Gumshoes Turn to Internet for Spadework

Sherlock Holmes wouldn't know what to make of Dan Draz.

When the San Diego detective sets out to crack a case, there's no pipe, no robe, no Watson and often no legwork. For inspiration and information, Mr. Draz turns instead to an IBM clone loaded with memory and hooked to an arsenal of printers, modems, and CD ROMs. On the cusp of the 21st century, gumshoe work is no longer "elementary."

Draz is among the private investigators trading a storefront shingle for the high-tech equivalent: a Web site.

The Sam Spades of the Internet are a small and select bunch, but they are changing the way detectives do business - and raising new ethical concerns. Some of these PIs are responding to the growing field of Internet-related crime. All of them have swapped pounding the pavement and sifting through reams of dusty court records for surfing the net - which holds a wealth of information about almost everyone.

Own property? That's out there. Your birth date and phone number? That's out there too. A skilled investigator can unearth your credit-card number, get the goods on your assets, and even snatch the code for every important transaction you make: your Social Security number.

"The amount of information and intelligence you can gather over the Net is unbelievable. You can find long-lost friends without leaving your desk," says Joseph Seanor, recently voted investigator of the year by the National Association of Investigative Specialists, an industry group in Austin, Texas. "It's a fascinating world, but a dangerous one," Mr. Seanor says.

The danger - and controversy - arise from the fact that information on the Net isn't private. And detectives aren't the only ones who can do this. A computer-savvy amateur could also dig for information. And there is, observers say, a thriving black market in information. "There's a price for everything," Draz says. "If someone said, 'I have $5,000 and I want that guy's credit report,' there are people who will do that."

Big clients: corporations

Most wired investigators are servicing the multibillion-dollar corporate security industry: firms that want to track down information thieves and hackers. But observers also see huge growth potential in the domestic market. Already, detectives are logging on to check the assets of a client's soon-to-be ex-spouse, to find wayward fathers, and even to trail people on-line to see where they go. "If a client's spouse is constantly posting messages at alt.singles, we have a problem," Seanor says.

And as more criminals use the Internet for investment scams, fraud, and piracy, the work for Net-literate detectives will only get better. "Anytime you have a gathering of millions of people, there'll be civil and criminal wrongdoing," says veteran detective Ralph Thomas, who heads the National Association of Investigative Specialists. "And if you're on a modem, people can get into everything you have. You wouldn't leave your checkbook lying around, but people leave all that information on the computer."

Ironically much of the concern about privacy and security in cyberspace is over public-domain information, which is quickly and easily accessible on the Internet and could be quickly and easily abused. But attempts to regulate the Internet have been foiled by its amorphous and decentralized nature, and to date, worries about security have been addressed by private companies, which encrypt or withhold information.

The Lexis-Nexis database recently modified a new on-line locator service that displayed the name, Social Security number, birth date, current and former addresses, telephone number, and even maiden name of virtually anyone who has ever applied for credit. After complaints that disclosure of a Social Security number could allow access to confidential financial records, Lexis-Nexis stopped providing that number.

"There's a tremendous amount of data out there on people," says Jim Laux, an owner of the St. Louis information service Find People Fast. For a fee, Mr. Laux's company will locate people by searching through databases of phone records, voter registration lists, direct mailing catalogues, and credit bureaus, among others. "If you fill out a registration form or a survey, there's a very good likelihood that information will end up in someone's database."

The future is cyberspace

Mr. Thomas believes that all this computerization means his industry has to change. "Twenty years ago when I got started there wasn't any such thing as a personal computer," he says. "Now 20 percent of my work is on computer." In Thomas's view, the future belongs to investigators like Seanor.

Seanor launched CIBIR Corp. out of his Virginia home four years ago after working as a threat analyst for the CIA and the Justice Department. Since then, he hired 13 people to help him serve Fortune 500 firms to handle noncorporate work ranging from cracking child-pornography rings to nabbing on-line stalkers. "I see myself as the PI of the future," he says.

Even so, Jon Gieck, a Chicago-based investigator, says the future of the industry isn't all wired into cyberspace. "There's more technology and more computer-savvy people, but there are also more homeless people, people without telephones or computers who you still have to track down on the street. If anything, both ends of the investigative spectrum are growing."

Internet Spawns a New Breed of Detectives: Cybersleuths

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