Philip Marlowe vs. the Web Detective

Has technology made the private eye obsolete? 

Back in the last century, I was a licensed private eye. More Erin Brockovich than Philip Marlowe, I didn’t carry a revolver, follow cheating spouses, or drink Jack Daniels. Still, I was the real thing, solving cases with brains and persistence. But recently I wondered what effect the Internet has had on my old profession. With a plethora of “research” Web sites making the detective’s job easier, does it still take a savvy gumshoe to work a case? Or, can any Tom or Harry be a dick?

I fell into sleuthing after dropping out of college in the late ‘60s. I started by working toll fraud for the phone company, chasing down phony-calling card charges billed to numbers teen-agers got out of High Times magazine.

Finding a natural aptitude, I soon ran a thriving detective business in the morally heedless climate of Southern California. My specialty was “skiptracing”—hunting down deadbeats who bought cars with falsified loan applications. My targets ran the gamut: hippies “getting over” with a free ride, pyramid salesmen one step ahead of the sheriff, and hardcore con men with six months’ head start driving the bank’s Cadillac Seville.

I became a master at sniffing out leads. Ex-girlfriends, former co-workers, landlords, and neighbors all had clues. Easily 15 percent of my skips were found after a chat with their moms. Most mothers happily gave their wayward sons’ new phone numbers to a sweet, polite-sounding girl who might be an old friend or a new love. I once called a skip at a pay telephone he’d used to call home collect. He regularly used that same phone booth and unsuspectingly picked up when I rang. Unnerved at getting caught, he personally delivered the hot Lincoln to the bank’s front door.

I kept a notebook of useful phone numbers and jargon to navigate “the system.” Sounding conversant and acting entitled, I asked about their days as beleaguered key-punchers and overworked switchboard operators read me data from unemployment claim forms, utility bills, and drivers’ records. I spent a couple of weeks following each skip’s trail and charged my clients as much as $500 per car. A client once paid me $2,000 for finding a stolen yacht anchored in the Dutch Antilles.

Next, growing bored at high-end bill collecting, I turned my detecting skills to complex legal cases. As with skiptracing, getting information took imagination, shoe leather, and luck.

Long before detectives were hired to do opposition research for their political clients, a mayor employed me to investigate public charges that he had been shaking down municipal workers. Had they been muscled to donate “gifts” for His Honor’s birthday party? To assess my client’s political vulnerability, I befriended City Hall secretaries, building permit clerks, and parking commissioners. Grateful for cushy jobs, they’d all written generous birthday checks. After my report, the mayor returned their money.

In another case, a corporate client believed his competitor had rigged the bid on a state Medicaid contract. To test his hypothesis, I read every proposal and solicitation document related to the multimillion-dollar award. State employees who evaluated bids, supervised contracts, or were “non-essential” to the contract, were all contacted. Using all my sweet-talking skills, I enlisted the opposition’s employees and called officials in states where they competed for other contracts. I became pals with folks at the attorney general’s office, who soon joined the search for suspicious patterns and odd relationships. Enough hanky-panky finally turned up to invalidate the rival’s bid. The client’s cost for my time, copying, travel, and other expenses came to well over $30,000. If you did the same job today with old-time methods, it would cost more than $100,000.

So, has the Internet reduced Philip Marlowe’s job to a series of clicks on a home computer? Take my old job of skiptracing. It’s no longer hard work tracking down a fugitive’s ex-neighbors to ask about his sudden departure. Recently, working as a reporter, I used the Internet to collect tenants’ names and phone numbers for an entire New York high-rise by clicking on the reverse field of , a White Pages Web page. The Web probably cuts 10 percent off the time to locate a deadbeat.

Online databases give detectives (amateur and otherwise) cheap access to everything from campaign contributor lists at FECInfo  to the Swiss Bankers Association’s list of dormant accounts. Looking for background on every licensed U.S. physician? Perhaps you’re interested in workers compensation claims or the “accident scene documentation” from police files. If you’re willing to spend $4 to $50 per report, the info is yours.

