Playing Hide and Seek in a Wired World

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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.

Repo Woman

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 Free White Paper Download: How Behavioral Analytics Fuels
More Personalized Marketing 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.

War Games

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.

September
21, 2010

Frank
M. Ahearn
and Eileen C. Horan are professional skip tracers
with AhearnSearch. They
have been finding people for over 20 years.

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