Playing Hide and Seek in a Wired World
Skip tracing in the 21st century is a far cry from the days of digging through garbage for clues. Cellphone calls can appear to come from practically anywhere on the planet. Free online database searches cough up leads, and information other people post about "John Smith" on blogs and social networking sites can help tracers home in.
When I first started skip tracing -- that is, finding people -- my only tool was the telephone and my only resource for searching was directory assistance. Unbelievably, I was able to find people from London to Fiji, but it was costly and extremely time consuming. Half my search time was trying to be connected to directory assistance in a foreign country. Trust me -- 411 in the '90s was not cheap.
The world of skip tracing has changed. A world without walls truly exists. Many businesses project an international presence -- like having a 345 area code from the Cayman Islands -- when, in reality, they are staring at corn in a 515 area code. What keeps me is business is that the unsavory have also mastered the virtual way.
Clients come to us for many reasons -- hunting down an embezzler in South Africa, finding an art forger in Paris, tracking the assets of an industrialist in the UK, or locating a Mangusta yacht for repossession. The wonders of the Internet have made all of those places accessible immediately; it is all a search engine away.
My business partner, Eileen C. Horan, is a cross between Kinsey Millhone and Adrian Monk. She can track anyone anywhere, even with the least amount of information. One client sent a request to track down a yacht that was ready for repossession. Eileen located possible addresses of the yachtsman in Anguilla, Paris, Los Angeles and New York. By searching reverse directories that list names and phone numbers at addresses, she was able to determine that the addresses were mail drops.
In the past, we would have had to find a source that had a Cole reverse directory -- huge and very expensive books loaded with cross-referenced information. There was no such thing as a PDF download.
For the yacht search, the only good information the client supplied was a cellphone number. Therefore, Eileen figured using a ruse would be the best plan of action. In the past, that same cellphone would not have worked in a different country; but because of GSM technology, the yacht repossession was one cellphone call away. I cannot even begin to explain how difficult the process of locating this yacht would have been 10 years ago.
Eileen searched online and found a few high-end marinas and got an idea of slip and gas prices. She called the subject and convinced him she was "Lulu London," calling from the Little Duck Marina out of the Bahamas and that she wanted to make him an offer he couldn't refuse. She made the call from a prepaid cellphone with a Bahamas area code.
With a little flirting on Eileen's part, the conversation flowed, and the yachtsman shared what he was currently paying at his marina. Eileen offered him 20 percent off to move to the Little Duck. She might have tossed in a dance and a drink, but I'm not sure. (Schmoozing is vital to skip tracing.)
The deadbeat bought the pretext and said he would show up the next day on his yacht to meet her at the Little Duck Marina. In case of any hitches she gave him her private line -- equipped with "Lulu's" personal outgoing message. He called the number provided and confirmed his arrival, and in short order, a repossession team claimed the yacht. Case closed -- and all for the cost of a 10-minute cellphone call.
Information Left Behinds
There are many tools subjects can utilize to avoid being located, such as a virtual phone number, which delivers messages to any email address of choosing. With prepaid cellphones, it's possible to have a Los Angeles number or a Hawaii number -- the best part is no identification is needed to purchase one. However, that's likely to change in the future.
Cellphones are so affordable they can be dumped at discretion. There are also prepaid credit cards, international mail drops, offshore black credit cards, second passports -- and the list goes on.
Today's skip tracer has access to dozens of databases to get basic information. Often, even antiquated information proves useful. If I have a subject's name, the first Web site I hit is Zabasearch. I pop in the name, and it will search every state in the U.S. and list past addresses. Sometimes it shows current addresses and current phone numbers. Sometimes I get even luckier -- it lists a birth date. When searching for a subject, I look for the information left behind -- the fluke factor. Everyone leaves a trace, so a site like Zaba is good place to start, and it's free.
Another unique search option is offered by Intelius. It allows you to put a person's social security number and last name into a search box, and it will provide a history of cities a person resided in. We suggest the free search -- not the paid search. From such a search, you may pick up a city like Memphis, Tenn. Maybe the ex-wife of your subject still lives there and is quite willing to provide an updated address on her ex-husband. Sometimes asking a simple question can bring the case home.
We offer our clients a social network trace, which is more than popping a name into Google. Eileen is our in-house specialist, and she has a unique knack of working with a person's name, email address, phone number or home address. She takes that data and twists it, deviates it, misspells it and steps on it, and she discovers remarkable information -- like a posting on IMDb, a hotel review, an account at Classmates.com or other leads that bring us closer to resolving a case.
With the rise of sites like Bebo, MySpace, Facebook and all the others, what people seem to forget or ignore is that other people post information about them. It could be a photo from the bowling team, church group, bachelor party or something innocuous like a Christmas photo. If we locate Chico's Aunt Martha or his pool shooting buddy from a blog or social network site, we say we went to school with Chico and are trying to get in touch -- but it's a surprise. Don't tell him we made contact. People can be very helpful.
One trace involved a man who was collecting disability but working illegally off the books. The client supplied us with basic information, and Eileen did her virtual magic and found a posting on a message board where the subject was searching for his long lost girlfriend. An email to the subject sparked a conversation, and it was only a matter of time until he revealed where he was working. The next day investigators arrived with a hidden camera, and he was busted.
A wonderful tool is Spoofcard, which can substitute a different number for your phone number on caller ID. A client hired us to gather information about an artist. I made a call to the subject using Spoofcard, and I programmed the number of a famous art magazine. When the artist picked up, I posed as a writer doing a piece on him and asked if he had a few minutes. The artist was elated that he was going to get some press, and the few minutes turned into an hour -- all thanks to the technology of Spoofcard.
What used to take several hours or days in skip tracing now takes 10 minutes with a cellphone and a Web-connected computer. I'll tell you one thing -- searching the Net is more pleasant than sifting through garbage for information.
The big question always asked: Is it easier to locate people because of technology or easier for people to disappear? Technology makes the search process easier, but it's like yin and yang. It's a game of war -- the hiders against the seekers. The winner is determined by who does it best.
Frank M. Ahearn and Eileen C. Horan are professional skip tracers with AhearnSearch. They have been finding people for over 20 years.