Former private investigator Frank Ahearn used to be a "skip tracer," tracking down people for a living, like children who had been to Michael Jackson's Neverland. But after he started having legal and ethical questions about his work, he switched sides, and now helps people avoid being found.
He explains how, and why, in his new book "How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails and Vanish Without a Trace," excerpted below. We speak with Ahearn about his book and some of the tools he previously used to find people, such as the website Zabasearch.
- Here & Now: How to guard your privacy in a digital world
How To Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails and Vanish Without a Trace
By Frank Ahearn
Disinformation is my favorite part of disappearing, because it brings my skip tracer’s talent for deception into play.
In the first step of your disappearing act, misinformation, you took what was out there on you and hid it from view. Now you’re going to make finding you even more difficult by creating a bunch of bogus trails for your pursuer to follow. You’ll do this with two goals in mind:
Keep your hunter busy searching for you in the wrong place, and make the file on you as thick, frustrating, and expensive to detangle as possible.
When I was a skip tracer, my buddies and I prayed we’d get just enough information to find our targets—no more, no less. Too little information and the trail would go cold, but too much and we couldn’t tell the bogus trails from the real ones.
When people pick up and disappear, one common and crucial mistake they make is that they do not attempt to keep their hunters busy. If you just leave one trail, however hard you’ve tried to cover it, you allow your pursuer the opportunity to search it thoroughly. Don’t give him that luxury. Skip tracers are some of the quickest and most imaginative people you’ll meet, if I do say so myself, and if they’re on the right trail, they’ll probably find you.
Therefore, it is very important that you do some disinformation.
Think of it as con artistry in the name of self-defense. Like any good con, it consists of three parts: hook, line, and sinker.
Your “hook” is a piece of information you create on purpose for a hunter to find. It looks real and will excite a skip tracer when he finds it. Perhaps you’ll express interest in a home loan or an apartment rental or a credit card, causing someone to run an inquiry on your credit report. Perhaps you’ll make calls from a phone line you know your pursuer will access.
Hooks are a great tool for victims of stalking and abuse. I once worked with a client named Vera, whose husband, the father of her child, had beaten and threatened to kill her. He was graduating from a three-year stint in the gray bar motel, and even from prison he had attempted to terrorize her by sending anonymous, threatening letters. When his release date was nearing, he made it obvious that he was planning to come back and hurt her.
Vera had full custody of their child and wasn’t about to let that happen. She wanted to get the hell out of her hometown, so she got in touch with me. After we did some misinformation on her record, we created a realistic and elaborate disinformation plan that would keep her ex busy and off her trail.
The first thing Vera and I did was send her off to a small town in the Midwest and locate an apartment for rent. We made sure that the apartment complex would run a credit check, creating an inquiry on her credit report. We suspected the jailbird ex would persuade someone to run a credit report on her, and we knew he or an investigator would notice that inquiry from Sincere Realty in Buck, Oklahoma. That inquiry was our hook.
Vera and I knew that the minute the jailbird read the inquiry, he would be on a bus across the country, heading straight for Buck. So we created a line: a whole mess of information in that location. We had Vera apply for utilities and phone service for the apartment she visited—even though she was not moving in, nor would she be there to activate the services.
We assumed the jailbird would hire a skip tracer or private investigator to help him find an apartment number. If a professional were on Vera’s trail, he would locate an incomplete order for telephone service at her new “address”—possibly a complete order, if a new tenant moved into the apartment. He’d be confused: Did Vera not take the apartment, or did she move in with a roommate? And he’d have to go there to investigate, costing the jailbird more money and time. The telephone company from which Vera applied for phone service asked for employment information and a contact phone number.
We located a large company that was in the area and used that as her employment address. Then we used a contact phone for the same company—but at another location, in a different city. We hoped that the ex and his hired goon would think she had transferred locations, and yet another dead-end search would begin.
Team Jailbird could pretext and skip-trace all over Oklahoma — they would never find Vera. When they didn’t find her name in utility accounts, perhaps they’d try the phone company, the cable TV company, and local grocery stores. Each of these searches was going to cost money—racking up an investigative bill in the hundreds, if not the thousands — and each would take time.
Before Vera hit the road to her new, undisclosed location, we opened up a small checking account at a random bank. She called this bank from her old phone and her mother’s, along with a few other banks for good measure. Then she asked for a debit card, which I passed along to an associate of mine who travels all over the country. Soon, “Vera” was going shopping in St. Louis, Montreal, Seattle . . . you name it.
That was our sinker: a clue so wild that it would take a private investigator years to get her head around it. If Team Jailbird managed to acquire either set of phone records, they’d see bank numbers and think they’d hit the start of Vera’s money trail. Perhaps the private investigator would call the banks and make the very illegal move of pretending to be Vera. She’d find an active account at one of the places she called and think, bingo. We’ve got her now. Then she’d extract withdrawal records and see the following:
ATM $20.00 St. Louis, MO
ATM $30.00 Chicago, IL
ATM $10.00 Las Vegas, NV
ATM $20.00 Toronto, ONT
ATM $40.00 Montreal, QC
ATM $10.00 Seattle, WA
She’d think, my God, this woman is on the move. She might even do some preliminary investigating in these cities, wasting even more time and money. Even if the jailbird had limitless resources, the PI might be so frustrated at this point that she gives up.
If your life is in danger, there’s not much to enjoy about disappearing, but it’s hard not to feel satisfied when a plan like this works.
Vera is still safe today, and you know what? We enjoyed giving her jailbird the finger.
No matter how much stress you’re under as you try to disappear, I hope you can step back and appreciate your creative finesse as you confuse the hell out of your pursuers. The truth is: Disinformation can be fun.
© 2010 Lyons Press / Globe Pequot Press – www.globepequot.com
This segment aired on December 3, 2010.