Next time somebody tells you to get lost, give Frank Ahearn a call …that is, if you can find him.
By David Gignilliat / Photograhy by Lauren Sheffield
As a professional skip tracer he’s frequently hired to find the people who really, really don’t want to be found. Over the last 25 years, Ahearn has traced celebrities (including Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Monica Lewinsky), helped track down a missing Oscar statuette and has consulted with police agencies on several high-profile disappearance cases. But it’s more often the tiniest and seemingly least consequential of details—a throwaway comment, the name of a long-lost childhood friend or a recently updated magazine subscription—that turn out to be the tipping point for tracking down an elusive skip.
“When you’re looking for someone, you don’t look for them. You look for things around them, the things they left behind,” says Ahearn, who grew up in Brooklyn and maintains a home in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C.
He recounts one case where a pursued target continued to elude him. “I went back to the client, and said, ‘Tell me about this guy. What’s the deal with this guy?’ [And the client said,] ‘Well, you know, blah, blah, blah, he’s a real big car buff.’ And I said, ‘Wow, he’s a car buff, let me check magazine subscriptions.’” After a few phone calls, Ahearn made headway. “And I say, ‘Hi this is Pete Smith,’ I haven’t gotten my magazine, and they say, ‘What’s the address?’ and I’d give them his old address, and they’d say, ‘No we have your new address sending it to here …’” Ahearn can’t believe his luck. “That’s the fluke factor. When you investigate [people], sometimes they’ll leave things behind that they never even think about.”
Ahearn first began skip tracing while working undercover at Abraham & Straus, a now-defunct New York department store chain. After busting 15 employees in a major in-store theft ring, he thought he might push the investigative thing a few steps further.
“There was a guy in the office doing skip tracing, and I asked my boss if I could do it, and he said no. And I said, ‘Well, what if I can get a copy of your phone records?’ He was sort of an idiot, and he said, ‘Yeah right, whatever,’ like he didn’t believe me. That weekend, I went home, got a copy of all his phone records and went in Monday morning and laid it out for him on his desk. He totally freaked out, he fired the [other skip tracer], and I took his job.”
Pretty quickly, Ahearn learned he had found his own lightning in a bottle. He went to one of New York City’s many public libraries and wrote down the names and numbers of every private investigator in every phonebook in the country. He started making calls, introducing himself to the PIs and building his own network of people who, like himself, could find stuff out. Since then, skip traces have taken Ahearn in more directions than a weather vane in a tornado—all over the world tracking missing husbands, debtors, old witnesses, even an old flame or two. Over the years, Ahearn estimates he’s traced over 100,000 people, doing most of his work through third-party private investigators, lawyers and finance companies.
“The minute I picked up the phone the first time and [tried it myself], I said, This is for me,” he remembers.
In a general sense, skip tracing is simply the process of locating a person’s whereabouts. This can be done through several channels, including tracing phone records, credit reports, job applications and criminal record checks. The information is then synthesized by the skip tracer in order to help narrow down a skip’s whereabouts. There is no formal training for skip tracing, yet there are unique skills that most successful professionals share—creativity, persistence and deceit.
For many skip tracers, the ability to lie quickly, effectively and professionally is one of the lynchpins of their investigative repertoire. Known as pretexting, it’s the act of pretending to be someone else in order to get the information you need. Ahearn has spun some good yarns in his day, often inventing clever scenarios to extract choice bits of useful information.
“The key to pretext is taking somebody away from their day,” says Ahearn, an engaging, candid man who speaks with a slight Brooklyn accent. “Most people have [expletive] jobs, especially if you work in customer service, because customers, well, they suck. And I’ve come to realize that if I can get somebody on the phone, I can take them away from their day.”
Ahearn claims to have successfully pretexted several police departments, Scotland Yard, even world security organization Interpol.
“I’ve learned to read people really well,” says Ahearn, 46, who once helped locate O.J. Simpson’s assets during his trial. “Somebody will get on the phone, and I can tell right off the bat whether they are going to give information to me or not. A lot of times, if it doesn’t feel right, I’ll just hang up,” he says.
