Monday, April 29, 2013

Book review: "How to Disappear" by Frank M. Ahearn

"How to Disappear" presents an interesting logic problem: If a man claims to be a great liar, do you believe him?

Frank M. Ahearn's book, subtitled "Erase your digital footprint, leave false trails and vanish without a trace," is supposedly a guidebook for people who want to go into hiding. Maybe you're avoiding an abusive spouse, perhaps organized crime is looking for you, or it could be that you just feel like abandoning your old life and starting anew whatever the case, this book is aimed at you.

I find it hard to believe that there's enough people in this category to make much of a book market, but then again, how would you know?

Caller: Hello. We're conducting a survey. Tell me, are you planning to disappear?


Given that this book, as I write this, is sitting at a lofty ranking of No. 7,843 on the Amazon sales list, perhaps there are more people who are looking to vanish than you would think. Or maybe the book has other appeals.

What I liked about the book were the anecdotes Ahearn tells from his days as a "skip tracer." He was paid to track down people who didn't want to be found, such as debtors, criminals and paparazzi-avoiding celebrities. To do this, he often had to "pretext" that is, lie. He was good at that, Ahearn claims. "I was the best in the business," he modestly says.

Ahearn says he could call up any business a credit card, cable or utility company, for instance pretend to be someone else and then talk his way into getting them to give up an address or phone number or some other helpful piece of information on the person he was pursuing. Ahearn claims he's gotten information from New York police and even Scotland Yard by calling up and pretending to be a cop. In another case, he called the mother of the person he was tracking, pretended to be a friend of her adult son and talked her into reciting the man's life story.

So, yes, Ahearn's pretty sleazy if you believe he's as big a liar as he says he is.

As far as disappearing, Ahean has various tips, among them: Always use a pre-paid credit card and a prepaid phone. Hide assets behind a corporate name. Apply for an apartment in another city just to leave a false lead.

I'm not trying to disappear, so Ahearn's tips didn't interest me that much. And some of his recommendations for websites for finding information about people (including yourself) are so laughable you wonder if he's really a professional. He calls Zabasearch "the skip tracer's Promised Land." Seriously? Zabasearch doesn't even have my LISTED phone number.

The book can serve as something of a reminder of how much of your personal information is in others' hands. As Ahearn ticks through all the steps you need to "disappear," you realize how entangled we all are in digital recordkeeping. You leave trails every time you use a credit or debit card, make a phone call, go to a doctor, join a gym, order a prescription, send an email, surf the Internet from home, subscribe to a magazine or check out a library book.


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