A Private Investigator Explains the “Dark Arts” of Tabloid News

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For decades, private investigator Danno Hanks worked both sides of the law.

As a young man, he developed an extensive rap sheet — auto and property theft, burglary, and fraudulent bank deposits were among his 50 plus arrests — and he served sentences at several notorious California prisons.

After his release, Hanks teamed up with a private investigator, his late partner Fred Valis, but Hanks still didn’t exactly live life on the straight and narrow. As they told 60 Minutes in 1993, the pair set up phone lines for the Gambino crime family’s bookmaking operations — while doubling as FBI informants. Their shady dealings on that and other cases earned them the nicknames “Vermin” and “Pestilence.” One man they hunted took it a step farther, describing them as “two pieces of puke.”

Now on his own with a certificate of rehabilitation and a private investigator’s license, Hanks has turned his investigative skills into a profitable business providing information to the media. He’s worked as a staff investigator on a number of tabloid television shows, such as Hard Copy and A Current Affair, and has also contributed to newspapers, including the New York Post.

“Many people in our industry have received credit for the work [Hanks and his partner] have done, myself included,” Steve Dunleavy, a former New York Post columnist says in an endorsement on Hanks’ website.

So when FRONTLINE began reporting Murdoch’s Scandal, we called Hanks, who seemed like just the guy to give us a better sense of the “dark arts” of how private investigators work with media companies here in America.

Usually, clients task Hanks with searching databases for addresses or phone numbers. It’s all perfectly legal and makes good economic sense, Hanks explains: The information is in the public record, and it’s more efficient to hire him to locate somebody than to mobilize a camera crew to the wrong address.

Gaining access to someone’s personal information starts with a simple search. Hanks subscribes to databases that allow him to search public documents and records across the country. These databases — popular ones include Accurint, Merlin, and Lexis-Nexis — reference data that is publicly available, and for a small fee, Hanks can find out everything he’d ever want to know about anyone in the country.

As a layer of protection, these databases often expunge parts of people’s Social Security numbers (SSN), but different records truncate different parts of the number — some databases might only publish the first five digits, while a court filing might include the last four instead. It only takes a few keystrokes, then, for an experienced investigator to assemble a full SSN.

Hanks describes gaining access to a SSN as getting “the keys to the kingdom”: With an SSN, an investigator can locate even more information, such as relatives, property records, voter registration records, registered motor vehicles, and bankruptcies. Clever use of these databases, Hanks explains, “tells [a] life story for $15.”

With information from public records, an investigator can move on to “pretexting,” also known as “blagging” in Great Britain. Basically it’s a simple role play: An investigator uses information he already has to try to extract more.

For years, investigators used pretexting to obtain phone records, and for tabloids, those records can provide useful evidence. A frequently dialed phone number, for example, might signal a love triangle that eventually splits up a Hollywood power couple. For reporters, the information could provide a chance to break an explosive story.

To get someone’s phone records, an investigator could simply call the phone company posing as a customer, then glide past security questions posed by customer service agents by using the SSN or other information obtained in a simple database search.

“They’ll ask you security questions that only you should know, but any good investigator can find through databases,” Hanks explains.

Pretexting received a lot of attention in the scandal surrounding Murdoch’s News of the World, and it surfaced at the center of a 2006 scandal here in the United States involving the technology company Hewlett-Packard. Determined to find out who was leaking sensitive information about the company’s strategic plans to reporters, HP Chairwoman Patricia Dunn authorized a secret investigation of the company’s board of directors, which HP later acknowledged included the use of pretexting by the investigators to obtain board members’ phone records. In the wake of the HP scandal, Congress passed a law making pretexting for phone records illegal, which President George W. Bush signed in early 2007.

Hanks and a number of other investigators contacted by FRONTLINE say that following the passage of the new law, they stopped doing phone-record searches. But one PI told FRONTLINE that he had recently received an unsolicited fax promising records of “all long-distance calls made in a one-month period and the dates they were made on” for a rate of $100.

Hanks says that the scandal at News of the World has given him second thoughts about his career. Though his work has lead to big scoops, including helping break the story of Heidi Fleiss, the so-called “Hollywood Madam,” for years, he says, he’s helped tabloid reporters prey on people’s lives: “I only made a living because of other people’s suffering.” He says he’s tired of seeing facts in stories get twisted, papers baiting readers with celebrity gossip only to print something about a relative far outside the public eye, or publishing rumors about a now deceased movie star who can’t speak up or sue.

Hanks continues to work for the “legitimate news” — the television networks and mainstream print publications — and he spends some time installing security camera systems. But it’s time, he says, to walk away from the tabloids.

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