You Can't Hide From David Muskowitz

Using just a home computer, Tamarac's Super Snooper can pull up information that you mistakenly thought was private

Sipping a Coke and munching fries at Hooters, David Muskowitz doesn't look much like fearsome Big Brother. More like nerdy nephew, a 25-year-old with a pudgy face and baggy jeans, laughing with the waitress about old school days at Piper High. He's a nice guy; it's his power that's scary.

From a homemade computer in a messy room in Tamarac, Muskowitz can invade your privacy, discovering more than you probably want a stranger to know. Within minutes he's grabbed your social security number, then your unlisted telephone number. Give him a few minutes more, and he's gathered your work history, how many traffic tickets you've had, and whether you've ever been divorced or sued.

What's really scary is that there's nothing special about Muskowitz. "Anyone can get into this business overnight," he says. "Anyone can do it from their home. That's what people don't like to hear, that it's so easy to do."

Sitting at his computer, Muskowitz represents the coming together of two powerful computer-driven forces: the global marketing reach of the Internet and massive new information databases -- all linked to telephone lines in his Tamarac home. From there Muskowitz runs an Internet-based, information-search business called Discreet Research, "with access to billions of public records." Tapping into a network of databases, he helps clients find lost friends and relatives, compiles background reports on prospective employees, tracks down debtors, and checks out potential business partners and boyfriends.

In those billions of public records are billions of very personal details, yet Muskowitz is free to pull them into his computer without being licensed, without undergoing a background check or taking a course or passing a test. Indeed, when not at his computer, Muskowitz works at another job, which is cleaning carpets.

To privacy groups this lack of regulation is troubling because as personal computers have grown more powerful they have given records searchers like Muskowitz access to vast storehouses of personal information. This can lead to abuses, like a California salesman rejected for job after job who finally learned the reason: A thief stole his wallet and later used that identification when arrested on other charges. That means the salesman's identifying data went into criminal justice computers -- to be called up by potential employers doing computer background checks. The salesman eventually declared bankruptcy.

Nowadays records once stored in a single county courthouse can be accessed from around the world. With governments, businesses, and nonprofit groups all selling databases, information middlemen buy and merge these separate files into comprehensive "data warehouses," permitting individual searchers like Muskowitz to open a national records business without actually possessing any records.

For a small access fee, he roams these data warehouses, resulting in what he calls, with pride, "the Super Snooper, an awesome report."

Starting with nothing more than a person's name, Super Snooper gathers from public records more than twenty pieces of information -- from social security number to divorce proceedings, from property ownership to traffic accidents -- all for a client charge of $70; Muskowitz's search costs are about half that. How long does it take him to collect that much information on a person? About 30 minutes -- and all from his home computer.

Muskowitz acknowledged there is potential danger in this power. "There are bad information services and good information services; I don't want to be classified as one of the bad guys. Some of them really jack up their price. Some of them don't follow the rules, like screening customers. It's possible they could somehow obtain illegal information. I stay away from that stuff. There's enough money doing it the right way."

These days all is not well at Discreet Research, however, for Muskowitz was indiscreet, learning the hard way that in this interconnected world he who lives by the Internet can also die by the Internet: Among the searchers surfing his Website there lurked a shark in the form of a reporter from the Washington Post.

"He called me for an interview, and it was real nice at first, but then the man started going into some areas I didn't want to talk about, trying to ask me to do illegal searches. I don't do such things. I didn't feel comfortable with him, so I called back and said please leave me out of your article. But apparently he didn't."

On March 8, Muskowitz made his own entry into the Washington Post's Internet database. Under a front-page headline "Data Firms Getting Too Personal?" the Post launched a three-part series on privacy threats posed by the data warehouses and information brokers, highlighting among other firms little Discreet Research, whose Internet home page "recently showed an eye peering through a peephole."

"We're just trying to do a professional job," the Post quoted Muskowitz, who had demonstrated his skills by taking only two minutes to track down the reporter's social security number.

"I was doing just fine before the Washington Post came along," Muskowitz lamented last week. "I shouldn't have said a word to them. They've already caused me problems." The Post had revealed an information service Discreet offered under the Website heading "Cool Stuff." It's a "disguised free gift-packaged" phone card, which worked like this: A Discreet client sends the card to a subject as a "gift" with 60 minutes of free calling time. When the subject uses the card, Discreet -- through coding on the card -- is able to trace the phones the subject uses and the numbers called.

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.

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