Home Office: Learn (Almost) Anything About Anybody

Illustration: Polly Becker
Hey, Dave! How's everything in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin? Still playing the banjo when you're not working as a marketing manager or volunteering at the nature center? No, we've never met, but you sent me an e-mail a while back, and I did a little online snooping based on your e-mail address. I found out plenty about you, and about your wife.

Frightening? You bet. If you use e-mail, anyone can profile you with nothing more than your e-mail address, the Internet, a browser, and a little detective work. But there are ways to protect yourself--and your identity--from online sleuths.

To avoid being slapped with a lawsuit while demonstrating how people-finding Web sites work, I got the goods on a real person but changed his name and modified the data so he couldn't be recognized. I chose "David" at random after he wrote to me asking about a watch I had for sale on EBay. By the time I finished, his dossier was a page long and loaded with juicy private details. You might want to use my snooping techniques to check up on a new client or business associate--or to see what they can dig up on you.

Telling E-Mail

David's ISP looked like a regional company, so I plugged the domain name into SamSpade.org and learned that it is based in Merrimac, Wisconsin. Privacy Tip Numero Uno: Use an obscure, Web-based address, such as '209fos40@excite.com', to keep your location private.

With this Wisconsin lead, I searched Google for David's name. Remember the watch he wanted to buy? I added "watch" to the Google search, and I learned from a message forum that David collects old timepieces. I also found out that he's in a ragtime band, and that he's the marketing manager for a local publishing company.

Next I looked for David's street address at two free locator sites: InfoSpace and 411 Locate. Both offer reverse phone number lookup and e-mail address searching. Three other sites to try are AnyWho, Search.com, and Freeality.

Jackpot! David's address in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, was listed. I did another Google search on just his last name and city, and I learned that David's wife is a dermatologist who volunteers at a nature center with--guess who?--David, further confirming that I had the right guy.

You can't eradicate everything about yourself on the Internet. But here's Privacy Tip Numero Duo: Give Web sites e-mail aliases and fabricated personal information when possible. If you see your name on a Web site, ask to have it removed. For more primo privacy tips, see last November's "Great American Privacy Makeover."

But what if you're looking for a person who you think wants to be found? I tried to track down a high school buddy--call him "Sam." I was hoping to find his e-mail address and maybe a street address and phone number. My first stop was the Meta E-Mail Search Agent, a site for hunting down e-mail addresses. Finding such addresses that included Sam's name was easy; finding the right one from the ten that were listed in MESA's search results took some digging.

Use Your Clues

Any details you know about the person you're searching for are valuable. For instance, I knew that Sam was a jock in high school, and that he graduated in 1964. I searched for his name at Google and included each of the MESA e-mail addresses, one at a time. Only one of the Sams had a sports background (he's a volleyball coach). This Sam lives in Florida and sells insurance. I clicked the volleyball team's link in the search results, and the brief bio on the page showed that this guy was raised in the same city as me.

I really hit pay dirt when I found Sam's birth month and year, along with his business address, in a listing of Florida insurance agents at Search Systems. This site offers public records from every state, including court records.

I'll tell you about the paid find-anything sites I tested in my online newsletter. Be sure to sign up.

Contributing Editor Steve Bass is the author of PC Annoyances, published by O'Reilly (ISBN: 0-596-00593-8). Contact him at homeoffice@pcworld.com.

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