTION: We often see in police shows that the cops or feds are keeping tabs on someone’s credit card and as soon as it’s used somewhere they’re alerted and close in on that location. First of all, would they get the info that quickly or would it be hours/days delay? Secondly, could a licensed PI access that information?

GUNS, GAMS, AND GUMSHOE’S S ANSWER: No, PIs don’t have access to credit card transactions. Cops and feds would have pretty quick access (probably within approx. 30 minutes) to credit card transaction data because they would be working closely with investigators in the credit card fraud/security department.

WRITER’S QUESTION: If a PI is watching a person and that person clues in that they’re being

Can the law charge a P.I. with stalking?

watched/followed and calls the police. If the police figure out it’s a PI, could the PI still be charged with stalking or something?

GUNS, GAMS, AND GUMSHOE’S S ANSWER: We’ve had people call the police on several occasions, and our experience has been that as long as our communication with law enforcement is professional, there’s no problem. Steven Brown in his book THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO PRIVATE INVESTIGATING suggests a PI to be upfront when working a case, but to never give away the identity of who’s being surveilled (in fact, in the book he suggests saying it’s a totally different address being surveilled).

Stalking is when a person who is prohibited by a court order violates that court order. A PI who is acting lawfully and/or is working under the supervision of an attorney is specifically excluded from stalking. Saying that, this does not mean that the PI can burglarize, trespass, wiretap or eavesdrop the person they’re surveilling.  Below is an article Colleen, one of the Gums, Gams, and Gumshoes PIs,  wrote a few years back about PIs and stalking:

Pursuit Magazine: “When Does Surveillance Become Stalking?”

Related article on Guns, Gams and Gumshoes:
What to Do If You’re Stalked on Amazon or Anywhere on the Internet

Click on image to go to book's Amazon page

Click on image to go to book’s Amazon page

Posted in Hiring Private Investigators, Law Enforcement Arresting P.I.s, Q&As, Real-Life Private Investigator Stories | Tagged: , , , , | Comments Off on Answering Writers’ Questions About Private Detectives: Stalking Charges and Credit Card Records

Answering Writers’ Questions: Taping Conversations and PI-Police Relationships

Posted by Writing PIs on March 25, 2013

Thanks to all who downloaded How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-life Sleuths How to Write a Dick coverduring its 99-cents sale this past weekend.  As of this morning it is on three Amazon bestseller lists, and #1 on two of those lists.

Screen shot March 24 2013 3 Amazon bestseller lists

The book began as a series of courses we taught writers about crafting a private eye character/story.  We got a lot of great questions over the years — today we’re sharing two of those.

Question #1: Is It Legal to Tape a Conversation with Another Person?


WRITER’S QUESTION: Is it legal to tape your conversation with another person if you don’t make them aware that they are being taped? I believe this is different for different states.  Do you know where I might search online to find these regulations?

GUNS, GAMS, AND GUMSHOES’S ANSWER: Here’s a list of state laws on recording:

WRITER’S QUESTION:  In my story, a cop (not PI) routinely turns on a tape recorder in his pocket when he’s questioning witnesses, but there’s one time in particular that I don’t want him to have to ask permission.  I’m not worried about whether it’s
admissible in court, but if it’s a big no-no to even do it, I’ll need to change the story at that point.

GUNS, GAMS, AND GUMSHOES’S ANSWER: Unless your cop is asking permission to tape the conversation, he’s playing with eavesdropping (which is a felony). Saying that, cops have certain privileges to work around these things, such as necessity. Keep in mind a D.A. most likely isn’t hot to prosecute a cop for eavesdropping. Our suggestion is to interview a cop about your story scenario.

As PIs, we don’t record anyone without their permission. Period.

Question #2: Do Private Investigators and Police Detectives Never Get Along?

Writer’s Question: I just read a book where the police detective and the private eye kept sparring before developing a friendship. Are cops and PIs like that in the real world, too?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes’s Answer: We see that same kind of PI-cop conflict all the time in books, TV shows and movies, too. In reality, most real-life PI-cop relationships are characterized by professional distance and unemotional exchanges.

Many PIs Have Law Enforcement Backgrounds

We’re saying most here. A majority of PIs have law enforcement backgrounds, and with the agencies with whom they worked, they typically maintain a more collegial relationship. Do these former law enforcement PIs get perks — such as inside information, tips, and access to law enforcement databases — from their former agencies (which is also often depicted in books and film)? No. Although there are friendly exchanges and social invitations exchanged, neither party wants to be seen as improperly advancing information and displaying favoritism to law enforcement officers (LEOs).

