Tips From an Expert Private Investigator on How to Maintain Your Online Privacy
Your check-ins at the bar you go to for happy hour. The pics your family tags you in at the wedding you attended. Your phone number and date of birth. The places you've traveled.
The stuff you put on social media is a gold mine for people who track other people down.
Judi Sheeks has been a private investigator and skip tracer for over two decades. She has tracked people down all over the world. Now, she's written the book on her successes and how to avoid getting tracked down. The book, How The *Bleep* Did You Find Me, is available on Amazon. It's a quick, fun read, and it's an important guide book on how you can be found — and how to protect your privacy.
As it says on the back cover,
You have unknowingly been helping private investigators (and others) track your every move. This is your "How NOT To" manual helping you take back your privacy.
For those not familiar with the term, a skip tracer is someone who looks for someone who has "skipped town." It is a valuable skill in the credit and collections industry, in private investigations, and in the legal world, where tracking down an important witness or a party to a legal proceeding is often vital to the case.
In an interview, Judi described how she got so good at it, saying: "I was genetically born to do this. If you've ever had a jealous ex girlfriend, you know that a woman is gonna be like a dog with a bone finding this stuff out." Her father owned a very successful collection agency in Colorado, and she got her start tracking down people who owed money.
She says that many of her targets are found with a simple search engine inquiry using the information people share voluntarily:
That's the very first thing that I do, I Google them. Then I'm going to find out if they're going to have a Facebook account, and nine times out of ten they're not smart enough to make their Facebook postings private, or friends only, which means I can get everything on them. If they are smart enough to make it viewable by friends only, I'll do my 7 Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. I had one Facebook friend, it turns out I was looking for his sister. I sent her a friend request, she blew me off, so I canceled that and sent a friend request to her brother, who was enamored of my pictures. The minute I was friends with him, I got all the pictures of her wedding, the town she was in, a picture of their new house. Called the attorney and got her subpoenaed. He and I are still friends, and he has no clue that I'm the one that turned her in to the attorney and got her served. I have some Facebook friends from back in the day so that I would have their pictures back when I was serving people myself. I have Facebook friends that I served with papers, and they still haven't made the connection.
Sometimes the tiniest, most innocuous detail can crack the case. In the book, Judi recounts a case in which she found the target's Facebook account, on which the target posted a few photos. One of those photos included a very distinctive mailbox in the shape of a chicken. The street address was visible, as was a Cadillac Escalade in the driveway. A quick search of a DMV database for all Cadillac Escalades, a check of Google maps that confirmed the chicken mailbox -- and Judi had her target.
Judi claims she's never not found a skip, saying, "If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that (how the **** did you find me), I wouldn't have had to work the past several years. The internet really has made my job a lot easier."
She goes on to say,
I'm going on 24 years doing this, and there has never been anybody I've not found. I've found people in South Korea, in British Columbia, in Brazil, in Copenhagen. It's not just a US thing. I have literally found people all over the world. Nine times out of ten, it's because they wanted their fifteen minutes of fame, and they got complacent. This is almost the Wild West days of the internet. If you're not taking precautions, it's like having unprotected sex.
It's not always that easy to track someone down. Sometimes they aren't all that eager to share details that could get them caught. In those cases, Judi has to bring in the data mining tools:
If all else fails and I can't track them on Facebook, then I've got my huge credit mining companies with information from everywhere. This is the information that Facebook collects about you, and Google collects about you, and every search engine in the world collects about you. I pay them a chunk of money every month, but I also make a chunk of money off of them every month.
Along with those resources, there are court records, DMV records, Department of Corrections records, secretaries of state, and all sorts of databases housing public information. If you've ever had contact with the court system, that information is available to virtually anyone who wants it.
To top it all off, she says, the rumors are true. There actually is a database of all the public security camera images that record your license plate as you drive by. Red light cameras, speed cameras, all of them. People like Judi can use that database to build a profile of your behavior.
Judi says that it's not just good guys who are looking for you.
When I'm looking for someone, I'm one of the good guys and I'm doing it for a good reason. A lot of people aren't. There are bunny boilers out there.
That's the other reason for writing the book. When you're on Facebook, you're on your phone or you're at your computer, and you're thinking that someone is not looking over your shoulder when you're typing. Well, yeah they are. I got your grandmother's cole slaw recipe now, and I really like the picture of your brand new car in front of your new apartment.
I thought to myself, I should write a book about how not to get found! I run into more women who have gotten restraining orders, which is really only a piece of paper. He's going to find you no matter what. Every one of them do the same stupid things. They'll move to another town, but they'll still want their 15 minutes of fame on Facebook, or Instagram, or SnapChat. Then, nine out of ten of them put their utility bills in their kids' social security numbers, as though nobody's going to think to look up the kids' social security number. This is the kind of goofy / scary thing. I get the majority of my information from the utility companies, from government sources, from the courts, from the very people you think are looking out for you. They're a gold mine.
If you wanted to disappear, it wouldn't happen immediately. In the book, Judi says, "It will take six months to a year and a whole lot of planning, but you can get off the grid and be harder, if not almost impossible to track." She dedicates the final three chapters to describing ways you can avoid being tracked with the information you put online.
So, check those security settings on your browser and social media accounts. Don't overshare. You know those end-user license agreements (EULAs) that nobody reads? Read them. You need to know who gets to access the information collected about you. There are dozens of other tips to maintain your personal privacy.
The book is available here.