THE MUSTARD MAN AND ME
Having your car towed is never a pleasant experience. But having your car towed in New York City is a special kind of treat, one you would only wish on your worst enemy.
It was more than ten years ago. It was the fourth time I discovered either an empty space or another vehicle parked where my car once was. Was it stolen? Was it towed? At the time, there was no centralized telephone number to see if anyone other than a thief had your car. It could have been anywhere, taken by the sheriff's office, the city marshal's, the New York City Department of Transportation — whichever agency got to it first.
So you start with the cops — they don't know where your car is, and they definitely don't care. The sheriff's office doesn't have your car on their overnight pickup list, but that doesn't mean they definitely don't have it. Whomever you talk to, they'll tell you the same thing; "You have to go down to the tow pound and check."
Now, depending on where you get towed — East Side, West Side, downtown, uptown — the "City" tow trucks can take your car to any one of a few different tow pounds. All of them are inconveniently located. My favorite is the tow pound on the Hudson River near Thirty-fourth Street. You actually have to sprint across the equivalent of an eight-lane highway to get there. And once inside, you get to stand in a long, slow-moving line.
You can always tell the virgin towee: full of righteous anger — "the sign wasn't clearly marked," "they towed me before the space was illegal" — ready to fight for justice. This Saturday morning, one happens to be standing right in front of me. A well-dressed gentleman, fuming, barely able to contain himself. He looks like the type of guy who would start off threatening to write the mayor and be screaming obscenities as he walked out the door.
"Next," the clerk grunts.
I settle back to watch as the show begins.
First off, this guy is utterly shocked, and a little insulted, that the clerk won't take his personal check.
"Cash , . . cash only . . . cash only. Can't you read?" the clerk asks.
Of course this guy can read. He announces that he's the headmaster of XYZ prep school outside of Philadelphia. "I've never bounced a check in my life," he says. I suddenly realize this guy reminds me of the man in the back of the Rolls Royce in the Grey Poupon commercial.
The clerk turns to her counterpart, mimicking what the man just said. Both clerks start to laugh.
The headmaster's face falls, as he begins to understand that there will be no Grey Poupon served at this New York City tow pound.
I don't know what came over me. I wasn't working, my guard was down, I guess. He seemed nice enough. I walk up next to him at the window. "Hey, I"ll help you out. I have some extra cash on me."
The gentleman smiles, "Why, that's most kind of you. I'll drive right to the bank and pay you back immediately."
Now the clerks start laughing at both of us.
Ignoring them, I follow the headmaster gentleman (let's call him the Mustard Man) to an ATM at Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue. I watch his car while he dashes into the bank. We don't want him to get towed away again, not before he pays me back, anyway. He returns and counts the cash out into my hand. He's genuinely appreciative. For a moment, it seems as if he's going to hug me. And I'm equally glad I was able to help him.
"You're very nice, very trusting," he says. Then he smiles. "You're not from New York, are you?"
I smile right back at him. "I am. Born in the Bronx. And I guess I am a trusting person. But since I know your full name, your wife's name, your address, date of birth, the name of your bank, your license plate number, the name of your insurance company, and the name of the school where you're the headmaster ..."
At this point, Mustard Man's jaw practically hits the floor.
". . . if you decided not to pay me back, I didn't think I'd have trouble finding you."
He swallows and smiles guardedly, eyeing me like I've become some kind of lunatic. All of a sudden, he's in a rush to get away. With a last, hurried thank you, he hops into his car and drives off.
I was just trying to be nice, I swear. I can understand Mustard Man being a bit alarmed at the realization that I knew so much about him. I wouldn't have liked it either. Standing in line behind him, my natural curiosity got the better of me. I peeked.
I got his wife's name, the name of his bank, and his account number from his checkbook.
His date of birth, full name, and address from his driver's license.
His insurance company and place of business from his insurance card.
Now bear in mind, I really didn't care about this guy. But imagine if I did?
Imagine if the Mustard Man were you, and I'd gotten into line behind you at the tow pound because your wife/hus-band/boss/coworker/competitor/old enemy hired me to find out everything I could about you. Or I saw the expensive clothes you were wearing, and I knew that meant you had money. And I wanted some. All the information I mentioned above would have been duly entered in my hand-held electronic organizer iit would have looked like I was playing a computer game).
