27 Feb How The World’s Top Skiptracer Hunts Fugitives
Smart cons game the Internet – and Michelle Gomez finds them
Melbourne, Australia – Feb. 27, 2021
Michelle Gomez recalls being “shocked” years ago, when a Wired reporter called her the “world’s best bounty hunter” after watching her work to track down Ryan Eugene Mullen (a.k.a. Ryan Patrick Mullen), an elusive fraudster who had gone to great lengths — including creating and substantiating false identities online — to stay hidden.
Tracking down such people has become a specialty for Texas-based Gomez, who has spent the last 19 years “skip tracing” — hunting down miscreants who have skipped bail or committed other crimes — by combing all kinds of online public and private information sources.
“I do my skip trace work here at the house,” she told the Cybercrime Magazine podcast, “and then when I go and do the grid work and the physical work, it’s because of my information that I’ve sought, and researched, and figured out to be factual.”
As “a person with unique skills that can put together data in a short period of time,” Gomez said success in the industry is all about how effectively one can sift through the data “to formulate a sound decision on what I’m going to do next.”
A common acronym — SITS (shelter, income, transportation, and social media) — encapsulates the four main domains of information that often guide Gomez to her targets, and each of these has footprints in both online data sources and offline environments.
The internet “is a huge part of [investigating],” said AJ Barrera, a licensed private investigator with whom Gomez often works. “It is pretty much the foundation of everything at this point.”
“Everyone’s got that phone in their hand,” he continued, “and it’s a great source to track, and to investigate without having to be in the field as much.”
Losing yourself online — and getting found anyway
Online research proved invaluable in Gomez’s investigation of Mullen, a social chameleon who had been using specialised check-printing equipment to defraud the banking system for years.
Gomez was called onto the case in 2013 after Mullen — a fugitive from the FBI for 14 years — had eluded several other private investigators by building, and substantiating, a host of false identities that facilitated his many frauds.
The story of how she caught him is a cracking read involving multiple identities, false invoices, 14 Rolls-Royces, loan scams, and an overpriced yacht — but the TL;DR is that carefully cross-correlating online research helped her ferret out which of the multiple fake identities the suspect had hidden behind, ultimately catching him on a Louisiana plantation.
By curating his online identities in the right places, Mullen had managed to not only create false identities, but also give them added veritas because he understood how online databases are built and maintained — and how data-indexing services can propagate even false information until it becomes fact.
Throw in a dash of shell company deception and some good old-fashioned forgery, and you have a perpetrator who is extremely difficult to track down.
Although the internet is invaluable for finding people, Barrera said “it has strengthened their ability to hide, and to manipulate the system.”
“They can hide behind the computer a little easier,” he explained. “That’s the reason they’re able to do what they can — and unfortunately, it’s strengthened by the internet, because you can be something you’re not, and con people.”
“I absolutely think a con man can get away with more with the internet.”
Tools only get you so far
Eight years later, Gomez is still refining her skip-tracing skills, and the tools she relies on to stay ahead of increasingly powerful anonymity services.
Her sphere of activity has expanded dramatically given the pervasiveness of social-media footprints and the intrusiveness with which data is being collected and compiled every day.
“I know how to use meta tags and hashtags and stuff,” Gomez said. “And I’m really good with finding particular information, and honing in on trying to find that [using a particular method].”
Yet while she admits that she is “real good on a computer [and] I can get in if I need to,” much of her work also involves reaching out to colleagues, analysts, and even gamers who are able to provide novel perspectives of the online worlds where her targets frequent.
One ongoing investigation, for example, involves human trafficking and sex trafficking — leading Gomez to reach out to “a lot of friends in the industry that are specialised in certain particular things that I need,” such as one contact who is particularly good at finding people on Snapchat.
Ultimately, however, Gomez’s methods often bleed into the world of social engineering that has made many cybercriminals so good at bypassing the so-called “human firewall” — as when a cybercriminal might try to trick an IT help desk into revealing a user password, for example.
Successful skip tracing requires hard skills and the human touch — something that Barrera sees coming into the industry as talented new recruits take up the call.
“The whole climate is changing towards the cyber aspect of it,” he said, “and our younger generation is absolutely going to monopolize on this.”
The key, Gomez says, is to match the information resources at your fingertips with the immeasurable flexibility of human intuition and experience.
“If you don’t use your phone, and you don’t use your voice, and you don’t use common sense when you’re talking to these strangers,” Gomez said, “you’re not going to get any information.”
“Sometimes, just being very nice and very generous and very sincere on the phone, actually helps when I speak with these strangers. I think it makes them feel like a hero for that day — but for me, it’s all intelligence gathering.”
– David Braue is an award-winning technology writer based in Melbourne, Australia.
Go here to read all of David’s Cybercrime Magazine articles.