Tribune Print Share Text

Covering one's tracks in a forest of information

Created date

November 23rd, 2010

When more than 50 Oscar statuettes disappeared in 2000, he helped find one of the key perpetrators. After news broke of President Bill Clinton s tryst with a White House intern, he was the man hired to find Monica Lewinsky. In fact, you could say he s the Houdini of the digital age. He s skip tracer and information expert Frank Ahearn. Over the last 10 or 15 years, we ve all become a little more paranoid about our personal lives, particularly at a time when Big Brother seems to have no shortage of ways to watch us. For those who s feel vulnerable about their privacy or who may want someone else found, Ahearn is the man to contact. Actually, the self-professed Dear Abby of disappearing receives as many as 100 e-mails a week from people asking for tips and assistance on covering up their own tracks or finding those of others. In an effort to stem the constant flow of communications, he decided to write a book, How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish without a Trace (Lyons Press, 2010).

Skip tracer at work

For over 20 years, Ahearn has made a living off of tracking down so-called jailbirds, deadbeats, and subpoenaed witnesses using a creative medley of personal information. From a variety of sources that include phone and utility accounts, social networking profiles, and credit reports, he can piece together a mosaic of information that betrays a person s whereabouts and daily activities. This book outlines where we leave behind these little bread crumbs and how they create a trail that leads right to us. It s the product of Ahearn s natural instinct for data mining one that allows him to adapt to whatever information and means of acquiring it are available. When I first started working as a skip tracer, my primary sources were phone, utility, and cable bills; credit reports; and records from the motor vehicle administration, recalls Ahearn. Now with the Internet, people leave behind a lot more information, most of it voluntarily. Indeed, Ahearn says that from a single social networking account, he can ascertain the essential basics of a person s associations, his or her interests, and most recent activities. Without even signing up for access to sites like Facebook and MySpace, he s able to quickly gather names of friends and relatives, perhaps even one s work-related information; with that, he begins a more detailed search.

Double-edged sword

The Internet is really a double-edged sword when it comes to privacy nowadays, Ahearn says, because you have people posting information themselves, and at the same time, their friends are posting information about them. Most just don t realize that it s very difficult to get it off the Web once it s out there. This, in a nutshell, is how Ahearn works his magic as a skip tracer. Still, the question remains with the title of his book: Why would anyone want to disappear, and how would he or she go about doing it? According to Ahearn, the reason is simple. Disappearing leads to the ultimate freedom. Let me start by saying that I draw the line at breaking the law, he asserts. Those I have helped had sought my assistance for a number of reasons. It could be that a person came into a lot of money and doesn t want any hangers-on, and in other circumstances, the problem could be stalker related.

Disappear through disinformation

Regardless of the situation, the objective here is to eliminate every advantage that Ahearn relies upon as a skip tracer. That means creating a great deal of disinformation. When someone is looking for you, it costs time and money, he says. The more disinformation there is about you, the longer they have to spend sifting through the data just to distinguish the true from the false. To do this, Ahearn may send a client to a city where the person has no intention of staying. There, he ll have him buy groceries with a debit card, visit a local real estate agent, make a long series of phone calls anything to create the false impression of permanence. These are some of the most important tactics that Ahearn uses for those clients pursued by people who are willing to break the law to find them. For those who just want to protect their privacy and surf the Internet with a greater sense of security, his recommendations are less extreme. First, people should read the fine print before they put their information on the Web for the world to see, he says. Who owns the material after it s posted, and who has access to it? But I think the most important piece of advice that I can give is to think twice before you act because once it s out there, it s hard to get it back.