The jewel thief altered his name, his city and even his gender. But he couldn't erase his online persona. Unfortunately for the fugitive, Joseph Seanor was on his trail. Seanor is one of those folks you don't want after you if you're trying to cover your tracks through cyberspace. He's someone you do want on your side if you've got a person you'd like to track down. And if he's learned one thing from his years of being a professional snoop, it's this: Most people have no idea how to hide. Yeah, they try to cut all ties with their old self, but they always fall back on some routine. They always join the same health club. Or always eat lunch at McDonald's. Or hit Taco Bell for an exciting night on the town every Friday. They do the same thing online, too. In the movie The Net, Sandra Bullock was trying to hide from a mysterious hacker syndicate, but the minute she got her hands on a computer keyboard she flew right back to the exact same chat channel where she always would hang out and went for help to CyberBob? Of course, the hackers were watching, so within a matter of hours CyberBob suffered an unfortunate brain dump all over his parquet floor. Bullock managed to escape the hackers' clutches by fleeing through a merry-go-round on the Santa Monica Pier. Well, folks, that convenient merry-go- round isn't always so handy in real life. At least it wasn't there for the guy Seanor tracked down. The fellow was in his late 20s, the son of a well-heeled East Coast family -- and a transsexual desperate for a sex-change operation. One day, after he'd been living as a woman for a while, he simply vanished. A week later, his mother noticed some others things were missing: her diamond necklace, a ring and a tennis bracelet. The mother assumed her son wanted to sell the jewels to help pay for his operation. She didn't want to call the cops; she just wanted to talk to him. But where was he? He left no forwarding address, just a stack of old e-mail from a bunch of electronic bulletin boards. Enter Seanor. He's president of the CIBIR Corporation, a D.C.-area company that specializes in high-tech investigations, and a fixture of the online private-eye scene. From his previous career doing "analysis" for "the government" (that's as specific as he'll get -- draw your own conclusions), he knew how to scan the e-mail for clues. In virtual life as well as the real thing "humans are creatures of habit," Seanor says. "They'll use very crude and lewd names, or they'll always have a number in their name or their name will begin with 'A.' One person might be addicted to lowercase letters and goofy slang. Another might end every posting with the same Lou Barlow lyric. The person Seanor was tracking always ended his screen name with the same word, signing in as something like "Crystal Blue" on one BBS, or "Indigo Blue" on another. Seanor figured the guy was still online somewhere. So Seanor searched Yahoo for a listing of alternative lifestyle BBSs around the country, then painstakingly subscribed to about 200 of them. He wrote a script to log on to each one and download a list of users. After four months, he found a name that fit the pattern on a bulletin board in San Francisco. Better yet, other e-mail clues fit, too. Best of all, the person had left a phone number. Seanor spun the number through a national phone directory on CD-ROM. That gave him an address. Then he ran the address through another commercial database, CDB/Infotek, just to make sure. After that, he had another investigator make a visit to the home. "It was the guy," Seanor says triumphantly. Or by that point, girl. She had gone through the sex change and adopted a new identity on the other side of the country from her old home. Just one thing tripped her up. If she would have stayed off the bulletin boards, Seanor says, "it would have been 100 times harder." GIGABYTE GUMSHOES Not all private investigators are as 'net- savvy as Seanor, who spends up to 150 hours a month strapped into a pair of virtual reality goggles (he says they're easier on his eyes than staring at a monitor). But the Internet is rapidly becoming a crucial part of the PI's tool kit. If The Rockford Files were filmed today, the show might just start with viewers checking out Jim's e-mail instead of his answering machine. Though, he'd probably still get the crap beaten out of him each time he went home to his trailer. Some investigators use the 'net as a place to hang out, gossip with other private eyes or try to market their services with pages on the Web. Others use it as a reference library to translate ZIP codes or track down Securities and Exchange Commission documents. A smaller number live and work in cyberspace, trailing hackers and sniffing out black markets of cor porate data. Of course, computers are nothing new to P.I.s. They've had online access for years to companies that sell vast stores of data on just about everyone: credit reports, addresses, unlisted phone numbers, Social Security numbers, marriage and divorce documents, names of neighbors, criminal histories, driving records, shopping habits, hobbies, medical data, property values, even minutiae like height and eye color. In many communities, data traditionally available only on paper, such as liens and county court dockets, are just a modem and a mouse click away. And that's just the stuff you can get legally. "At least 95 percent of the investigations I do use an online source of some sort," says Richard Mauzy, an investigator who runs the Public Integrity Research Corp. in