That's how fierce the pressure to produce profits is today. In October, Raj Rajaratnam, the founder of the Galleon Group hedge fund, was arrested for securities fraud and insider trading. According to a witness now cooperating with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Rajaratnam once paid $10,000 for a tip regarding a takeover bid for Hilton Hotels. Armed with that info, Galleon reportedly reaped a $4 million windfall. Rajaratnam's employees were encouraged to go to ever greater lengths to produce such valuable data. As a former trader told the Wall Street Journal, the firm's ethos was this: "Get an edge or you're gone." Eight days before Rajaratnam's arrest, German prosecutors launched a criminal investigation into Deutsche Bank, which admitted in May to paying people to spy on a few of its own executives, a union rep, and a tax lawyer who'd been raising uncomfortable questions at shareholder meetings. The lawyer believes that the bank sent a 23-year-old Brazilian girl in a bikini to a café in Ibiza in search of damaging info on him. And in July, restaurateur Michael Chow filed a lawsuit against Philippe Chow (no relation) charging that he'd hired a 65-year-old man to steal the recipes for signature dishes from his kitchen by dressing up as a chef.

I was recruited to the corporate spy business in 2005 by two friends who were convinced my midwestern friendliness would serve me well in a line of work where a senior investigator can easily earn $250,000 a year. As a spy in training, I was told to rent the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can and study how simply and boldly his con-artist character shifts from one persona to the next—Pan Am pilot to Georgia doctor to Louisiana prosecutor. Among my colleagues, this is known as pretexting. While the basics of sleuthing are easy to learn, you've got to know instinctively how to ease yourself into a crowd—at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton or the Waffle House in Baton Rouge. The people who thrive in this business are the ones who loved to play dress-up and invent make-believe friends as children. "Both my parents worked during the day," says a colleague whom I will call Sarah. "I used to steam open their mail and read documents like their wills and tax returns."