Sunday, August 29, 2004

Google, and You Get … You

by Fred Bals


I know way too much about you. More than you’d want me to know. Don’t believe me? I know your children’s names. I know what Temple you worship at.

I know where you went to school. I know where your husband works and how to reach him. I know your wife’s first name. I know your home address and your phone number.

I know that you were in the Army and how you felt about it.

I’ve seen your résumé. I’ve read your letters. I know how well you did in the last road race you ran.

I know your age. In fact, I know when your birthday is.

And I know that you’re not always what you claim to be.

I know all that, and you know what else? I didn’t even try that hard to find any of it.

Everywhere on the Web we leave little pieces of ourselves, like spoor on a trail. Even when we don’t give out the information, family, friends, even chance acquaintances broadcast things about us that we’d never think of telling strangers aloud.

It’s not a Web. It’s a jungle. And there are hunters prowling through it tirelessly. Maybe I’m one of them.


Vanity in quotes

The popular online search engine, Google, is the easiest way to find something out about someone. Want to see what people find when they google you? Go to Take your name, enclose it in quotes to let Google know you’re searching for a phrase, hit “Google Search”, and see what you get.

If you’re lucky, it won’t work that well.

In Web research terminology, you’ve just done a “vanity search.” But that’s the most basic of searches. The dedicated – or the obsessed – would google you by trying every variation of your name as it might appear on a Web page; from “John Doe” through “J Doe” to “Doe, John”, and everything in-between. A researcher might try variations on your first name, like “Frank” instead of “Francis”, or, if you’re a woman, try your maiden as well as married name.

Try clicking on the “Groups” tab at Google to find whether your name has ever been mentioned in a Usenet posting. Usenet is a network of online bulletin boards, and Google keeps a constantly updated archive of Usenet postings dating back to the mid-1980s.

Nothing there? Lucky you. But Google is just the most popular search site, not the only one, and arguably, not even the best, especially for digging up personal information. AlltheWeb (, for example, has many Web pages not covered by Google. My personal favorite is the meta-search engine that queries multiple sites simultaneously, “Kartoo”, at Kartoo often displays content not found anywhere else. Run your vanity search at either site to see if there’s information about you that’s been missed by Google.

The nice thing about Google and other search engines is that they’re all free. If I had the incentive to spend some money, I’d probably also research you at USSearch or For $59.95 I can get such interesting info as who else is living at your home address, your relative’s names and where they live, whether you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or have had a lien filed against you.

And the beat goes on.


How to cyberstalk in two easy clicks

Not everyone’s history is online. If you’ve avoided Usenet and other online communities, don’t keep a Web page, never worked for a business or belonged to an organization that put your name online, never had your name in a newspaper, your vanity search may have turned up nothing. But if you’re feeling safe that I can’t find you, you’re probably wrong.

Let’s say I know a little about you already, as little as your name and, to save me some time, the state you live in. Of course, if I had my reasons to find you, I’d just search your name against all 50 states. Don’t think of this as normal. Think “obsessive”, as I said.

Let’s call you “John Dhalgren.” Maybe we met on a plane and struck up a conversation. Maybe we took a class together. You told me you lived in New York. And maybe when I was home, I went to Google and plugged in this:

“John Dhalgren” +”New York”

Try it with your name. I’ll wait. Is your phone number publicly listed? Then the chances are good I just found it. Oh, and look at that, your street address. And guess what, John? It looks like you share that phone with somebody, probably your wife. I just got her name as collateral damage. You didn’t tell me you were married, naughty boy. Guess I’ll do some research on her too, when I have the time. But right now I see Google spewed out some more links – maybe some of them with more information about you – from that search of your name and state. I want to check those out first.

Google’s a great reverse phone directory, too. Have a phone number and want to find out who it belongs to? Type it into Google. If your number is in the white pages, chances are Google also has it.