T he data on these Web sites comes mostly from the same source: you. Every time you fill out a warranty card, redeem a rebate offer, or enter a contest, some information consolidator might be entering your job, income, and unlisted phone number into a searchable database. Governments are in on it, too. Arrest records, property taxes, and drivers’ histories are input along with the coupon collector data. Sites such as TR Information Services sell employment histories ($100) and long-distance call printouts ($90).

Though many sites restrict use to subscribers with a legitimate business purpose—landlords, lawyers, journalists, guard businesses and, of course, private investigators—the armchair dick needn’t be locked out. Want to call yourself a detective? Get a diploma through the Spy Tech Agency correspondence course for around $150.

Such data-rich Web addresses seem to make full-service snooping the latest intermediary casualty. If the job is finding somebody’s long-lost friend or enemy, the Web has pretty much put the professional bloodhound out of business. But I wondered about more complex cases. With ready access to so much data, is there still a job for a sweet-talking sleuth?

After looking at a few electronic reference sites, such as DBT Online Inc., Data-Trac Online (“a fully integrated on-line investigation service”), and ChoicePoint Inc.  (which even the FBI uses), I borrowed a private eye friend’s AutoTrackXP subscription, which costs him $25 a month, to mount my own cyberinvestigation. First, I typed in “George W. Bush,” pretending he was my client.

Of the many George W. Bushes summoned forth, only one was the same age as the Texas governor. The database had “found” the right guy. In a double-click, the search service supplied me Bush’s Social Security number. But, I also learned that a 52-year-old Houston woman has been using the same identifier. Was the governor sharing his unique identification number with the Houston woman? Was she impersonating him? The report gave no explanation for the duplicate numbers.

Figuring she was a random data blip, I eliminated the woman from my search and ordered AutoTrackXP’s $21 widest-net search choice—called “National Comprehensive”—and a few other options including one called “SEC Insider Trading” on the presidential candidate. It would have taken Marlowe weeks of legwork from mountains of records to build the AutoTrackXP dossiers I clicked out in less than an hour for a cost of about $125. A pre-Web-era sleuth might have charged $5,000 to search the same archives manually. My 23-page printout included the names of the former occupants of his residence (including ex-Gov. Ann Richards), the date he married Laura Welch, that he registered to vote in Dallas on Nov. 12, 1988, that his accountant apparently shares his post office box, and descriptions of vehicles registered to the same box number.

The report listed “business affiliations” but no mention of the Texas Rangers baseball team in which Bush once prominently owned an interest. The Web resource also detailed some stock trades from the days he was director of three publicly traded companies, yet the “comprehensive” database missed a 1990 Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of one of the stock transactions, even though the probe was reported last year in the New York Times.

To judge the precision of AutoTrackXP’s info dump, I targeted a similar search at—me! The 20-page report included my husband’s driver’s license number (and an option to search for more info about it), my daughter’s college address, and detailed data pulled from motor vehicle departments, recorders of deeds, voter registrations, marriage license bureaus, vessel registrations, professional licensing bodies, and court proceedings. It even gave the address of an apartment I lived in 25 years ago. All accurate. But, along with the facts was a lot of what Marlowe and I called false leads. Data entry mistakes and omissions caused my file to be riddled with irrelevant and misleading details.

Data needs context. If all the world’s documents were accessible by search engine, a pro would still have to sort them out. On my Medicaid case, those bid documents I read held many details but, to make them useful, I wheedled the remaining puzzle pieces from the bureaucrats.

The Web is a useful tool, but Marlowe’s job is safe. The wealth of cyberdata doesn’t tell me why George W. Bush shares a post office box with his accountant or whether the first time he registered to vote was really the week his father was elected president. Luckily for Marlowe, half of what a detective looks for isn’t written down.