Gilbert, Ariz. "It's been basically a revolutionary change. The 'net has nothing comparable to the commercial databases -- yet. It's not yet secure enough right now for such sensitive (and, more importantly, expensive) information. Some P.I.s say it's just a matter of time, though, until the security can be assured enough that data companies like CDB/Infotek and TRW can offer their wares on the world's largest network. "I don't think the era has come into its own," says LaMont Bankson, an Arizona private eye who oversees a home page for investi- gators. The P.I.s he knows mostly use the Internet for making contacts with others around the country. "You have a budget of X amount of dollars and you need something in Arizona and you can't fly out here. So you find a PI who can go down to the courthouse and check a record." But the new era is fast approaching, says Dan Draz, a San Diego investigator who battled insurance and calling card fraud for Equifax and MCI before striking out on his own five years ago. He says he and Seanor represent a new breed: computer-literate thirty-somethings who have made investigating their chosen career, not just a way to earn some dough after retiring from the police force. P.I.s of the future, Draz predicts, will fall in two categories -- some will learn the 'net and the rest will trail behind. "There's a lot of guys out there who don't have computers in their office. I don't know how they'll compete." The prospect of gigabyte gumshoes beefing up their online arsenals thrills people like Draz, but leaves others nervous. After all, probably the most famous computer-assisted investigation to date is the one that helped an Arizona man, Robert John Bardo, track down sitcom actress Rebecca Schaeffer in July 1989. Bardo, an obsessed fan of the My Sister Sam co-star, hired a PI to find Schaeffer's address. Then he skulked outside her West Hollywood apartment and killed her with a gunshot to her chest. The murder shocked Californians, many of whom had no idea that their personal data was available to any loon who cared to look for it, and prompted the state to clamp down on the release of information from motorists' records. Investigators can still get addresses, but only for the purpose of serving subpoenas, and they're subject to audits to assure they follow the rules. The Schaeffer killing also helped inspire a 1994 federal law that will force states to adopt restrictions next year on the type of data they release about motorists. Privacy advocates believe that such efforts may be a good start but don't go far enough. "These problems are going to get worse and it's not going to just be name and address," says Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It's going to be psychiatric records, high school grades. Whatever people want to know about you, they can find out." But don't blame us, the P.I.s say. They say that if the fallout in California from the Schaeffer killing is any guide, the public will be hurt more than helped if information ever goes private. "I guarantee you that there are poor mothers that aren't getting their child support money because they can't find their deadbeat husbands," Mauzy says. He blamed the privacy craze largely on scary "look how much we can find out about YOU" stories concocted by journalists. And, as he points out, many public records are a key part of the web of human relation- ships that keeps society functioning. If you own a house, your name and address, the property's value and the price you paid are a public record; that helps guard against fraud and ensure tax fairness. Companies like TRW and Equifax give consumers instant access to credit while giving businesses some assurance they won't get ripped off. If you're a roving con man, why shouldn't someone be able to find out? In fact, Mauzy calls for opening even more records, such as criminal histories, now available only in certain states, such as Florida. Why should states make records more available? Think about hiring a nanny. As a parent, wouldn't you want to know if she had ever done anything criminally naughty? "There's a point we're approach ing, and I think we've passed it, where the government is helping people hide." Mauzy says. The same goes for Anthony Zinkus, who owns the Tucson agency that Bardo hired to track down Rebecca Schaeffer (although news accounts said a California investigator actually pulled her address). He's still using databases for routine missing-person and long-lost-love cases, like the one that netted Schaeffer. "It's rare that it's not for a legitimate or lawful purpose," Zinkus says. He even questions proposals to close medical records. "You meet a nice chick tonight. Wouldn't you want to know if she has AIDS?" Rotenberg disagrees: "Not everyone's a criminal. We should not treat them as if they were." Anyone who believes that most people don't care should compare a prison with a wealthy neighborhood: The inmates have no privacy at all, while the affluent use gates and walls to separate themselves from the riff-raff. "People who can afford it get as much privacy as they can." VIRTUAL VOYEURISM In a sense, P.I.s lie at the fault line of a very modern debate. The right to privacy -- a concept not found in the U.S. Constitution -- only entered the American legal lexicon a century ago. Well, 106 years, to be exact, dating back to when future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis co-wrote his landmark Harvard Law Review article on the topic. That was during the dawn of yellow journalism, when new mass-market