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By Kyle Dowling
Frank M. Ahearn can be your best friend or your worst enemy; it simply depends on which side of the line you wish to walk…
For well over twenty-five years Ahearn initially made a career as a skip tracer –
Skip Tracer: [a person who tracks people down and uncovers private information for a living. These targets include jailbirds, deadbeats, subpoenaed witnesses, and just about anyone else who's trying to hide] Ahearn, 11.
As he puts it, it was his less-than-Partridge-Family-esque upbringing that provided the fodder and state of mind he needed for the dark and often nerve-wracking business he pursued. "I've never been very marketable elsewhere. Lying was the one thing in my life I knew I could do. Everything else just took the back seat." And nothing more was ever needed. Frank M. Ahearn has made a career of lying for a living, or as he puts it, "liar for hire." The first half of his life was about finding those who did not wish to be found, but now he has flipped to the other side of the coin and helps those who want to leave it all behind disappear. A lie goes a long way…
When Ahearn was seven years old, his family (parents, two older sisters, and a younger brother) went to dinner at a fine Italian restaurant just down the block from their Inwood apartment. During the meal, Ahearn's father called the waiter to the table and explained that the family was visiting from out of town. Acting like a true tourist, his father asked if it were possible that the family could keep the silverware as a souvenir from ‘the big city.'
The waiter, in believing he was making a tourists day, granted his wish. "I remember it vividly. It was the first time in my life that I realized you could get whatever you wanted in life simply by lying." Fueled by his personal ambition to be his own boss and using his talent of lying (pretexting), Ahearn started his own skip tracing business at the young age of twenty-three years old.
Pretext: [a lie or misleading excuse given to trick someone into providing sensitive information] Ahearn, 12.
Making $70 in his first week in business, he saw it as an opportunity for the future. "I remember holding that seventy dollars and thinking ‘If I can make seventy, I can make seven hundred. If I can make seven hundred, I can make seven thousand'." With this thought process the self-made professional has never looked back. "I couldn't imagine working for anyone else. I bow to no one." And he never has. A frequently tedious, sometimes dangerous, and always fast-paced industry, Ahearn informs me that the business is "not for the weak."
During his years of locating people, Ahearn's cases varied all across the spectrum. Whether it was tracking down a father for a lonely daughter or being the first to discover the whereabouts of Monica Lewinsky, he claims it's all just another day on the job. He recalls, "The Monica Lewinsky case was actually pretty interesting. I remember getting a phone call from a well-trusted client around 7AM. He just said ‘Frank, I need you find this woman. Do nothing else today but find this woman.' So all day I'm trying to hunt her down. Pretext after pretext.
Finally around five-thirty in the afternoon… boom. I get her. I call up my client, give him the information, and he says ‘Frankie, watch the news tonight.'" At that time Ahearn had no idea who exactly this mystery woman was or what was about to happen that night. Perhaps the most humorous part of the story is later that night when Ahearn was sipping some beer at a local bar. On the news was the very woman he was trying to find the entire day. And we all know the rest of the story…
"I found it very funny because we would be hired to work on these huge cases regarding very important people and items. Celebrities, politicians, stolen Academy Awards, whatever. The truth is that I doubt those folks ever imagined that the one to bring them down was a longhaired hippie from the Bronx via a phone and a pair of large testicles. Of course, they never found that out either." The reason they never found out is simply because Ahearn never met his clients as a skip tracer.
He was and remains always ten steps ahead of any client he decides to take on. It should be mentioned here that his skip tracing business did not help just anyone. If your name, address, social security number, phone number, or whatever personal information you can think up about yourself came across his desk, you must have done something or had been doing something very wrong.
"I wouldn't just help anybody. I've always been very conservative about who my clients were… even if the business was not so." Everything was done over the phone: the lies, the impersonations… all of it. "If you find butterflies in your stomach at the very thought of lying on the phone in order to obtain your paycheck, I suggest you look up another career path."
Ahearn was and remains a master of disguise on the phone. Sometimes he's a UPS employee, sometimes he works within the subjects company and occasionally he's simply the man in which he has been hired to locate. If none of those routes work out Ahearn tries the good old Tourette syndrome routine. "People tend to want to get out off of the phone when someone screams every six or so seconds."
Whatever it takes to get the job done. "It's all about making that person on the other end of that line forget where they are. Honestly, most customer service reps are not the happiest in their positions.
Therefore, I call in as a representative from the ‘Repair Department' of whatever company they work for and explain that my system is down. While they're checking the information that I need, depending on whether it's a young man, old woman or man I start off with my spiel."
He is an ace at dissecting people over a telephone. If the representative is a younger guy, Ahearn begins about his upcoming trip to Cancun with his frat buddies. If it's an older woman, he goes on to tell the ever so touching story of his and his wife's newborn baby boy… William. "As I'm taking them away from the mundaneness of their day, they never realize they are making me a considerable amount of dough."
Even with the immense amount of money and recognition he received within the industry during his time, his euphoric high would only last so long when the US government decided to begin placing restraints and illegalities on certain business tactics used by our subject. "I always knew that business was a sinking ship. Deep down, somewhere inside of me, I always knew I couldn't do it forever." And yes, this longhaired hippie was correct…
It was during this time that an idea struck him. "I figured I was able to build one business into my own personal empire, so why not another?" Perhaps disappearing within himself, Ahearn is now in his late-40s and chooses Starbucks as opposed to the local tavern. He has been able to successfully flip his business one hundred and eighty degrees. "About eight years ago I had this misfortune of sobering up.