Here at Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes, we work with various PIs who are former LEOs. Generally speaking, we have found their life experience to cause their investigations to slant toward law enforcement and prosecution. While they work for defense lawyers, they still think like law enforcement officers.

Former-LEO PIs Often Have Years of Experience on the Streets with Tough, Violent People

sheriffMeaning, a former LEO PI might have unsubstantiated bias against their criminal defense clients. In all fairness, this bias is the product of years on the street with tough, violent, and often dishonest people — easy to see how a former-LEO PI might have developed opinions about the ethics of accused individuals.

To balance this point of view, former LEO PIs are also best situated to know how current police can make mistakes in their investigation procedures, such as constitutional propriety and evidentiary processing. These PIs are best able to advise defense lawyers about how to attack the integrity of a police investigation.

We Have a Good Friend Who’s a Police Detective

For many years, the Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes PIs had a unique situation in their neighborhood. A few blocks over was a coffee shop owned and run by a local police detective (he worked at the small coffee shop during his off hours). We liked to hang out at the shop and jaw about cases, both past and current. Add to the mix that one of us is also a criminal defense attorney, there were some lively conversations and a lot of good-natured teasing about our various roles.

To be clear, we never discussed shared cases. However, both we and the police detective got valuable information about the how-tos, whys and the end results of investigations. In this particular relationship, all three of us stepped outside of our professional roles and transcended our rivalries.

Postscript: Our detective friend no longer runs the coffee shop.  We miss the java, but the friendship goes on.  So much so, that recently when a radio producer wanted to contact someone who knew us well because she needed to fact-check an interview set to run on national radio, we called the detective and asked if he’d be willing to be this contact.  He was all over it, insisting we give the producer not only his personal cell phone, but his home number, too.  Do PIs and PD detectives never get along?  Maybe in the movies and fiction stories, but not for us.

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PIs as Criminals: Great in Fiction, Bad in Real Life

Posted by Writing PIs on November 18, 2012

“I Want You to Put Some Muscle on This Guy”

Sounds like a line out of a bad noir movie, but we’ve actually had someone request that. In this case, the man wanted us to put some muscle on a guy who’d stolen his Ferrari.  Yes, Ferrari. We explained that unlike Tony Soprano, we don’t do muscle.  The guy then asked if we could locate the stolen Ferrari.  That we can do, and did

We’ve also been asked multiple times to attach GPS devices on vehicles the requestor doesn’t own to downloading listening software on people’s cell phones. After explaining that we do not conduct such illegal activities, we explain to callers that if they decide to do such criminal acts on their own, they’ll be facing felony charges if caught.

Ads to Help People Wiretap

It’s interesting how many ads are out there (magazines, Internet) for cellphone software that a buyer can then download on someone’s cell phone and listen to (and track) all their conversations.  We’ve had callers say, “But they claim their product is legal in the ads!”  No, they don’t claim their product is legal, but they sure make it sound that way.

Real-Life PIs Who Go Bad

Although all the private investigators we know play by the legal rules, there are the few who drift over to the dark side.  Some drift in a big, bad way like Anthony Pellicano, the former high-profile Los Angeles PI who’s now serving time in a federal prison for illegal possession of explosives, firearms and homemade grenades, unlawful wiretapping and racketeering.

Then there’s former Concord, California, private investigator Christopher Butler who’s spending 8 years in a federal prison for committing a string of felonies that included the theft and sale of drugs from the Contra Costa Narcotics Enforcement Team and setting up “dirty DUI” schemes where men going through contentious divorces were set up for drunk driving arrests.

Bad PIs Are Good in Fiction

When it comes to fiction, however, bad is good.  It bumps up the stakes and tension if a fictional sleuth, knowing he/she is committing a felony, does it anyway.  They illegally track with a GPS, knowing the consequences if they get caught, but they’re doing it for a compelling reason (to save a child, for example).  Adds complexity and tension to the story, doesn’t it?  Or they go into the gray zone and purchase that illegal cell phone software as a last means to track a killer.  As a writer, knowing what’s legal or not for your protagonist sleuth helps you crank up the stakes.  Plus it adds plausibility.

Mark Your Calendars: The Zen Man will be free November 25-27!

