Q&A with author Frank Ahearn on the art of disappearing
Want to vanish? First, ditch the cards
When life becomes too much, Frank Ahearn can help you disappear.
He's not cheap; this New York-based skip-tracer turned skip-maker charges $42,000 minimum, half upfront, for his personal brand of magic. He takes neither credit nor debit cards. In fact, his first move will be to confiscate and destroy yours.
But once you enter his digital hall of mirrors, your every Web inquiry, online deposit, social media post and email to Mom will take crazy, cockeyed turns from self-expression into misdirection until poof! -- you emerge months later a "virtual individual" with all the freedom of a newborn.
What you do then is entirely up to you; this magic man has no intention of breaking the law by helping you forge a new identity.
If you don't have a cool 40-grand handy, you can mooch some mojo from his book, "How to Disappear." But be forewarned: If trouble truly is at your heels, you don't want to try any of this at home.
How does he do it? Why does he do it? And who could possibly want to disappear that bad?
Let's ask Frank. After all, he once tracked down an unknown White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
Q: How and why did you switch from skip-tracer to skip-maker?
A: Purely by fluke, man. The heyday of skip-tracing was over with the whole Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (of 1999), and I just knew that there was no way I could keep doing what I was doing before the Federal Trade Commission caught up with me. So I basically stopped, and took a pretty good hit financially. Then I wander into this bookstore where I run into this guy who's buying books about offshore banking and living in Costa Rica and he pays with his credit card! And I'm thinking, what a dumbass; you buy these books on discretion and then you use a credit card? So I struck up a conversation and sure enough, he needs to disappear. He asks me, "Can you help?" and I'm like, sure!
Q: Why would somebody want to disappear?
A: It usually comes down to money or violence. A lot of clients have had businesses that just died because of the economy and have this seed money, and they want to just walk away and leave their old life behind. Or they've come into some money, like lottery winners, and they just want to make sure that the roaches don't come out of the woodwork looking for them. The unfortunate part is the violence; victims of stalkers or abusive spouses or ex-spouses. I've worked with clients who entered business deals and did not know who they were entering it with and things went sour and they were afraid for their life.
Q: Are you ever in danger yourself?
A: I think the only danger I have is knowing the secrets of a lot of people. I just make sure that whatever steps I take, my identity is never disclosed. I don't just show up at somebody's house; I'll meet them at some public location. I don't take my car; I'll take a taxi or train or bus. I try to make sure that nothing ever comes into my world from their unfortunate circumstances. I don't want to become the focus of somebody's anger.
Q: Can you really disappear these days?
A: You can, but understand: To me, disappearing is living a virtual existence. Technology has given us the ability to not be physically connected to anything. You can bank online, you can pay online and order things online. You don't have to physically go anywhere. Technology has really made it so we can live virtual. You can open up a corporation., you can rent an apartment through a corporation, you can sublet an apartment, you can get an apartment where utilities are paid. The only problem that you have is, how do you earn a living? That's always the first and biggest hurdle. You can't be Joe the bus driver in Miami and be Joe the bus driver in Chicago.
Q: One of the first steps you take is to destroy their credit and debit cards. Why?
A: Because they're the No. 1 way of tracing someone. I look at it from the perspective that, if someone is going to hunt you down, they will break the law. I mean, it's against the law to get people's bank records and credit card records, but just because it's against the law doesn't mean people don't do it. And you have to remember: credit cards create a huge pattern, man. If you're a credit card user and you use it for your points, you're paying for your groceries, your EZ-pass or SunPass, even your electricity on your credit card. What happens is, in addition to a credit file for your FICO, you're building up this data profile of who you are and how you live through your credit cards. So we need to go backward and combat that information if possible.
Q: Your three-step magic act combines misinformation, disinformation and reformation. How does it work?
A: We have two types of information in our life: online information and offline information. But we have three lives: our home life, our work life and our digital life. Our digital life has become more important than our home or work life. So what we need to do is to go back and find everything about you and ask, how can this information be used to find you?
Say you have a stalker. Maybe you spent the last two months searching online about moving to Kansas City. So I'll go through your Internet trolling and find out what breadcrumbs you've already left behind. We realize you can't go to Kansas City now, so let's start building a Kansas City profile. That's how we use online information.
Q: You build a virtual second presence.
A: Stalkers are very tenacious; they basically become their own private investigators. So my process is, whoever is hunting my client is better than me. So if you have Facebook and Twitter, you start posting minimal stuff about Kansas City. Photoshop some pictures. Apply for an apartment online, because a Realtor is going to run a credit check that will show up on your credit report. Apply for utility service on a vacant apartment, then shut it off the next day; utility companies never get rid of that information. Then we take it a step further and do the same thing in Chicago and Toronto.
Q: You use cards to misdirect as well.
A: Here's how that's done. We open up a bank account online, put $100 into an ATM card, and I'll send it to a friend in Wyoming who's going to use it every week to buy groceries. Somebody pulls your bank records, guess what? You're buying groceries every week in Casper, Wyoming. This is the data they'll follow. The goal is a combination of misinformation and disinformation.
Q: ATM card data played a critical role in locating the Boston Marathon bombing suspects within hours.
