Philip Marlowe vs. the Web Detective

articles
May 11 2000 3:00 AM

Philip Marlowe vs. the Web Detective

Has technology made the private eye obsolete? 

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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?

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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 http://www.555-1212.com/ , 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.

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