It’s never been easier for individuals to make themselves disappear and they don’t need a magician to do it. A dozen websites advertise their ability to help anyone “Remove Yourself From the Internet,” “Delete Background Check Items; Get a Clean Online Record” and “Remove Yourself From Internet: Delete All Your Personal Info.”
And if you’re willing to leave a retail trail online, you can order books including “How to Disappear From the Internet Completely While Leaving False Trails: How to Be Anonymous Online” and “How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails and Vanish Without a Trace.”
This broad availability of techniques designed to confound investigators and searchers like you may be frustrating and even disturbing. But the good news is — the more you know about how individuals attempt to “vanish” from sight or obscure their identity, history, assets, and whereabouts, the easier it becomes to reverse engineer their efforts so that an individual’s online footprint reappears.
Based on insights from experts at Thomson Reuters, along with skip tracers, privacy experts, and private investigators, here are 10 steps that crafty individuals believe they can use to “vanish” from the internet, along with competing strategies that you can use to return these “invisible” people to stark visibility.
#1 Social media is a searcher’s best friend
The first advice that privacy consultant Frank Ahearn gives in his book, “How to Disappear,” is for individuals who wish to hide to stop their activity on social media. If possible, they’re advised to shut their social profiles down completely. “If you want to stay private, your first step is to take down your Facebook. Delete your Tweets,” says Ahearn. “I can’t believe I even have to say this — staying off social media should be a no-brainer if you want to disappear. All social networking sites offer juicy information.”
The good news for you is that as long as the social media information hasn’t been deleted or made private, public records services such as Thomson Reuters’ CLEAR can quickly pull together a picture of the social media activity of individuals you might be searching for. And don’t forget the friends and family identified by these services. “For many clients, their worst exposure is their friends and family. Friends may accidentally expose your home address when they post photos to social networks,” says Michael Bazzell, author of “Extreme Privacy: What It Takes to Disappear in America.”
#2 Digging deep on misspelled names
Privacy consultants suggest to individuals who wish to thwart investigators that they sign up for cable companies, credit cards, and other services – and then call up customer service to claim that their name is misspelled in the records. The goal is to change the initially accurate information with a wrong spelling. “Let’s say your name is Arthur Aronson,” says Ahearn. Tell the service provider that they spelled your name incorrectly. “Rinse, wash and repeat with all the other companies that have your information, but try to change your name to a different spelling every time. Arturo Aaronson, Arthur Erickson, Armond Aaronson.”
“The goal is to find every shred of information that exists about you and change or destroy it beyond recognition,” says Ahearn, who has helped hundreds of individuals vanish from the internet.
Ahearn says the next step is for the evading individual to tell the source of the data that the information on file is wrong and request a correction. But even if the individual you’re seeking painstakingly asks their phone company, fitness club, cable providers, credit card company, and other organizations to delete their accounts, rest assured. Few but the most determined individuals will comprehensively delete every account that mentions them, and public records services retain information, making it more difficult to “erase” one’s identity.
Products like CLEAR are designed to uncover information on a variety of names. “We have sophisticated algorithms that look for precisely that scenario,” says Eric Gerhard, product development manager for CLEAR. “In fact, when I signed up for my internet service, the provider spelled my name wrong but the address and everything else matched — and the incorrect spelling of my name shows up as an ‘aka/also known as’ in a search.”
“If I were to get married,” adds Gerhard, “and my new wife changed her name from her maiden name to a new name, that new name would show up in CLEAR as an aka. With public records databases, you can match the slightly misspelled name with other data — date of birth and home address, even if the name is slightly off.”
#3 Synthetic identities — or a late bloomer
“CLEAR has a new synthetic identity component that looks to different factors that may point to a synthetic identity,” says Gerhard. “Such as — the correct name and address, but the last digit of the social security number is off. Traditionally, our matching process wouldn’t match to that because the information was a bit off – now instead, that’s flagged.”
Gerhard notes another tip-off to an attempt at synthetic identity: when there’s new activity appearing unexpectedly after years or even decades of inactivity. Or when a driver’s license or credit card account appears for the first time for an individual who’s 40 years old.