The bars morphed into bookstores, the beers turned into lattes, and the hunting into disappearing…" Today, instead of finding those who do not want to necessarily be found, he helps those who want to leave it all behind do so. Thus turning himself into a disappearer. The office full of five or so skip tracers has dwindled down time and time again. All that remains is he and his business partner, Eileen C. Horan. Together, disappearing is now their game.
Most people tend to think that when disappearing from their current life is the only option the first thing to is…? That's correct. The New Identity. Contrary to what many "disappearing experts" believe, Ahearn stands true to his view that new identities are about as ‘useful as a blowup doll.' "New identities are absolutely ridiculous.
How do you know that the person who sold you that identity did not sell it to ten other people? Also, how are you so certain that new identity is not wanted for some sort of crime? God forbid you go through customs only to discover that you're wanted in some state for murder, child pornography, robbery, or arson."
Think about this… if you decided to pick up and leave, what exactly would you have to do in order to disappear? Do you truly have any idea? Luckily fear not, we have help. According to Ahearn and Horan's recently published book How To Disappear: Erasing Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish Without A Trace, it's a three-step process: misinformation, disinformation, and reformation.
Misinformation: [the act of finding all of the information available about you and either removing it or altering it so that a skip tracer cannot use it to find your real location] Ahearn, 45.
Disinformation: [the act of fabricating information, creating bogus trails for a stalker, predator, or private investigator to find and follow] Ahearn, 45.
Reformation: [the process of starting a new, more private life, leaving no clue as to your whereabouts] Ahearn, 45.
While looking short and simple on paper, these three intensive steps will completely (and hopefully) change your life… which is what you want, correct? "In order to successfully disappear, you need to completely be ready to unhinge from your former life. You need to be okay with the fact that you may never speak to your friends and family again." There are occasionally tiny tricks one can do to stay in touch with their said family and friends.
For example, in his book Ahearn gives us the idea of using an e-mail account with a friend or family member and e-mailing only in drafts. "Just type the e-mail and save it as a draft. When your friend or family member goes into the same account from an elsewhere location they read the draft, write their own and save that one. Etcetera, etcetera. No electronic transfer." Of course, using this technique would mean that before you decided to pick up and leave someone must know about it.
The time span from the moment a new client calls Frank Ahearn to the time they have successfully disappeared thus ending their communication with him is anywhere from one to three months. "It depends on the client really. Sometimes they go smoothly, but sometimes not so much. We begin their disappearance, finish with a couple steps and before you know it they start Googling themselves. That is one of the biggest mistakes anyone who wants to disappear can make.
Google… so tempting yet it can be so destructive to someone who doesn't want to be found." Its not just fascinating technologies and services like Google that Mr. Ahearn looks down upon when it comes to disappearing yourself. It is any sort of technology, credit card or electronic exchange. As he says, "Cash is key." He could not be more correct. Actually, it was those three words that started Ahearn's ascent into the disappearing world. While roaming around a Borders Bookstore, most definitely in search for an Elmore Leonard novel, Ahearn came across a gentleman buying books regarding moving money offshore and traveling abroad.
Yet when the curious traveler paid for the books he used a credit card. "I couldn't believe it. Here he was trying to live in his own world, yet he was paying for the information using something that can easily be tracked by a simple pretext." Remember folks, if you want to disappear start by not being so gullible and traceable. As Ahearn's book states, "Don't be an idiot."
Everyone at one time or another has probably conjured up the thought to just leave it all behind and vanish. Though in order to obtain Ahearn's business, you had better be legitimate. His carefully picked client system that he used as a skip tracer only rolled over ten-fold as a disappearer. "Again, I don't just help anyone. My clients nowadays are mainly women. They tend to be victims of stalkers or abusive relationships. Though now I'm getting contacted more and more by women overseas that are in arranged marriages."
And as Frank and I sat there on the opulent corner of 81st and Central Park West on the Upper West Side of Manhattan sipping a couple of venti lattes (mine vanilla, his triple-shot), I could not help but ask him what sort of compensation he received from disappearing. Much to my surprise he revealed to me that the cost of a disappear is anywhere from twelve to twenty thousand dollars. "Though if I sense that my client is in any sort of distress then exceptions are made. In cases where clients are in immediate danger their safety is more important to me than a paycheck." Coming from anyone else that might seem untruthful. However, Ahearn has a certain way about that proves he does care for the client. Compensation is second.
Passing him on the street, he seems like a regular citizen in his dark glasses, long silver ponytail and goatee along with always dressing in his black V-neck tee shirt. "It's the Frank Ahearn special. A black V-neck, dark blue jeans and a nice pair of Cole Haan's." (he laughs) "When I don't have clients I live a very quiet life outside of disappearing. There are very few people who actually know where I live, my main phone number, primary e-mail."
Even though he is a titan in his profession, Ahearn claims that he is not planning on doing this for the rest of his life. He's moved from a troubled teen to a successful skip tracer/disappearer to an underground celebrity of sorts. He is an author, and has now ventured his story towards the west coast with various offers ranging from writing to producing in the television world.
Ahearn's final destination is a certain city across the Atlantic Ocean that offers nothing but the best lattes (Ahearn is now self-pronounced coffee addict) and views in the entire world. He admits that he can almost see his future self seated at a café with the wind against his back and the sun on his face.
He is at peace with his life and soon plans to disappear himself.