Speaking of fictional PIs, one of the Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes’ novel, The Zen Man, which features a man-and-woman PI team, will be free November 25 – 27, 2012.  Yeah, one of them’s a good PI who does some bad things.

Semifinalist Best Indie Books of 2012, The Kindle Book Reviews

“A brilliant mystery novel…I eagerly await the return of the Zen Man.”
~Becky Sherriff, The Kindle Book Review

“What I didn’t expect were the touches of romantic language, as delicate and erotic as a glance by Humphrey Bogart from under his hat. I also didn’t expect the humorous touches in what is essentially one man’s life-or-death fight to save his soul, his business and the love of his life.”
~Bonnie Ramthun, multi-published mystery and YA author

“Move over Sam Spade, Nick and Nora; make room for a Denver who-dun-it, Colleen Collins’s The Zen Man. Brilliant and fast-paced writing. I couldn’t put it down.”
~ Donnell Ann Bell,
 Award-Winning Author of The Past Came Hunting

Posted in PI Topics, PIs and Listening Devices, Private Eyes in the News, Writing About PIs | Tagged: , , , , , | Comments Off on PIs as Criminals: Great in Fiction, Bad in Real Life

Answering Writers’ Questions About Private Investigators Investigating Kidnappings

Posted by Writing PIs on February 20, 2012

Today we’re answering a few writers’ questions about their stories where kidnappings occur and people hire private investigators. How might a U.S. private investigator get involved? What if the kidnapping occurred in another territory or country?

Writer’s Question: In my story, a 16-year-old girl is kidnapped and taken to Puerto Rico. Would an American PI have to check-in with the local police while searching for the missing girl in Puerto Rico?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes’s Answer: What if the PI visited Puerto Rico as a family friend? Personally, if we were contacted by someone who wanted to find a missing person in Puerto Rico, we’d go through our network to find a reliable, experienced PI in Puerto Rico and affiliate with that person. Our past experience has been 1-we can get into sticky legal situations if we go to another territory and 2-a local PI best knows the region, contacts, law enforcement, etc.

But for your story, perhaps you want your Florida PI-heroine to travel to Puerto Rico. Okay, back to her calling herself a family friend — that would work. Or, perhaps she does contact local law enforcement for advice, directions, or to let them know that she’s going to be doing things and visiting places related to the case, but she’s not a kidnapper herself. When we investigate cases in remote regions in Colorado, we always contact local law enforcement first (for their advice, directions, and sometimes just so they know we’re not suspicious characters).  But does your fictional PI have to contact law enforcement?  No.

Writer’s Question: What would happen if an American PI did not check-in with another country’s law enforcement and went about her business investigating?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoe’s Answer: She could be brought in for questioning although she probably wouldn’t be charged with anything unless she impedes that government’s or the U.S. federal investigations of the missing person. If the American PI is licensed in a state (currently, only five U.S. states do not require licensure for PIs) — we’re guessing that state regulatory agency wouldn’t care if she’s in another country unless she committed a crime there. But we’re guessing. It’s a good idea to contact the state professional private investigator association (for the state in which your fictional PI is licensed) and see what they say about your story scenario.

Writer’s Question: How would you know if the missing person case you’re working on has crossed paths with the FBI? Would information be closed off to you? Would they pay you a visit in some way?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoe’s Answer: The only way a PI is going to earn a visit from the FBI is if the PI interferes with the federal investigation. Yes, they would pay an in-person visit most likely.

Have a great week, Writing PIs

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Answering Writers’ Questions: How Long Does an Area Remain a Crime Scene?

Posted by Writing PIs on April 9, 2011

Writer’s Question: Is there a time frame that an area remains a crime scene? I’m picturing the yellow caution tape in a public place and wondering how long that remains up.  What kind of time frame might apply to a crime scene in a residence (for example, if someone is found dead in a family room, how long do the residents of the house need to stay out of the room?) I’m thinking that from the time the police leave to when a PI shows up, a lot could happen in that room if a family member so desires.

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes’s Answer: A police crime scene excludes all but those who are trained to respect procedures for preservation and collection of evidence.  Generally speaking, after a period of approximately 1-24 hours, the area is returned to normal use.

