In our increasingly digitized world, here’s the most important thing you need to know: Although privacy intrusion is often thought to take place behind the scenes, it is actually the information you voluntarily offer—whether to Facebook or your cable company—that leads to loss of privacy. I know because I’ve spent most of my life working as a skip tracer, tracking down people who don’t want to be found, for lawyers, tabloids and even the highest bidder. On the flip side, I’ve also helped people vanish into thin air. I pick apart the little things in a person’s life to gradually make my way into the larger things: Social Security number, credit cards and more. Personal information is a dangerous tool, and it has never been more readily available. However, you can easily dissuade most pursuers with a few preventative techniques. Even if your goal isn’t to disappear, you should take precautions by erasing or altering the data that third parties have on you before someone decides to use it against you.
There is a group of people I call the unknowing. I have extracted their information. A job seeker posts his opinion on a religious message board and in turn loses a prospective job at a pharmaceutical company. All it takes is an online search and the company finds that his idealistic opinions are unsuitable for their corporate environment.
A woman illegally collecting disability payments posts on a Madonna fan site. She receives a letter explaining that she has won a contest to take part in a video for her idol. She shows up and dances for the camera—only to be arrested a week later for disability fraud. These are the unknowing. The stories are endless—and so are the opportunities to use your information against you.
The fight to regain your privacy involves three strategies: misinformation, disinformation and reformation. Depending on your goal—whether it’s to evade a meddling ex-wife or skip town and start over—you may not need to use all the methods. But knowing what you have at your disposal is a powerful asset.
Misinformation entails locating all the data known about you and deleting it. Run your name on various search engines. It’s important to search for sites that may have your name misspelled, so trick it out with a typo or two. Also try running it with your city, phone number or zip code attached. When you find your information, contact the relevant businesses and ask them to remove the content. If they ask why, a little white lie never hurts. Be sure to tackle social networking sites that list your family, friends, alumni and employment. These are huge danger zones.
Take a look at the services to which you subscribe. Cable companies retrieve your account by phone number, as do utility companies. Some systems will read off your street address. Ever order a pizza and see your phone number, name and address on the box label? Call the business and get that information erased. When asked for my contact info, I like to use the number made famous by Tommy Tutone: 867-5309.
Disinformation is about confusing your pursuers. You can deliberately implant false information about yourself and create a misleading trail to throw someone off your path. This is my favorite part of helping people disappear, and it’s where I get the most creative. On your phone, cable and utility bills, do a little variation on your name. Tell the customer service representative your name is Dan instead of Don. Also, don’t forget to forward your final bills to faraway places after you disconnect. If you’re looking to go deep off the radar, create a new, imaginary life for yourself. Tweet that you are moving to Chicago, use Photoshop to create images of yourself at Wrigley Field, then start a blog documenting your bogus move to Chi-Town. Anyone hunting you will focus their attention on the Windy City while you sip mai tais on the Baja peninsula. Get a debit card from a bank, put a few bucks in the account and send it to a buddy in another city. Have him use the card at supermarkets and local watering holes. If your account is compromised, a pursuer will see charges in a city you are nowhere near.
The final act of privacy is reformation, which is getting from point A to point B without being traced. The goal is to become a virtual individual, with no connection to anything physical. Prepaid phones, which can be obtained at any electronics store, are excellent tools in the disappearing trade. Register yours under the name Wile E. Coyote with any area code you want. For added security, never dial direct. Use a prepaid calling card.If you need to send e-mail, wander the streets and pick up internet service for free. Communicate with a trusted recipient by using a shared e-mail account you both have the password for. Write your “e-mails” to each other by using the drafts format. Do not hit send; just save your correspondence. The recipient then reads your message and answers in the same draft document.
For expenditures, rely on prepaid cards that can be purchased over the counter with no name attached and loaded with funds via the cashier. You can also purchase a prepaid credit card by mail and load it with cash at various retail locations. (Warning: Sometimes they ask for an identifier such as your Social Security number.)
The methods I suggest here are in no way comprehensive. The more creative you are, the better. We live in a society where technology is being developed quicker than we can imagine, and our information is a precious resource for others. Timothy Leary once told us to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Today it seems that it’s all about friending, tweeting, texting and blogging: anything to be a part of that third society that asks us to supply our digital DNA. A little forethought goes a long way.
It’s hard to protect your privacy or deflect your pursuers without outside help. Luckily, a burgeoning privacy industry offers services that are straight out of an espionage movie. Begin with these resources:
Intelius: This public-records business consolidates nearly every piece of information about you, from your average salary to the names of your relatives. A crucial step in protecting your privacy is understanding how others see you, and Intelius is an indispensable tool for that. Intelius.com
Guerrilla Mail: This excellent service offers disposable e-mail addresses that automatically expire after one hour and can no longer be accessed. For everyday use, Guerrilla Mail is invaluable if you want to avoid spam after signing up for services you plan to use only once. Guerrillamail.com.
Private Mail Drop: If you must receive snail mail, avoid opening a mailbox with the United States Postal Service. Instead, rely on a mail drop at a private business such as Mail Boxes Etc. Skip tracers have a hard time cracking a privately owned mail drop.
Spoofcard: What an amazing little trick! With Spoofcard, you can record your calls, alter the sound of your voice and program your phone to display any number you want on the recipient’s caller ID. State laws may prohibit some offered services, so double-check first. Spoofcard.com.
Frank M. Ahearn is the author of How to Disappear and The Digital Hit Man. you can learn more at www.FrankAhearn.com.
Kyle Dowling is a writer in New York. Since working as a script intern at Late Night with Conan O’Brien, his work has been published in Penthouse Magazine, Playboy Magazine, The Atlantic, The Believer, GuySpeed, The Smoking Jacket and Psychology Today, among others. You can learn more about Kyle at www.kdowling.com.
- Protecting Your Facebook Privacy (on.aol.com)
- Reverse Cell Phone Lookup Website Now Offers Prepaid Phone Number Lookups (prweb.com)
- Your phone number may not be as private on Facebook as you think – and how to fix it (nakedsecurity.sophos.com)
- Women at the Bar Infographic via MyAKA (prweb.com)
- How Mobile Apps are Invading Your Privacy Infographic (veracode.com)
- Ensighten is Assigned Patent for Online Consumer Privacy Management (prweb.com)
- Faulty Facebook Privacy Settings Expose User Phone Numbers, Researcher Says (news.softpedia.com)
- Facebook privacy notice message is a hoax (ibnlive.in.com)
- Solove Paper on Privacy Self-Management vs. Paternalism (pubcit.typepad.com)
- Facebook Privacy Message Is Pointless. Stop Posting (ubergizmo.com)