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Reporter gets on the case

After picking my target, I fired up the search engines. That pointed me to a bunch of other places to look: subscription-based information services, commercial research sites, even private investigators online. The results? Click here to find out.

I got the assignment. It was simple: Find her. Find her fast. And by the way, don't leave your desk.

My boss wanted me to demonstrate how much dirt I could find on somebody using the Net.

Her name? Let's just say she is someone who minds her own business. I chose her for a few reasons: She has an uncommon name, so that would give me a little advantage; she uses credit cards like the rest of us, so she's in the system; while logging on from time to time, she isn't much of a Netizen so her case presented something of a challenge. And, OK, the truth? She gave me permission. As long as I promised to protect her identity.

The boss told me I could spend a little money. We're not talking Franklins here. Just a few Andrew Jacksons. I had about two days, which in Net time sounded like a lot. At least, it did then.

I set off.

First, I slogged through some search engines just to say I did it. I knew I wouldn't find anything, and I was right. Then I rounded up the usual suspects--Web sites that let you look up listed phone numbers and email addresses. I checked out a bunch of places like Yahoo's people search and Switchboard. I searched on DejaNews, a searchable archive of bulletin boards.

Here's what I found: nada.

Then I checked InfoSpace. Bingo. The self-described "ultimate directory" lived up to its name, yielding a CompuServe address and city of residence: Oakland, California.

I have her now, I thought. I went back to DejaNews and typed in her CompuServe number, thinking it would turn up all her bulletin board postings. Then I did a big search on Oakland for public records online and looked in military and university directories. I even tried a Social Security index for the deceased.

I got zip. And it was getting late. I decided to cheat.

I picked up the phone and started dialing. Sure, I could have used email, but the phone was easier. Karen Coyle, a privacy expert with Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, picked up on the first ring.

"Coyle?" I implored. "I need your help."

It wasn't the first time I came running to her, and she knew it wouldn't be the last. Coyle is more like a guardian of privacy, so she doesn't track people down. In fact, she worries about big corporations and people like me using the Net to gather and find personal information. But for the sake of this experiment, she was willing to help.


Karen Coyle on the reality of the Information Age.

Coyle pointed me to a Yahoo's list of online investigators. I smacked myself for not having thought of it first. Now I was just a few links away from real information. Or so I thought.

About half the sites were simply ads that posted the phone numbers of investigators. The other half offered finder services that charged fees. The price range was wider than my grandfather's orthopedic shoes, and some were charging for services I knew I could get for free.

I couldn't find any that readily fulfilled all my needs: fast, cheap, and safe, as in a secured server. (I know someone is reading this right now and thinking, jeez, I found 20 on my first time out.)

At this point I'm starting to think: Even if I do find the right place, it really isn't a Net search--at least, not in the traditional sense. Doing it this way, you're just submitting information to an investigator who is out there somewhere; you could do the same by picking up the yellow pages. But online, you have even less contact. You can't see the person you're dealing with or even hear a voice, you have no idea when you'll get the results back, and you don't know how accurate they'll be even when you do.

That's why people like Jackie Tully have a job. Tully is a private investigator with Mason, Tully, & Pemberton. When she wants to get the skinny on someone, she puts on her walking shoes. They don't call her gumshoe for nothing.

"The databases are basically only as good as the information that's put into them," Tully said. "That is always not as good as somebody getting into their car and driving to the county clerk's office and pulling a case file and looking at the documents. That's why private investigation is hard work. It's not sitting around and looking on the Internet. It's getting in your car and driving some place."

Ouch. Hey, that wasn't my assignment. Still, she had a point. It was getting late, and I had zippo. I was getting desperate. I called another expert, David Kennedy, a security analyst with the National Computer Security Association. He pointed me to a few good clearinghouse sites. And then he suggested a book.

A book? As heretical as it sounded, I was ready for anything, even dead trees. So I hit the bookstores to scrounge for a copy of NetSpy: How You Can Access the Facts and Cover Your Tracks Using the Internet and Online Services.

I fell asleep that night to promising tales about finding all sorts of information--and the dread that I would find none.

The next day, I came in fresh, book in hand and ready to rumble. Then, voila, I found something: George Warren, who owns Nationwide Investigations had returned my email. Nationwide is one of those fee-based services. It had looked promising but didn't have a secure server. I asked for more information.

He told me how it works: You, the person seeking information, fill out a Net form with all the information you know and select which services you want.

He gets the information by email, and if it looks kosher and the credit card goes through, he starts his search. First, he does his own Internet search. Then he starts popping names into subscription databases, starting with the cheapest ones first. Unless people have gone out of their way to hide their identities, they're usually pretty easy to find. If you've ever filled out a credit report, bought a house, had a magazine subscription--basically functioned in this society--then you can bet someone has information on you.

If you've ever been involved in litigation, had a divorce, or committed a crime, then you're doubly easy to find because you'll show up on all sorts of court records. Warren pointed me to a brand-new site, KnowX, that allows you to search some public records for free. It then charges you to view those records. Sites like these are becoming more and more common every day. I checked my person; she was clean.

Since I was already on the phone with Warren, I asked him to do the search right away. Sure, it was cheating a little, but he would have gotten the same information and done the same thing if I had sent the email form. The standard cost for that search: $59. While I'm waiting, he starts giving me results. "OK, here I go," he says. "I found her in Oakland. I got her Social Security number, her current address?"

He'd done it all in three minutes. I felt a mixture of elation and dejection, since I hadn't uncovered the information myself. Bottom line: I had accomplished my mission. He sent me the data by email. I now had her current address, her former addresses, and even a list of neighbors. I knew the person with whom she bought the house. And yes, I had her Social Security number. (See related story)

I was blown away by how much I could get on the Net.

Then Warren brought me down to earth. "All the information I'm dealing with has been around for years," he said. The only difference between now and then was that before, he added, "you probably would have to call a private investigator. This makes it easier."

Nobody was more aware of this than the person I was looking for. It was a dark and stormy night. I called my friend and told her to meet me at this nice Chinese joint. I wasn't going to take her to a dive to break the news. I have some standards, thank you very much.

I laid it all out as gently as I could. "You were tough," I started. She smiled.

"I didn't find anything but your email address doing a regular search." But then, I told her about the paid services and Warren and the rest.

"I got it all," I said quietly. "Your address, your past two addresses, your phone number, your co-owner's name, your Social Security number--even your neighbors."

I was showing off. I regretted it immediately. I never said I was made of stone.

"Oh, my God!" she exclaimed, just a little too loudly. "Oh, my God," she repeated. "That's scary."

Then, staring stared wide-eyed into space, she said: "You mean anybody can find anything about me?"

She continued mumbling exclamations under her breath and slowly shaking her head. She had the sorry look of a woman in need of a drink. Hers hadn't come yet.

I passed her mine. "Here," I offered. "Want some?"

"Yeah," she said, grabbing the cold amber bottle.

"It's nothing new," I told her. "That information has been public forever."

"But not on the Internet," she sighed. She shook her head again and took another gulp. "Oh, my God," she said. "Oh, my God."

I'd heard it before.