Regarding a crime scene in a residence, specifically (per your question) a dead body found therein: Be mindful that police will remove those parts of the family room that they consider important evidence (for example, blood-stained carpeting and drywall spattered with blood).  Also, police will photograph/videotape the family room in the exact state in which they found it.  In other words, by the time the family returns and changes anything, the PI will have copies of police photographs as well as access to physical evidence that’s within police custody.  There are certainly instances where PIs would still seek access to the home (for example, to photograph the layout, measurements, etc.) but that is accomplished through court order or consent of the victim’s family.

Writing PIs

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Answering Writers’ Questions: Do DNA Samples Have to Be Perfect?

Posted by Writing PIs on November 12, 2010

FDA microbiologist prepares DNA sample (image is in pub domain)

Today we’re posting some writers’ questions, and our answers, about DNA samples.

Writer’s Question: Does a DNA sample taken at a crime scene have to be perfect?  Does it have to be intact and isolated?  What if a DNA sample is picked up by a sleuth long after the police have left the crime scene—the DNA is from the floor of an auto garage where there’s oil, gas, etc. as well as dried blood.

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes’ Answer: PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) technology makes it possible to isolate identifiable strands of DNA, even when the sample is mixed with other chemicals and organic substances.  For instance, scientists in Australia were able to recently extract and identify blood in a leech as containing the DNA of an identifiable human suspect who has since been convicted of robbing someone (and having left a leech at the crime scene).  In this example, PCR technology was able to differentiate between the human and animal chromosones.

Writer’s Question: Can one private forensics lab screw up DNA results, while another provides better, more realistic results?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes’ Answe: Absolutely.  There are certain labs that have had their results reviewed by a second opinion (from an outside lab) and it has been shown that the original lab used improper techniques or slanted calculation statistics (as to the population).  How might a sleuth research if a private forensics lab is subject to criticism?  One way is for a sleuth (or a fictional sleuth in a story) to go to an organization that would have expert feedback on forensic science third-party experts (from qualified private forensic labs to fingerprint experts to polygraph examiners and more). Examples of such organizations are the state/national criminal defense organizations, the state/federal public defenders offices, state/national trial lawyers organizations.  As a writer, if you (or your sleuth in a story) were wanting a recommendation for a qualified forensic lab in a particular state, you/the fictional sleuth might google one of these organizations, then write a letter to their director (who, if he/she can’t help you, will most likely route it to a contact who can).

Last note:  Some of the organizations we mentioned maintain databases of such experts.  In more than a few instances, individual attorneys coming up against a lab in a court case have used their own investigators to research and determine the pros/cons of a particular lab.  This data is then added to the database.   Faults these investigators might learn about labs are how they inadequately store evidence samples, how scientists might be overworked and prone to making mistakes, or if a lab has financial problems (which causes them to cut corners, which in turn would most likely affect the integrity of their results).

Have a great week, Writing PIs

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Answering Writer’s Question: How to Find Someone from a High School Photo

Posted by Writing PIs on August 1, 2010

We’ve been “out in the Internet” teaching classes, meeting writers, fielding questions about private eyes and portraying them in stories.  We’ve had some great questions, one of which we’re sharing today on Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes.  A writer has a situation in a story where the only piece of evidence is a photo from an old high school yearbook, with girl’s first name written on the back of the photo.  The name of the high school is known, as well as the year the photo was taken.  The question: How would the PI in her story go about finding this person?  Below are a few ideas we offered:

Conduct an online reverse search on the photo: There’s an online reverse photo search engine ( where one can submit a photo image, then search for other instances of that photo on the Internet. If all a PI had to go on was a photo, this might be a first search. For example, instances of that high school photo might show up in someone’s webpage, blog, a family reunion site, one of the many high school reunion sites, etc.

Research that high school’s yearbooks: A PI could go to the library in the town where that high school is located. Many libraries keep yearbooks for their local schools going back many years, sometimes decades. A PI could retrieve that high school yearbook, get a list of classmates’ names, find those individuals and interview them about the person (his/her activities, associations, romantic liaisons, and family members).  The PI’s search can be augmented by the use of online proprietary databases to search for the person’s classmates’ current locations as well as his/her current location.

Check with high school alumni organizations: A PI can check if there’s a high school alumni association (often, a high school website will also have a link to its alumni association). Then the PI would contact alumni members who are listed as contacts for the year/s the person attended high school, and ask these contacts about the individual (again, his/her activities, friendships, romantic liaisons, family members). We once found a person this way who’d attended a certain high school back in the 1960s.

Have a great week, Writing PIs

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