Protecting your privacy in the information age

Marc Acito byline boxFor 25 years, Frank Ahearn made a career out of tracking people down. Now he helps them disappear.

Starting in 1984, Ahearn worked as a skip tracer (tracing people who skip town) tracking down everyone from a crook who helped steal the Oscar statuettes to an out-of-focus doughball in a beret named Monica Lewinsky.

He also specialized in setting up sting operations to prove disability fraud.

"There was this guy collecting disability, a total NASCAR fiend," the 48-year-old privacy consultant says. "So I mailed him a letter saying he won a ride in Jeff Gordon's car," backing up the ruse with a website and a rented office wired with cameras. The suspect came in, where he met an investigator impersonating a doctor. "The [fake doctor] told him he needed to do jumping jacks and pick up these weights and do calisthenics. So we had the guy on tape, totally healthy. We turned him over to the client and he got arrested."

Despite making a six figure income, a life of deception took its toll on Ahearn. A skip tracer is a professional liar, gaining access to phone, credit and bank records by "pretexting" to be someone else.

"At one point I had 10 people working for us ... we were a machine, but every one of us was effed up in our personal lives. Three people had high school diplomas; the rest didn't, including me. If you were a recovering alcoholic, you were half an alcoholic. If you were a recovering drug addict, you were a near drug addict." And yet this band of misfits managed to bring down a multimillionaire financier for embezzlement and money laundering.

Still, Ahearn needed to find a new direction.

"I stopped drinking eight or nine years ago," he says, "so I started wandering bookstores instead of bars. And I saw this guy buying books about offshore banking, privacy and Costa Rica, which he paid for with a credit card."

Because of his work, Ahearn knew to treat all strangers as one of "the three Cs: cop, criminal or crazy." But he was lonely for his bar buddies, so he struck up a conversation with the man, who turned out to be a corporate whistleblower in need of escape.

Now Ahearn helps people vanish, a growing trend in an increasingly visible world. "The major reasons for disappearing are money or violence," he says. The latter disproportionately affects women, either those being stalked or, in the case of traditional cultures, those seeking to flee arranged marriages.

Ahearn also helps arrange decoy travel plans for wealthy people concerned about abductions, as well as doing corporate espionage. Demand for his skills has grown so much he decided to write a book with his business partner Eileen Horan, How to Disappear.

While most of us don't want to escape our lives entirely, the book explains how to reclaim our privacy in the Age of Too Much Information. "You need to dictate your privacy," he says. "People are giving away so much information with social media. If it's out there, it's for the taking. By a high-school dropout who's half an alcoholic.

To protect yourself, Ahearn suggests the following:

1. Think before you provide your information.
2. Read the small print on social media sites.
3. Just because they ask does not mean you need tell the truth.
4. Prepaid phone and prepaid credit cards are a good thing.

The irony is that erasing your digital footprints isn't so much disappearing as it is returning to the way people have lived for the entirety of human history. And while the genie is already out of the virtual bottle, Ahearn knows from experience that each of us can become escape artists.

"Your information is only as private as you decide," he says.

And that, my friends, is The Upside.

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