By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Shortly after the Post story, the phone card advertisement abruptly disappeared from Discreet's Web page. Muskowitz refused to discuss why, imploring, "Please don't mention the phone card. I don't want to stir up any more trouble." (Sorry David, it's been on the Internet.)
The second problem caused by the Post article was that, after talking to Muskowitz, the Post reporter called the state attorney general's office, then quoted assistant attorney general Tina Furlow as saying, "We are definitely looking into this." Furlow told New Times that the Post reporter detailed to her some of the services offered by search firms like Discreet, and that the attorney general's office is reviewing whether any could be considered an "unfair or deceptive" trade practice.
Thus Muskowitz was somewhat nervous when he agreed to meet a New Times writer -- no tape recorder, no pictures. "What I'm doing is legal," he insisted at Hooters, his hand trembling slightly as he moved from the fries to a letter from the Florida secretary of state's office, which oversees professional licensing. The 1996 letter said Muskowitz didn't need a license as long as he was only retrieving and passing along "raw" public records, with no analysis or further investigation.
The most frequent illegal request Muskowitz receives is to run a credit report. Under the federal consumer protection act, credit reports can be obtained only for a "legitimate business need," such as employment background checks or a credit transaction. "Someone called me wanting a credit report on a potential investment partner. I wouldn't do that," he said. Muskowitz screens clients over the phone, has them sign a written release that any information received will be used for lawful purposes, then tries to "verify that everything matches up correctly."
Muskowitz, who's been playing with computers since he was ten years old, got into the public-records business through the Internet. Two years ago, searching for something more meaningful than working in malls and cleaning carpets, he came across a Web page touting "a true home computer business" and the slogan, "The information business is all around you. Why not make money at it?"
The Web page belonged to Richard Callahan, a retired Dade County organized-crime cop and licensed private investigator living in Pompano Beach. Through a firm called Accurate Business Service, he markets a manual and CDs on home-based records research. "You couldn't get into this business five years ago," Callahan said. "Now with the high-powered computers and sophisticated databases, it's unbelievable. It's a brand-new industry. I don't have to go to courthouses anymore to retrieve records. I don't leave my house. I do it all by computer."
Armed with Callahan's manual, a personal computer he built himself (with a giant 6.4 GB of data storage), a Web page he designed himself, a couple of search books he bought at the local Barnes & Noble (with not terribly reassuring titles like Naked in Cyberspace), and an occupational license, Muskowitz launched Discreet Research in December 1996.
He now receives about 40 search requests a month over the Internet, most involving clients looking for lost friends and relatives. With pride he displays thanks via e-mail from satisfied customers, like the college student who'd lost touch with a best friend. Other searchers wanted to charge her $100; Muskowitz found the person for $35 and rekindled a friendship.
"It's a small business," Muskowitz says. "I'm just happy running it as it is."
Still, Muskowitz is in training to become a licensed private investigator and sees a world beyond Super Snooper records searching. "If the government makes it illegal, I'll find something else to do," he said. "With a computer I have lots of ideas.