A master of verbal trickery, Ahearn says information-gathering is all in the questioning. “You don’t ask a yes or no question, you ask a shade-of-gray [question]. Let’s say you’re calling Verizon. You’re not saying, ‘What phone number is at that location?’ You’re saying, ‘The working line you’re showing as …’ and letting them finish the rest. It’s the way you construct the question, they’re not used to it.”
Recent federal legislation—the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act, to be exact—has made pretexting much more difficult and, in some cases, illegal.
“A lot of people frown upon [pretexting] like it’s an evil thing to do, but when your kid is missing, and the police aren’t getting phone records because they have no probable cause, you’ll be more than happy to come to me and you won’t give a [expletive] how that information is found.”</p>
Eventually, Ahearn became so proficient at finding people that the routine grew to be a chore.
He became something of a legend within the insular world of private investigators, security consultants and skip tracers. He could do a $150 search in five minutes and now forces himself to wait an appropriate amount of time before he passes along the requested information to the client. Flush with business in the late 1990s, he expanded his business to include a staff of 10.
Cash was rolling in. So were the good times. It didn’t last forever, though. Tough times followed, including a divorce (“I’ve always had problems with the whole fidelity thing,” he admits) and an IRS audit that ended in having to declare bankruptcy. He pared his staff down to the bare minimum. Down but not out, Ahearn stumbled upon something he couldn’t as easily find—another challenge.
Having quit drinking, Ahearn found himself spending much of his free time in bookstores. A chance meeting at a Barnes & Noble with a gentleman reading about offshore bank accounts led the lifelong searcher down another trail as a privacy consultant. Instead of finding skips, he was going to help people disappear.
“And we’re in the cafe, and I just started up a conversation,” Ahearn recalls. “You know, Could I ask you a question? And I started explaining to him that I’m a skip tracer, that I help locate people … I could find out your credit card, where you shop, contact Barnes & Noble, find out what that transaction was.”
His hunch was right. The man turned out to be a corporate whistle-blower who wanted to start things anew. Ahearn and the man exchanged business cards. A few days later, the gentleman became Ahearn’s first privacy consulting client.
“He asked me if I could help him make the transition from here to there, and I really started thinking about it, you know, What is it that you need to do?”
Ahearn ran with the novel concept, penning an article for a website and even speaking at a mystery writers’ convention (“Up until that point, my public speaking experience had been Yes, your honor; no, your honor,” he jokes). He put together his how-to-disappear advice in an easy-to-swallow capsule—a three-legged stool of misinformation, disinformation and reformation.
Ahearn offers a unique suite of services—priced a la carte on his website—including skip trace, phone listing searches, employment records and email traces. He even sells prepaid phone cards. Though he won’t disclose names, he’s worked directly with celebrities and frequently receives inquiries from ultra-high net worth executives hoping to insulate their wealth and privacy.
The consulting and tracing, while profitable (Ahearn estimates his fees between $15,000 to $25,000 per “privacy” client), take an emotional toll after thousands of cases. “You have to remember, when people come to me, their lives are [expletive] up, they’ve already reached a low point,” Ahearn says. “And I’m really at the point in life now where I’m not sure I want that to be a part of my life.”
He’s working on a book about his life (“I didn’t want to write one of those how-to books or ‘Disappearing for Dummies,’” he says), and has shaved his work schedule down to just two days a week. Ahearn recently signed on to consult for a pilot script for a show called “The Disappearing Artist” about a man whose life in many ways mirrors Ahearn’s. The character, a poor businessman, is frequently hounded by the IRS, but in the end helps people out.
“Ideally,” Ahearn pauses for a few seconds, and then continues the thought. “Ideally, I could be a successful author and living in Paris.”
The skip tracer-cum-privacy consultant-cum-author who then disappears himself?
“Heck, I’m already somewhat virtual. I could do it … I don’t really have anything in my name anymore.”
He’s right. His cell phone bill goes to Fenway Park. His home telephone number is not listed in any phonebook. His website is registered to a post office box in Northern New Jersey. He rents cars to meet with reporters, and meets with them at neutral sites, like on a bench near the food court of a shopping mall. Though he’s known worldwide, few of his contemporaries have ever seen him in person. Some joke he might not exist, which makes penning his life’s next chapter all the more alluring.
“I think that’s the end game, though—to just kind of fade away, have a TV show about me, have my book and disappear somewhere in Paris. Stranger things have happened.”