newspapers were titillating the populace with scandalous news culled from the courts and cop beat. The headlines caused many people to suddenly fear how much of their private lives was open to public scrutiny. Modern society, more crowded, mobile and anonymous than the rural communities of old, creates the market for snoops. "Years ago, if you lived in Tombstone, there was somebody who knew everything about everybody anyway," Mauzy says. Today, "we have situations where somebody swoops into town from Maine and wants to invest in this or that. You have people that are popping up from foreign countries all the time now." It's no coincidence that the same age has seen the rise of the private eye as an enduring figure in movies, TV shows and books. People like their privacy, but they're also voracious voyeurs. They scarf up the National Enquirer and People and A Current Affair and Melrose Place and dial up "listen in on private conversation" 900 lines to gain the illusion of peeping through the mini-blinds. So why should it be any different online? The hackers, after all, say information wants to be free. Hackers have a lot in common with P.I.s. While most investigators have much to learn about cruising the 'net, most P.I.s are well versed in the art of "social engineering," the term used by hackers and phreaks for coaxing information out of unwitting humans. P.I.s call it using a "pretext." For instance, claiming to be a creditor so a clerk will tell you somebody's bank balance is not uncommon. Such person-to-person dealings still make up the bulk of most private eyes' jobs. But as more people carry out their work, play and romances online, invest- igators are bound to follow them there. It's a lot easier than most people realize, says Seanor, who often capital- izes on other peoples' ignorance of the electronic trail they inadvertently leave behind when they shut off their computers. Sometimes, it's manifested by corporate employees blabbing away on a newsgroup about some sensitive company project, apparently oblivious to the notion that the world is watching. "It's kind of weird," Seanor says, though occasionally not so weird. Sometimes the loose lips open up to some innocent- seeming query, like "Anybody know about plans for the latest minivan from Ford?" The folks who answer never notice that the one posing the questions works for GM. They also never notice that a simple search engine or archive, DejaNews, for example, can tell a nosy PI about most Usenet postings they've made in the past few months. (Seanor uses a similar search engine that he wrote himself.) Many users also assume that their e-mail is gone once they delete it. Bad mistake, as Ollie North learned during from Iran-Contra. In fact, many Internet providers keep all their users' mail backed up on tape for as long as six months. All it takes is a court order or a willing system administrator to open it up. Seanor's gone both routes in his hunt for illicitly traded data. The same kind of help opens up a wealth of other info on a person's habits: When has the person been logged on? Do those times coincide with the times that someone was exporting stolen corporate secrets? Web sites' logs and new software being marketed to employers and schools can tell you what pages someone has been browsing. On UNIX systems, users' .newsrc files will tell you if they've been avid readers of alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.bestiality or even alt.fan.barry-manilow. If such things can be done legally, you can bet someone's doing them illegally too. It's not hard to guess that system administrators somewhere are getting off reading e-mail or taking bribes to pry sensitive data from people's accounts. After all, in real life, privacy laws haven't stopped the emergence of a shadowy data underground, hawked by companies selling information stolen by corrupt cops or government workers. One 1991 federal probe netted Social Security employees, a Chicago cop and a Georgia sheriff's clerk who, prosecutors said, sold confidential data to underground information brokers. The loot included people's salaries and work histories and data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Crime Information Center. Even in California, in the grip of the state's supposed Iron Curtain-like information blackout, it only took Mauzy one day and $300 to get somebody's criminal history. He later found out that the local PI he hired used half the money to bribe a cop to get the data so quickly. "I was rather shocked to discover that I was part of it," says Mauzy, a former investigator for the Arizona attorney general's office. "I did not leave law enforcement to become a crook." Is the same thing happening on the 'net? You bet. For much the same reason that we will always have private eyes. As long as someone's trying to hide something, someone else will try to pry it loose. In a way, the locked door creates the possibility of the eye at the keyhole. If we never wore clothes, nobody would go to strip bars. Zinkus offers consolation, of sorts: You might be too insignificant to be worth spying on. "It's people thinking that 'Hey, my little life is so important that everyone is trying to find out about me,'" he says. "When you get old you'll realize how few people really care."
BOB KING IS AN INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER AT THE SARASOTA (FLA.) HERALD-TRIBUNE. WE WERE GOING TO PRINT HIS SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER, BUT HE DIDN'T THINK THAT WAS SUCH A GOOD IDEA.