Frank M. Ahearn is a privacy expert who ‘disappears’ people who do not want to be found and finds people who do not want to be located. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller, How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, And Vanish Without A Trace.
How does one get into this line of work?
I began doing undercover work in retail stores, where I worked as a regular employee, and my job was to catch other employees stealing. It was quite exciting and fun, but its charm faded.
I then worked in the investigative office, and there was a skip tracer (locates people) on the phone’s social engineering. I thought this was super cool and fascinating. I asked my boss to let me try, but he said no. I kept asking him and eventually, he told me if I can get a copy of his phone bill, he will let me skip trace. That night I went out to a payphone, called his phone company and posed as him. The phone company gave me every phone number he called, and the next morning I put the list on his desk. This blew him away, and that week I became a skip tracer.
Fast-forward 15 years, and the privacy laws are changing and will soon make my skip-tracing business illegal. I wrote an article about how to disappear, and the next thing you know I was the ‘Dear Abby’ of disappearing.
What kind of person wants to disappear?
It ranges from the average person who is the victim of a stalker to the super wealthy looking to protect him/herself against abduction for profit. Most people who need to disappear never thought it would happen to them. They woke up one morning, and something catastrophic had happened.
It is not so much the type of person, but more the reasons why people disappear. It always comes down to money, violence or information. The ‘money people’ came into money and want a new life somewhere private. Or they lost everything but have some seed money left and want to reboot life in a far-off place. The violence ranges from stalking victims and abused spouses, to finance people who got involved with the wrong kind. The information clients could be people who have done something really stupid that the whole world knows about online. They want to disappear and start over where no one knows them.
And how do you make that happen? Can you give us a typical example?
The most important question to answer is how the client will earn a living. You cannot be Hans the bus driver in Zürich and then disappear to be Hans the bus driver in Bern. Making a living without being discovered is the critical challenge. Some clients have money and start an online business, and others work in the black (under the table). The next step is where to go. Once we figure this out, I set up an apartment in a different name than the client’s. I provide them with prepaid debit cards, prepaid mobiles and an offshore bank account.
D-Day is the day the client disappears. I discreetly get them out of the home city, making sure no one has followed us. Then we spend a few days at an offsite where I educate them about being disappeared. We come up with a back story to tell people why they are living where they are living. I teach them what to do if they are located, and much more. Then I create digital deception to make it appear that my client is in Geneva while really in Lisbon, for example. This is done by using social sites and other digital tools.
It sounds Bond-movie glamorous. Is that the reality?
Far from Bondish. The traveling is very cool and exciting, but it is always about a person’s safety. Therefore, it can be stressful.
What’s the gender split of your clients?
It used to be 90 percent men, but now it is more 50/50. Men typically leave for financial reasons and women for violence. I think the evening out in numbers is because women have come to realize they have options. I know that must sound sexist.
I imagine you have some pretty tough judgement calls to make. What kind of ethical code do you apply when accepting or rejecting a client?
I do not work with individuals who are involved in current litigation or have current legal charges filed against them by law enforcement. Nor do I work with anyone ever involved with crimes against children.
Why did you choose to write How To Disappear? Aren’t you afraid of giving away all your secrets?
Deep down, I am a writer who strayed into the privacy business. I have no problem sharing the how-to of things. Most people cannot afford my services, but everyone can buy the book if need be.
And just as you can erase a digital footprint, you can follow those left by others and track people down. Who asks you to look for whom?
You can no longer erase digital footprints. The trick is to use the footprints left behind as misinformation. Typically, private investigators, lawyers and finance companies have me find people. Most people are easy to hunt and locate.
Your expertise is a great resource for crime writers. Would you ever think about turning your own experiences into fiction?
I have yet to find the writer to pair up with, to make it happen. But someday, sometime and somewhere I will figure out how to fictionalize Frank M. Ahearn from the Bronx.
Most of us are naïve when it comes to our online presence. What key advice would you give to our readership on protecting your identity?
The best way to protect yourself is to think of yourself as a virtual entity with no connections to anything physical. It’s one thing to have social media and share information for business or book sales, but the info should never lead to your home or family. Why people need to post their home city, birth date and children on Facebook is beyond my understanding.
I think when posting, keep your identifiers out of the equation. Also, think about the other people you are posting about. Did you ask your 15-year-old child if they want you to post that photo online?
Most importantly, online information is permanent, but our views and lives change over time.
And finally, the Woolf special question: What is one of your favorite works of fiction (book or film) and why?
My favorite book is Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. I am unsure why I like it so much, though think it’s because I am a bohemian at heart and the character lived a bit of that life. My favorite film, hands down, is Once We Were Warriors, which is a harsh, harsh film. It is a tragedy, a love story and a victory story all in one. I like how the female character climbs out of her hard life and emancipates herself. I like stories where people are a fork in life.