In a world where we share more information online than ever before, it might seem impossible to disappear completely. But Frank Ahearn can help. A professional skip tracer for many years, he tracked down 'missing' persons for clients who were searching for them for legal or financial reasons. His arsenal included use of public records, credit reports, utility bills, criminal background checks, tax information and other revealing documents.
But these days, Ahearn assists people who want to go the other way, those who want to disappear and erase evidence of their existence. In his book How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish without a Trace, Ahearn details some of the tricks he uses when helping clients "get off the grid," as he refers to it, and shares tips for those concerned about information and privacy in this digital-sharing era. And while he refuses to assist people looking to get lost for illegal purposes, he says they often do come looking for help and advice on strategically manipulating information in the wrong direction.
How did you first become interested in helping people disappear?
Originally, I had a skiptracing company for over 20 years where l located people. Most of my clients were investigators, insurance companies and lawyers. So I've always been good at accessing information. Then, a couple of years back, I was in book store and there was this guy buying all these books about privacy, offshore banking and Costa Rica. He ended up getting in line in front of me and paying for it with a credit card. I thought: "That's kind of dumb. You're buying these books that are about discretion and you're using a credit card."
I saw him in the bookstore's café and started shooting the breeze with him. I told him I was a skip tracer and that I could find him with that credit card transaction he just had to purchase the books. I gave him a breakdown of how I would find him.
It turned out he was a corporate whistleblower and had some money he wanted to take offshore. He asked if I could help him disappear. That was kind of the genesis of the idea.
Who comes to you looking for help with disappearing?
Clients typically come from two kinds of scenarios: Money or violence. Violence is usually a victim of stalker or in a domestic situation with an abusive ex and not sure how to get away. Then there is the money end of it. People who have come into some money and want to leave the world behind.
Recently things have kind of changed. Clients come to me now saying they are concerned about their information. That has definitely become a more prominent issue.
How do you hide people who actually want to disappear? Do you change their identity?
You can't legally change an identity. Identities are kind of this myth. Where do you get one from? And how do you know where it's from and that it hasnt been given to fifty other people? Who knows if it's on the Megan's Law list or if it belongs to someone who owes the tax man $100,000?
When someone comes to me in violent situation is I ask "Where are you going to go and how are you going to earn money?" You can't be Joe the Bus Driver in Chicago and then be Joe the Bus Driver in Seattle. You can be traced through your driver's licence. But sometimes you can open a corporation, depending on what you do and work on a 1099.
So, what we do in a nutshell, is make you a virtual entity where you work for this corporation. You lease your apartment through this corporation, your electricity, your phone. Everything about you exists under the corporation. The address doesn't have to be in the same city you're in. The goal is to make you virtual and have you communicate virtually through this corporation.
Do any of your clients pose an ethical dilemma for you?
I have people contact me all the time and I can tell there is something shady going on. But I know how to screen my clients well. People who come to me and are sincere will say "I have this problem. How can I solve it?"
Whereas individuals who want to do something shady, such as wire money offshore, or who are facing law enforcement issues, always have an agenda. They'll say "I want to do this, and then I want to do that." There is a difference between that kind of person and the people who have a real problem and want help solving it.
Now that there is so much push to share information through social networking and other digital venues, does it make your job more difficult?
It's kind of a double edged sword. You have to remember just because its online doesn't mean it's correct. Just like you can use social networking to find information about people, I can use social networking information to create disinformation about my clients. It's all a matter of who is better at something.
Have you actually used the web and social networks as a tool to create a false profile?
What we use it for is to create confusion.
About a year back, a client of mine was in Africa and he was in a hotel bar. He struck up conversation with someone and that person ended up saying something that they shouldn't have known about my client. The client just went to his room, got his bags and left without even checking out.
We were able to find out that someone in that hotel had accessed a real estate web site like Trulia or Zillow and put his address in. It revealed his home was valued at $4 million or $5 million. The problem international travellers are facing now is you go somewhere where you assume no one really knows who you are. But in a hostile environment, someone can now look at your information and realise you're worth the trouble of a potential abduction.
So, we create bogus individuals around client names. One person could be a photographer, one person could be a chauffeur, or whatever. We develop about 15 to 20 websites and create all these social media sites around you. Now if you are travelling somewhere and someone puts your name in, they are going to locate those 20 other people before they get to you, depending on how much information is known about you. And when you travel, you'll have information about your photography business in your hotel room. That way, if someone is going through your room, they will realise you are Joe Blow the Photographer instead of Joe Blow the CEO. That is how we are starting to use misinformation online.
As another example, I worked with a woman who, if you entered her name online, the only thing that was known about her was that her father was selling his company for $45 million. That was a big threat. We took her name and took similar slices of information about her and built all these characters, fake individuals around her. That's becoming something more in demand with clients.
What kind of recommendations do you give to people who aren't necessarily wanting to disappear, but are concerned about their privacy?
Social networking has become a huge issue when it comes to privacy. You wouldn't put a billboard on the side of the road that says "Look! Here's my wife, here's my kids! Take a look at these pictures of my backyard barbeque!" But people do put that stuff on social networking sites. I can understand wanting to use social networking from a business point of view. But keep in mind every time you put something out there, you are creating this digital DNA.
Take Facebook, for example. Facebook will delete your information online (if you close your account), but anything you share is not deleted. And Facebook has in their terms of service that they keep the information in their system for an undetermined amount of time. That could be 500 years.
I think that is one of the problems; people not realising where this is going to bring us and that the information can be used against you. Companies now are searching people's social media. What are they like? Are there pictures of them drinking at tailgating parties? Is there someone who has an outspoken website that may impact a hiring decision? People dont even think that their bosses may search this stuff out. And if the wrong person gets hold of your information, they really can wreak havoc on you.
When you do something online, ask yourself "Can this affect me negatively in the future?" Think about if you really need pictures of your kids online. If you wouldn't show them to a stranger sitting next to you on a plane, why put them online for everyone to see?
Ask yourself: What is the definition your own privacy? With the internet, we dont have a choice, we have to be a part of it whether we like it or not. So we have to decide what is important to us in terms of privacy and start doing things about that. Whether it's to reduce what is out there about us, or just control some of the information.