Detectives use public Net info to sleuth
December 3, 1998
by Lessley Anderson
(IDG) -- It's a grim case of manslaughter. An out-of-control sports car careens wildly and strikes a pedestrian. The driver speeds away; the pedestrian doesn't make it. Five years later, a private eye looks for the waitress from a nearby coffee shop who might have caught a glimpse of the driver. Unfortunately, she's long gone. Armed with little more than the waitress' name, the detective sets out to track her down.
While the hit-and-run scenario is invented, the problem it raises is real. Finding missing people has always been a staple of the investigative trade. The modern-day private eye, though, has tools Sam Spade never could have imagined.
Chas Levenberg, a San Francisco-based private detective, demonstrates how it's done. Levenberg sits in front of his old Mac SE/30 and logs on. The first stop: one of several commercial databases that compile reams of public records – death certificates, birth certificates, property deeds. He types her name – say, Susan Johnson – into the bare-bones telnet interface. In a few seconds, the computer spits back a list of 167 Susan Johnsons, complete with former and current addresses, Social Security numbers and birth dates.
In this case, the data comes from credit headers – portions of credit records available through a number of commercial services to licensed private eyes, lawyers, credit companies and corporations doing checks on potential new hires. (Because of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, full credit reports are more tightly controlled.)
Levenberg gets lucky. One entry on the long list of Susan Johnsons has an address near Lake Tahoe, not far from the coffee shop. He checks with a Web directory assistance site called 555-1212.com, and finds no listing. With another database, he narrows the search using the Social Security number and birth date of the Susan in Lake Tahoe.
The P.I. switches to other public records databases that track marriage licenses, divorce filings and court records. Eventually, he finds the deed of sale for a Lake Tahoe home sold by one Susan Johnson to a man named Javitz. He plugs the name into 555-1212.com and scrolls down until he finds the right Javitz.
Javitz says Johnson moved to Colorado. Another property database search turns up a house in Boulder sold to a Susan Johnson with our Susan's Social Security number. Another directory assistance search yields a phone number. Without getting out of his chair, Levenberg has found the theoretical missing waitress.
The sources Levenberg consulted – a handful of proprietary commercial databases with names like CDB Infotech, IRSC and DBT – are part of a growing industry that makes a vast array of public records available online. Private investigators have always rummaged around government files. What's new is the ease with which anyone with a computer and a phone line can access them.
Private businesses have created a thriving trade out of consolidating public records into commercial databases. As recently as 10 years ago, death records, marriage licenses, property deeds and fictitious business-name filings were all stored in courthouse file rooms. A search required combing through them by hand, county by county. In the 1980s, some local governments started entering public records into searchable computer databases. Most states prohibit local governments from selling access to public records at a profit, though, which gives them little incentive to bother.
That fact helped set the stage for a profitable new breed of information businesses. Just ask Rick Rozar. In 1979, Rozar founded CDB Infotech, a Santa Ana, Calif., company that's now part of an NYSE-listed concern called ChoicePoint. Before he formed CDB, Rozar had been a private eye, helping insurance companies track down assets. Rozar got an edge over his rivals by buying public records on microfiche.
His microfiche collection became the basis of CDB. The company went online in 1982, setting up an electronic bulletin board for investigators to post queries. CDBresearchers then combed the microfiche library for answers. While a primitive approach by current standards, the strategy paved the way for more sophisticated systems.
In 1985, CDB introduced its first searchable records database, made up of Los Angeles County Superior Court records. By 1992, CDB had become so profitable that Rozar sold off his investigative business.
By the mid-1990s, searching for personal information via dial-up databases had become standard practice for the plugged-in investigator. And, with the advent of the Internet, the public was also able to do some amateur sleuthing. A variety of sites provide easy access to postal addresses, e-mail addresses, phone numbers and Usenet postings.
The easy availability of that kind of information has some people worried. Privacy advocates view Internet access to public records as risky business. They see it as an opportunity for imposters to access and misuse the data. Ergo, they want to make it a lot harder to get.
To fully understand the fear surrounding online access to public records – and the role private investigators play in the debate – it helps to revisit the notorious 1989 Hollywood slaying of television actress Rebecca Shaeffer. While public records weren't online at the time, you could still find them the old-fashioned way. Shaeffer's killer, a deranged fan, tracked her down with the help of an unwitting California private eye, who looked up her home address using information from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Public outcry, and lobbying from groups such as the Screen Actors Guild, led California legislators to tighten access to DMV records. At first, the state required private investigators to prove they were serving a subpoena before releasing an address from the DMV database. Now, as of Nov. 1, the state won't release any information from its DMV database, to private eyes or anyone else.
Quick access to personal data has also been restricted in other ways. In 1996, privacy advocates lobbied over P-Trak, a service operated by the Lexis/Nexis database service that allowed easy access to almost anyone's address, maiden name and month and year of birth. The furor led to a Federal Trade Commission investigation into what they termed "look-up services." Lexis responded by offering to voluntarily remove personal information on anyone who asked.
Worried that Uncle Sam would whip up new restrictions, 13 of the largest commercial database companies have formed the Individual Reference Services Group, a lobbying group trying to fend off a government crackdown by introducing self-regulation into the information brokering business. Their rules, which go into effect at the end of the year, include restricted access to certain data types, like maiden names and Social Security numbers.
It may not be enough. Tech-savvy private eyes have become a popular media punching bag, and the pressure for new restrictions is growing. In September, for instance, the newsmagazine 48 Hours aired an unsettling report on unscrupulous information brokers. The story focused on Al Schweitzer and Joe Apter, who detailed how they get sensitive information like property deeds, phone bills and Social Security numbers. Their technique largely involved "pretexting" – or lying and pretending to be someone else.
The story irritates private eyes, who bristle at the notion that illegal techniques are standard operating procedure. "Al Schweitzer testified before Congress that the information he'd gotten was through pretext, not through the Net," says Bill Eden, technology head of the California Association of Licensed Investigators.
Investigators say public records such as property deeds actually help protect people from fraud: For example, they allow companies to do background checks on potential employees and help investigators track down fathers who are delinquent on child-support payments.
"If you outlaw access to information, you're not going to outlaw the ability of sleazy people to get this information," says Steven Rambam, a New York-based private investigator. "You're just going to outlaw the ability of law-abiding people to get it. If I'm a determined stalker, I'll get personal information by hook or by crook, even if I have to resort to illegal methods."
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