Even if you had been more careful than the Mustard Man in guarding your information from my view, even if all I had to go on was your name or your license plate number, I could have found you, More to the point, I could have found out any number of things about you.
You can't imagine how many databases your address is sitting in.
You don't know how easy it is to find out how much you make for a living.
What credit cards you use.
Whom you call on the telephone.
You — and the vast majority of records containing valuable information about you — are incredibly vulnerable. For the last twenty years, my job has been to exploit that vulnerability.
Frankly, I've had a lot of fun doing it.
I've gone from sleeping in dumpsters to spending the night in thousand-dollar hotel rooms, from masquerading as a corporate mailboy to running million-dollar corporate board meetings. I've combed through dusty archives in small-town city halls and mainframe computers in major metropolises, used quirks in the law and legal, but very unorthodox, investigative methods. Whether I was working for Goldman Sachs or Prudential Life, a local sheriff or the federal government, Robert De Niro or a friend in need, I've been able — through patience, perseverance, and what I like to call "creative luck" — to get results.
Over the last two decades, I've watched the information-gathering industry grow into a multibillion-dollar concern, one that gets bigger every year.
And although the information-gathering business has always been a little bit out of control, even I'm alarmed now. The collection, use, and disbursement of all kinds of data are now at a reckless, dangerous level.
I, like you, have peeked at and have been peeked upon by the Mustard Men and Women of the world. Our innate curiosity and thirst for knowledge is a double-edged sword. Information — knowledge — is indeed power. But that power can be abused at any level. It's important never to underestimate the driving force behind the search for information, be it the toddler, driven to find the means to reach the cookie jar, or a seemingly "regular" person determined to find, exploit, abuse, or market information regarding you.
I've been driven to uncover information by many factors: superiors' orders, money, and a simple, undefined desire. I confess, it's not a good feeling being the target of a search. We are more vulnerable than ever since technology started propelling information at unfamiliar speeds. The time has come to refocus the many facets of the information business.
Thanks to the Internet and computerized recordkeeping, dozens of companies now have your social security number, your phone number, your date of birth (at some point in the past, you've no doubt given it away, either on the Internet, over the phone, or in a credit application).
In the old days, somebody who wanted to get the dirt on you — an angry customer, your ex-husband, an old business partner — would turn to a traditional private eye, a gumshoe, to dig it up. Today, that information sits in a database, waiting to be discovered. There's a growing army of people out there capable of making those discoveries.
And that army isn't sitting around, waiting for business to come knocking on its door.
In the most frightening development of all, these new information warriors seek out the dirt first — and then find customers for it, such as television shows, tabloid newspapers, special prosecutors. In today's rumor-mongering, celebrity-driven culture, "private" information is an alien concept.
I remember being at a fund-raiser organized to help defray legal expenses incurred by senior CIA agent Clair George. Looking around the room, I realized that every single person there was a government-trained information-gathering expert — who had since moved on into the enormously lucrative private sector. Their focus was no longer on the common good as much as it was on the bottom line — and on your personal, "private" records.
You need to be aware of how those prying eyes work, and you need protection against them.
This book will give you both.
I'm going to show you what to do when you're on your telephone, when you're driving in your car, when you leave your home. I'll tell you what you need to teach your children and your elderly relatives so that they can protect themselves. I'll tell you some stories about the methods I've used to get dirt on the bad guys — and the dirty tricks the most experienced con artists use to get at what's important to you. And I'll give you a chance to see how effective some of these methods are by helping you "play detective" yourself.
Every chapter in this book ends with a list of practical tips. The odds are good that you, or someone close to you, will have use for them, sooner than you think.
Many of those tips deal with the high-tech threats mentioned above; many of them are common-sense defenses against more traditional thievery. As important as those tips are, my focus will be on the mind-set that makes you vulnerable. Change that, and you, your loved ones, and your valuable assets will be safer — no matter what technological advances the future brings.
And before we begin:
The laws covering your right to privacy — and access to your information — are in a state of flux. Keep current on what's legal, and what isn't, by utilizing the resources we list in the back of this book.
A final word about the stories in the book. Every one of them is true. We have changed some of the names (and identifying background details) to protect the innocent . . . and to make less work for the lawyers.
Kevin McKeown, Washington, D.C., July 19, 1999