Maybe all I have is an email address, and I’m curious about who it belongs to. I was once being harassed in an online forum by a clown who used the email alias of “BuckBanzai.” I turned his address over to a friend who does deep personal information searches for a living. In 20 minutes, he was back with Buck’s real name and phone number, plus the fact that he wasn’t the 20-something Columbia journalism student he claimed to be, but a 14-year-old kid living in Philadelphia who had made the mistake of using the same email name for his AOL, Hotmail, and Yahoo accounts. I waited until the next time Buck was spewing his online venom, dialed his number, and had a chat with his Mom.

Sorry, that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. I wonder how old you are? Although it’s only about a two in 10 chance that your birthday will be listed, it only takes a minute to head over to and take my best shot. Google was kind enough to give me your zip along with your phone number, and with that and your first and last name… well, let’s see what we get.

Did I luck out?


I am he as you are he as you are me

What’s the harm? It’s all publicly available information, right? Having it on the Web just makes things easier. All that might happen is that you get an unexpected birthday card or phone call from an old flame who decided to google you one alcoholic evening. Of course you or your spouse might have been happier if your lost love had stayed lost, but that’s a minor thing.

But maybe I was hunting you for nastier reasons. Uncovering your name, address, phone number, and birth date is a pretty good start for an identity theft. If I’m a pro and know the ropes, with a little luck I could get your credit card number … or maybe even the Holy Grail, your social security number. If I pull it off, at least you can take comfort in the knowledge that you’re not alone. Some seven million Americans, or 3.4 percent of the adult US population, have been victims of identity theft according to a 2003 Gartner survey.

Identity theft is pretty bad. But there are much worse things. You could ask Rebecca Schaeffer or Amy Boyer about that. If they were still alive.


“I may have carried it too far.” – Robert Bardo

On a Tuesday morning, July 18th, 1989, Rebecca Schaeffer opened the door of her Los Angeles apartment. It was the second time that the disheveled man at her door had rung the bell that morning. The first time he had reached into an envelope and pulled out an autographed picture of Schaeffer. “You sent this to me,” he said. “I’m your biggest fan.”

“I’m busy,” Schaeffer answered. “I don’t have time right now. Please go away.”

And she closed the door. Ten minutes later her doorbell rang again.

Two shots, two screams, a neighbor said later. Schaeffer died instantly.

Schaeffer was a 21-year-old actress, with a co-starring role as Pam Dawber’s sister on a television sitcom, “My Sister Sam.” Robert Bardo from Tucson, Arizona had been obsessed with Schaeffer for over three years, first writing her letters in care of the studio, then showing up at the Warner Bros. gates with a giant stuffed teddy bear. Her biggest fan. Trying to see Rebecca.

They wouldn’t let him in, of course, so he tried something else. Bardo later said that he had gotten the idea after reading about a crazy Scotsman who had stabbed a California actress in 1982. The Scot had hired a detective to find the actress’ home address, who in turn had pulled it from the California Department of Motor Vehicles database.

That sounded like a plan to Bardo. Back in Arizona he contacted a Tucson agency. They ended up sub-contracting the work to a detective who was interested in how computers could be used to probe public records. In those early days of the Internet, it took over a month to get Schaeffer’s address, but he finally succeeded, again thanks to the California DMV. Since the detective hadn’t had to leave Tucson, he only charged Bardo $250.00 for the information.

Schaeffer's murder and the earlier case caused enough furor that a law was finally pushed through in California that prohibited the DMV from releasing addresses in the future.
Of course, today Bardo could have found Schaeffer’s address himself for $59.95. Or even for free.


“It's actually obsene [sic] what you can find out about people on the Internet.”– Liam Youens

Liam Youens would know. Almost exactly ten years after Rebecca Schaeffer’s murder, on July 29, 1999, Youens contacted Docusearch, an Internet-based investigation and information service, and requested the date of birth of Amy Lynn Boyer. Youens had been obsessed with Boyer since the two attended high school together in Nashua, New Hampshire, where both were still living.