#4 When time is money, public records services give a time advantage
“Searches take time and money,” says Ahearn, predicting that searchers “will eventually run out of cash or patience.” Be it the cost of search tools or the human hours required to find someone who wants to disappear, the budget for finding people is often the limiting factor. The good news: public records databases accelerate the speed of searches, enabling each dollar spent to go further.
#5 The value of multiple data sources for searchers
It is possible for a person who wishes to hide to request that purchasers of data from third-party sources, “correct” that individual’s personal information. But public records services compile data from so many different sources — ranging from fishing, firearms, explosives, and hunting licenses to data from all three major credit bureaus — that you’d still find identifying information on everyone except those most passionate about staying off the grid.
Will an individual really be able to erase their names from data drawn from gas, water, fuel oil, electric, and other utilities nationwide, and thousands of other data sources? It’s hard to entirely scrub an existing profile of an individual’s life without creating a brand-new identity — and a service such as CLEAR makes that process even harder.
#6 Hiding physical residences
In his book, “Extreme Privacy: What It Takes to Disappear in America,” Bazzell explains how individuals who wish to disappear can rent a personal mailbox (PMB), a new personal address for any mail delivered in a person’s original real name. “As you update your mailing address with various institutions,” says Bazzell, “they will begin to report this change to the major credit bureaus and data mining companies. Within a month, your credit report will likely show this new address.” The goal for people who wish to disappear is to get “your name associated with this new ghost address. We want your trail to start throwing people toward a mail receiving company instead of a physical location where you reside,” adds Bazzell.
Public records databases — because of the multiple sources they aggregate — can help a searcher uncover a physical address despite the subject’s efforts to hide it.
#7 Every vote counts
If your subject has registered to vote, they’ve given you another opportunity to find them. In his book “Extreme Privacy,” Bazzell warns, “I no longer recommend my clients (who wish to disappear) register to vote. It is simply because it is impossible to protect your voter registration details from public view. If you are registered to vote, your name, SSN, DOB, and PMB address are now public information.” These records may hold the key to finding someone who’s trying to disappear.
#8 Going mobile – the value of motor vehicles for searchers
There’s a reason that CLEAR archives 164 million motor vehicle records — privacy experts realize that it’s extraordinarily difficult to “erase” a person’s ownership of a motor vehicle. “Your current vehicle, which is likely registered in your name and current address, can never be made private,” laments Bazzell. “You could request a new title under the name of your trust, but the history can never be erased – the vehicle identification number (VIN) is already within dozens of publicly available databases.” Experts like Bazzell advise individuals to hide by retitling their vehicle in the name of a trust, but public records databases can still uncover the vehicle’s history.
#9 Betrayed by a photo
In his book, “How To Disappear From the Internet: How to Be Anonymous Online,” author Raymond Phillips warns individuals that the Exchangeable Image File Format (or EXIF data) stored behind every image they take with their camera and post on social media can include the date and time the image was taken, the make of camera and, in some cases, the individual’s geolocation. “With enough pictures and time,” cautions Phillips, “people can easily find a pattern and know where you’ve been and where you’re likely to be going.” When a database retrieves images for an individual you’re searching for, you can pull out EXIF metadata and map it using publicly available EXIF viewers.
#10 – A butterfly collector will always be a butterfly collector
“Leave behind the hobbies and routines that characterized your old life,” advises Ahearn for individuals who wish to be difficult to find. “Back when I was a skip tracer,” he adds, “I used people’s hobbies to locate them all the time.”
A public records search can reveal a passion for travel (such as an airline pilot’s license), love of fishing (fishing license, ownership of a boat) and other avocations — invaluable intel in identifying and locating someone. Frankly, individuals seeking to hide from a searcher may change their home address, bank account, and workplace, but it’s psychologically harder to change a deeply ingrained, life-long hobby. Once a Star Wars collector, always a Star Wars collector.
In Ahearn’s words, “If you’re going to disappear, stop doing all the things that people would expect you to do.” And if you, as a searcher, want to find someone who hopes to evade you, use a public records search to identify a hobby or passion. Look for precisely the activities that you would expect an individual to keep on doing, even if their name, employer, and social security number has been changed.
The final lesson you can learn from people who truly want to disappear? It’s harder than ever to vanish in America — and public records services are a key reason why, with the right tools, a determined searcher can track down virtually anyone who becomes a person of interest.