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Classic Column - Revisited

 

Is Your Client a Stalker?

by Robert Scott, P.I.

Completing an assignment to the satisfaction of a client is a goal of all private investigators. This means providing clear, unambiguous, verified information that you’re willing to rest your reputation on. In the case of a locate, on a good day, it means that you’ve found the missing person and reported his or her whereabouts to your client.

And then two days later things go terribly wrong when you open the newspaper to find the missing person has been murdered – by your client.

This scenario is every thinking P.I.’s worst nightmare. It also justifiably arouses the ire of privacy activists and politicians who seek to curtail our access to information. They don’t know or don’t care that private investigators derail a thousand stalkers for every one that they unknowingly aid. These success stories, by their nature, don’t often make the newspapers because there is no dead body and therefore no news to report.

Now with the emergence of the Internet, many private investigators know even less about their clients. Any member of the public can now go online with a credit card and obtain home, work or unpublished phone information about someone while undergoing little or no scrutiny. That’s just what Liam Youens, age 21, did last fall before he murdered Amy Boyer, age 20, outside the dental office where she worked in Nashua, New Hampshire.

After the shooting, police investigators uncovered a diary, web site and other evidence showing that Youens, a loner with few friends, had had a secret crush on Amy since junior high. Later, he began purchasing information about her from online detective agencies and put up a macabre web site detailing his dark obsession and plans to carry out the murder. According to documents recovered by the Nashua police, Youens paid Florida private investigation agency Docusearch.com $109 to find out the address of the dental office where Amy worked. Over the next five weeks, Youens made several dry runs at the location, scouting Amy Boyer.

On October 15, Amy left work at 4:30 in the afternoon and got into her car. Without warning, Youens suddenly appeared in his own car, pulling up next to Amy’s 1990 Honda Accord. Youens shouted out her name. When she looked up, he fired 15 hollow-point rounds from a 9mm Glock into her. Both of her arms were shattered and she was struck fatally in the head. Youens then stuck the muzzle of the gun into his own mouth and ended his own short, miserable life.

Amy Boyer’s work address wasn’t the only information Youens obtained about her from online agencies – but it was apparently the last. Previously he purchased a variety of basic public record searches, such as real property ownership lookups, as well as SSN traces, from both Docusearch and other online information providers. If one didn’t know the context of the data, it would seem routine and unremarkable. But a closer review of the documents shows chilling indicators of the young stalker’s plan. He used a taunting AKA for his e-mail address, "JohnnDoe." The password he chose for his Docusearch account was "amyb."

What was unknown to the companies that were selling him this information was that Youens had a prior domestic violence conviction and was displaying Amy’s personal information on his web site alongside a rambling narrative detailing his intention of murdering her. On his web site, Youens expressed amazement at what could be obtained at the Internet Information Bazaar, stating, "It’s actually obscene what you can find out about a person ..."

When I telephoned Docusearch owner Daniel Cohn, he refused to comment on the advice of his attorney. The Boca Raton-based Docusearch was also recently featured on the cover of Forbes magazine (November, 1999) in a cover story entitled "The End of Privacy." The article featured the 41 year-old Cohn as he took up a challenge from one of the magazine’s reporters to investigate him and provide as much information about his financial and personal life as possible. In the article, Cohn made it clear he could live up to the firm’s motto, "No more secrets."

Although private investigation agencies involved in scenarios like this may have civil (and certainly moral) liability, they have in all likelihood breached no criminal laws. Yet, how could any intelligent person describe their involvement as anything other than reckless? But if they won’t control themselves, how can they be controlled? State licensing agencies won’t revoke their licenses because no laws have been broken. And even if they did, these rogues would simply operate as unlicensed "information brokers."

And make no mistake about it, both politicians and the public are aware of this issue. Vice President Gore visited with the family of Amy at the time. The tragedy was also the subject of a 20/20 segment on the ABC television network and other news programs. Just recently I was a guest on a radio talk show and the very first question a caller asked was, "How do you know stalkers aren’t using your service?" The caller hung up before I had the chance to inquire why she was asking this. Had she heard of Amy? Or perhaps she still remembered Rebecca Schaeffer, the young actress who was murdered by a detective-aided stalker in Hollywood several years back.

Regardless, there are things that responsible investigators can and must do about this problem. You see, while we can’t control others, we can control ourselves and by adopting a few simple rules for yourself and your agency, you’ll make certain that you will never be misused by a stalker or other criminal.

Establish a "Know Your Customer" Rule

The banking industry has been subject to a "Know Your Customer" rule for many years. In their case, it’s to prevent their services from being misused for money laundering and other financial crimes. For private investigators it means: If you don’t absolutely know who your client is and what his or her true intentions are, you don’t provide him or her with information that could be used to harm another human being.

For missing person cases, this means that when a person is located, his or her location is not reported to the client. Rather, the investigator must either contact the located person and request their permission to release their location to the client, or the investigator can simply pass a letter from the client to the found party.

Of course this safeguard only applies to clients who you’re unsure of. It wouldn’t apply to the law firm you do locates for, or the collection agency you do skip traces for, or the insurance company you find and interview witnesses for. It would apply to the new client who’s looking for an ex-wife, or an old girlfriend, or classmate. My experience has been that legitimate clients have no problem with this procedure. In fact, they often see it as a sign that they are dealing with a reputable and ethical investigative firm.

Now, will you lose some business from time to time because of this policy? Without a doubt. Is that a cheap price to pay for having a clear conscience and not being the unwitting accessory to a murder or other crime? You bet – it’ll be the best bargain you ever made.

If you do need to turn your back on a customer who doesn't meet this standard, it's also vitally important to NOT explain why. By explaining why, you will only educate him on how to trick the next P.I. he calls out of the phone book. Rather, simply explain, "Our firm has a privacy standard that this assignment does not meet."

Use Investigator-Only Information Brokers

The Internet is littered with information brokers who will sell anything to anyone. You can help clean up this litter by not patronizing these businesses. There are a number of great information brokers who wouldn’t dream of putting up a web site that solicits business from the public. Why not show your displeasure with these sell-anything-to-anyone information brokers by taking your business elsewhere? If they're selling sensitive data to Joe Stalker off the street, don't even consider using them. What would be the impact on these companies if we all adopted such a position? Who knows – but at least we won't be lining their pockets while they're making our lives miserable.

The Gatekeepers

Data kills when it's in the wrong hands. As private investigators, we’re the gatekeepers of private information and as such we hold the lives and well-being of other people in our hands. This is a responsibility that we must prove ourselves worthy of or there will be more Rebecca Schaeffers and Amy Boyers. Won’t you do your part in making sure that no more names are added to this list?


Robert Scott is a Los Angeles-based private investigator and author of "The Investigator's Little Black Book". Visit his website at www.crimetime.com. This article was originally published in P.I. Magazine in 2000. From time to time it is reposted on this website. If your investigative organization would like to republish this article in its professional newsletter at no charge, please send a request using the contact form on this website .

 

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