“Obtaining the critical information you need has never been easier,” claims Docusearch’s online slogan. “Give us a try, you won't be disappointed!” Youens apparently wasn’t disappointed. A few weeks later, he contacted Docusearch again to request Boyer’s birthday, social security number, and employment information. Docusearch couldn’t find Boyer's date of birth, but obtained her social security number from a credit reporting agency and sold it to Youens for $45. With Boyer’s SSN in hand, Youens placed yet another order for information with Docusearch on September 6, 1999. This time, he requested a “locate by social security number” search for Boyer. Youens paid the $30 fee by credit card, and received the results of the search – Boyer’s home address – on September 7, 1999.

Docusearch also obtained Boyer’s work address for Youens by having a contract worker call Boyer at home and lie to her. The contractor pretended to be working for Boyer's insurance company, and requested “verification” of Boyer's work address in order to send her an overpayment refund. In the research and investigation business, that sort of work is called “social engineering”, misrepresentation in order to obtain computer passwords or personal information.

Docusearch charged Youens $109 for Boyer’s work address, a sum that would become the price of her murder.

On October 15, 1999, Youens drove to Boyer's workplace and shot her to death as she left work. Then he committed suicide. During the subsequent investigation, police found that Youens had built a Web site where he meticulously detailed his plans for stalking and killing Boyer. Youens last message on the Web site was made two days earlier, October 12th, where he wrote, with misspellings left intact:

“Tuesday October 12, I saw her car on the street the perfect place. I parked my car there and sat at 4:35. But by 5:05 she still wasn't there, what a waste of a perfect oppertunaty. I drove around and saw that she left around 5:45, but I didn't see her and had no place to shoot. I was still scared, but what was different about this time was that I didn't Just turn around and Not do it. I would have done it.. I feel good now. Her car is phlanxed by the same ones.. wierd. Also the sticker was "United States.. something" Boyfriend in the army? Sister used the car around that time, had to drive my niece at exactly 4pm.. flew into a rage and smached my clock with a hammer and stated screaming Fuck at the top of my lungs..”

A copy of Youens’ site is still on the Web, maintained by Boyer’s family as record of the monster who murdered her. If you have the stomach for it, you can view the stalker’s site at

Amy Boyer's mother sued Docusearch and the private investigators that worked with them for wrongful death and invasion of privacy. In February 2003, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that information brokers and private investigators could be held liable for the harms caused by selling personal information. The case is now back at the federal district court level.


Call me Cassandra. The worse thing is that I know all this, know how easy it is to obtain information on anyone, but I can’t figure out how to protect my family or my friends without taking us all completely off the grid.

Maybe I worry too much. Many of my friends think I do. One morning I logged into an on-line community and saw a new message from one of those friends.

“Strange thing,” she wrote. “I got a phone call last night and this voice said, “Excuse me for asking, but are you ‘Perry-ga’ on Google Answers?”

I stared at the words on the screen, the skin tightening on the back of my neck. Perry’s real name is something else, and she’s one of the more popular researchers at Google, a funny wise-cracker, quick with an opinion, sometimes borderline flirtatious. All Google Answers researchers are anonymous to an extent; some guard their personal information more rigorously than others.

Perry went on to relate that the man tracked her through an answer she had posted two days before. Perry had pointed to a Web page buried within a site that she originally built for the use of her 9-year-old and his friends. The guy backed-tracked the address, found her son’s home page, and then looked until he had its domain, the name between the “www” and the “.com” in a Web address.

He knew enough about the Web to also know how to look up a domain’s owner through a WHOIS search… and so he found Perry, her real name, her home address, and her phone number. And then he called her. He was very proud of himself for finding her, she wrote.

“Perry,” I typed. “This isn’t good. He wasn’t just googling you. What he did took work. What’s going to happen next, he’s just going to happen to have a business trip to New Jersey and wants to drop in? You need to contact Google, maybe even the police, and shut this guy down right now.”

“You’re sweet, Fred,” came her answer a few moments later. “But not to worry. He’s harmless.”

“Anyway,” she continued. “He said he was my biggest fan.”


After all the wordplay, the fact remains that two young women are dead, simply because they came to the attention of monsters. This one is dedicated to Rebecca Schaeffer and Amy Boyer. Know that you are not forgotten. I will not let them forget.


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