• United States



by Frank Ahearn

Disinformation and digital disappearance

May 03, 20117 mins
Investigation and ForensicsPrivacy

Former skip tracer Frank Ahearn says disinformation is a key strategy for "disappearing" digitally. Excerpted from chapter 7 of his book How to Disappear Completely.

An excerpt from Chapter 7—Disinformation—of How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish without a Trace.(Copyright 2010 Lyons Press / Globe Pequot Press— Used by permission.)

Also read an exclusive Q&A with Ahearn on

Disinformation is my favorite part of disappearing, becauseit brings my skip tracer’s talent for deception into play.

In the first step of your disappearing act, misinformation, youtook what was out there on you and hid it from view. Now you’regoing to make finding you even more difficult by creating a bunch ofbogus trails for your pursuer to follow. You’ll do this with two goalsin mind:

Keep your hunter busy searching for you in the wrong place,and make the file on you as thick, frustrating, and expensive todetangle as possible.

When I was a skip tracer, my buddies and I prayed we’d getjust enough information to find our targets—no more, no less. Toolittle information and the trail would go cold, but too much and wecouldn’t tell the bogus trails from the real ones.

When people pick up and disappear, one common and crucialmistake they make is that they do not attempt to keep their huntersbusy. If you just leave one trail, however hard you’ve tried to cover it,you allow your pursuer the opportunity to search it thoroughly. Don’tgive him that luxury. Skip tracers are some of the quickest and mostimaginative people you’ll meet, if I do say so myself, and if they’re onthe right trail, they’ll probably find you.

Therefore, it is very important that you do some disinformation.

Think of it as con artistry in the name of self-defense. Like any goodcon, it consists of three parts: hook, line, and sinker.

The Hook

Your “hook” is a piece of information you create on purpose for ahunter to find. It looks real and will excite a skip tracer when he findsit. Perhaps you’ll express interest in a home loan or an apartmentrental or a credit card, causing someone to run an inquiry on yourcredit report. Perhaps you’ll make calls from a phone line you knowyour pursuer will access.

Hooks are a great tool for victims of stalking and abuse. I onceworked with a client named Vera, whose husband, the father of herchild, had beaten and threatened to kill her. He was graduating froma three-year stint in the gray bar motel, and even from prison he hadattempted to terrorize her by sending anonymous, threatening letters.When his release date was nearing, he made it obvious that hewas planning to come back and hurt her.

Vera had full custody of their child and wasn’t about to let thathappen. She wanted to get the hell out of her hometown, so she gotin touch with me. After we did some misinformation on her record,we created a realistic and elaborate disinformation plan that wouldkeep her ex busy and off her trail.

The first thing Vera and I did was send her off to a small town inthe Midwest and locate an apartment for rent. We made sure that theapartment complex would run a credit check, creating an inquiry onher credit report. We suspected the jailbird ex would persuade someoneto run a credit report on her, and we knew he or an investigatorwould notice that inquiry from Sincere Realty in Buck, Oklahoma.That inquiry was our hook.

The Line

Vera and I knew that the minute the jailbird read the inquiry, hewould be on a bus across the country, heading straight for Buck. Sowe created a line: a whole mess of information in that location. Wehad Vera apply for utilities and phone service for the apartment shevisited—even though she was not moving in, nor would she be thereto activate the services.

We assumed the jailbird would hire a skip tracer or private investigatorto help him find an apartment number. If a professional wereon Vera’s trail, he would locate an incomplete order for telephoneservice at her new “address”—possibly a complete order, if a new tenantmoved into the apartment. He’d be confused: Did Vera not takethe apartment, or did she move in with a roommate? And he’d haveto go there to investigate, costing the jailbird more money and time.The telephone company from which Vera applied for phone serviceasked for employment information and a contact phone number.

We located a large company that was in the area and used that asher employment address. Then we used a contact phone for the samecompany—but at another location, in a different city. We hoped thatthe ex and his hired goon would think she had transferred locations,and yet another dead-end search would begin.

Team Jailbird could pretext and skip-trace all over Oklahoma—they would never find Vera. When they didn’t find her name in utilityaccounts, perhaps they’d try the phone company, the cable TV company,and local grocery stores. Each of these searches was going tocost money—racking up an investigative bill in the hundreds, if notthe thousands—and each would take time.

The Sinker

Before Vera hit the road to her new, undisclosed location, we openedup a small checking account at a random bank. She called this bankfrom her old phone and her mother’s, along with a few other banks forgood measure. Then she asked for a debit card, which I passed alongto an associate of mine who travels all over the country. Soon, “Vera”was going shopping in St. Louis, Montreal, Seattle . . . you name it.

That was our sinker: a clue so wild that it would take a privateinvestigator years to get her head around it. If Team Jailbird managedto acquire either set of phone records, they’d see bank numbersand think they’d hit the start of Vera’s money trail. Perhaps theprivate investigator would call the banks and make the very illegalmove of pretending to be Vera. She’d find an active account at one ofthe places she called and think, bingo. We’ve got her now.Then she’d extract withdrawal records and see the following:

  • ATM $20.00 St. Louis, MO
  • ATM $30.00 Chicago, IL
  • ATM $10.00 Las Vegas, NV
  • ATM $20.00 Toronto, ONT
  • ATM $40.00 Montreal, QC
  • ATM $10.00 Seattle, WA

She’d think, my God, this woman is on the move. She might evendo some preliminary investigating in these cities, wasting even moretime and money. Even if the jailbird had limitless resources, the PImight be so frustrated at this point that she gives up.

If your life is in danger, there’s not much to enjoy about disappearing,but it’s hard not to feel satisfied when a plan like this works.

Vera is still safe today, and you know what? We enjoyed giving herjailbird the finger.

No matter how much stress you’re under as you try to disappear,I hope you can step back and appreciate your creative finesse as youconfuse the hell out of your pursuers. The truth is: Disinformationcan be fun.