A: Good example. Whether somebody is going to commit a crime or simply disappear, they're not looking at their actions and asking, "How might I be discovered?" It's like the guy who has 10 pounds of pot in his car and gets pulled over for a broken taillight. What happened in Boston, law enforcement was like totally amazing; they just really pounded into it. But today, between social media, cameras on the street and people sending in photos and videos, they were able to capture so much of what occurred prior to the explosions.
Q: Can you trace card use in real time, as the TV cop shows would have us believe?
A: Sure. Take, for example, your ATM or credit card. You can get text messages that it's been used. Law enforcement definitely would have access to that with the right subpoena.
Q: How did you come to track down an unknown presidential aide named Monica Lewinsky?
A: I used to do a lot of work for the tabloids, especially the British tabloids, way back when. So I get a fax from a good client of mine that says, "I need you to find these two women: Monica Lewinski and [her mother] Marcia Lewis. Do nothing today but find these two women." So we searched out bank records and ATM and credit card and phone records, and we were able to figure out where she was probably located.
Q: I have a feeling some "pretext," aka lying, works into this somewhere.
A: So I called the location and the housekeeper answers. I say, "Hi. How you doin'? This is Pat Brown, United Parcel Service. We have a damaged package for Monica Lewy." When I use pretext, I would always misspell or mispronounce the name because if somebody corrected me, I knew I was right. So the housekeeper says, "No, Monica Lewinski's not here now. Can I take a message?" And I go, "Well, we have a package and if she's not there, we'll just send it back," and she says, "No, no, no, she'll be here later on" at whatever time she gave. So I called my client and said, "Listen, this is as good as it gets," and he said, "Watch the news later tonight."
So later that night, I'm in a bar drinking and all of a sudden it came on the TV, "Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinski ..." (laughs) It was one of those "Holy-s---!" moments and I couldn't tell anybody sitting next to me because nobody would believe me. Those were the last great days of skip-tracing and social engineering when we could get almost any piece of information.
Q: You're well compensated for making people go "poof."
A: It's no easy task. But you have to remember: it's not always about disappearing. A lot of times with my clients these days, it's more the illusion of disappearing. I work with very wealthy people and if you went to kidnap them or abduct their kids, you might be looking for them in Belgium but in reality, they're in Helsinki. The business has changed. Let's create the illusion of disappearing because we don't have to disappear anymore.
Q: Do high-profile celebrities present a particular challenge?
A: Yeah -- they're useless. I don't even work with them to be honest with you. My point is, you can't expect privacy and then go to dinner at STK in L.A. I ask their lawyers, "Do they plan on moving to Wyoming like Bruce Willis?" and they say, "No, they want to stay in L.A." And I'm like, "What's the point?"
Q: What's your biggest worry in helping your clients vanish?
A: When it comes to finding people, it's no science, it's not art -- a lot of times, it's just luck, OK? So you just have to assume that the person who is hunting just might get lucky. So what you want to do is keep them busy; you want to build their file, make it thicker and therefore more expensive to follow.
Q: You're not a big fan of creating a new identity after you disappear. Why?
A: Aside from the criminal act of getting a new identity, what are you going to do? You're going to sit around at a bar with your newfound friends and in walks a high school friend you haven't seen in 20 years who starts calling you by a different name. You're going to say, "I'm not that guy, I'm not that guy!" right? So he walks out and for all you know he's got a huge Twitter following from the old neighborhood and he tweets, "Hey, I just saw Frank Ahearn in Key West but he denied being him." Guess what, the guy looking for me sees that tweet online and says, "Hmmm, let me go look for Frank in Key West." It only helps the predator, and once you draw law enforcement, you're screwed. People say to me all the time, "I need a new identity," but it's like Bigfoot; we've all heard of it but we really haven't seen it. Unless you're a criminal on the run, you don't need a new identity.
Q: How long does it typically take to make someone disappear?
A: The fewer assets you have, the easier it is. If you're a waitress with no assets, I can pick you up and go in 40 to 45 days. It really comes down to what are you going to do for a living and where are you going? If you have a house to sell, you need to turn it over to somebody with power of attorney so they can sell it for you. On average, it could take three months, but it really depends on who's after you and why.
Q: Do criminals seek your services?
A: I've been approached. I get the stupidest emails from people who are either dumb cops or dumb criminals saying things like, "I need to get a fake passport. Can you get that for me?" It's like, "Oh yeah; I'm just a Walmart of passports! Matter of fact, wire transfer me $10,000, and I'll FedEx it to you tomorrow." Of course I can't do that! What kind of idiot says that in an open email? I do a lot of phone consultations and the minute you mention fake identity, I hang up on you; you've lost your money.
Q: Ever dream of disappearing yourself?
A: Yeah, I just need more money! (laughs)
Q: To hire you.
A: Yeah, right? I've always said this business is a limited run, and it really is. I equate it to the early days of the Wild West when a gunslinger comes in and does his thing. But you know something? Technology is going to change, privacy is going to change and this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life. It's a good business now, but eventually I want to disappear from it.See related: Scared of Big Brother? Too late, says 'Big Data' author, Credit card privacy statements can hush your bank's mouth, The latest privacy invasion: retailer tracking
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