The phone is ringing, and they already know that whoever is calling is feeling suspicious.
“This is Kelly,” the intern answers in a soothing voice. In her three days on the job, she’s learned that she’ll be listening to people’s problems every time she answers the phone at Trustify — a D.C.-based start-up that uses an app to connect customers to low-cost private investigators.
But sometimes they still prefer to call on the phone instead of coming through the app. Will it be a mother looking for her estranged son? An employer trying to find out if his staffer who filed for workers’ comp is really hurt? A husband who wants to catch his wife cheating?
On Thursday morning, one caller simply wants to know: “How do you get this stuff off Google?”
He’s a user of Ashley Madison, the site that helps married people cheat. This week, Ashley Madison was hacked, putting thousands of its members at risk of having their names, addresses, nude photos, sexual fantasies — not to mention their association with Ashley Madison — exposed online.
The Trustify team kicks into gear. They can find out whether his connections to Ashley Madison are public. They can tell him just how close he is to getting caught. And he can do all this through a temporary “burner” e-mail address and a prepaid credit card, so his wife doesn’t see his Trustify transaction.
And if his wife calls and wants to hire the team to find out if her husband is cheating? They can find out that, too.
Corporate hacks, like the ones that recently afflicted Ashley Madison, Adult FriendFinder, Home Depot and Target, can be hell made real for those affected — whether for customers fearing their private data is on the loose or for the companies scrambling to protect their IT systems and good names. But for tech-savvy private-investigation companies like Trustify, the chaos of a data breach can be a lucrative opportunity. Trustify representatives say inquiries surged by 30 percent following the news of the Ashley Madison hack, probably in part because the news raised awareness of the site.
Trustify has a very specific approach to the Ashley Madison case: As with the Adult FriendFinder hack, Trustify plans to pounce on the Ashley Madison user list if it’s leaked online. Then, clients can come to the Trustify site and search, for free, to see if their e-mail address — or their partner’s e-mail address — appears on the list.
Hackers haven’t published that information yet, but Trustify founder Danny Boice is “99 percent” sure they will do so soon. He has investigators in Eastern Europe scouring the “deep Web,” ready for when it happens.
Once clients are on the Trustify site searching for their partner’s name, Boice suggested, they might consider the other services it offers.
“She might suddenly wonder about all those late nights at the office, those frequent business trips to the same city,” he said. “The best way to get peace of mind is to hire a PI to see what else might be out there.”
Today’s private investigator looks little like the street-savvy gumshoe of generations past. You have your reinvented ex-cops, sure, trailing suspected cheaters to and from hotels. And you also have your white-collar agents shlepping for law firms and running standard background checks.
But as the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2014, when it forecast 11 percent growth for the PI industry through 2022, many new detectives aren’t signing up to hide in the bushes or go on a car chase. A lot of them are just regular tech geeks.
The headquarters of Trustify, which has served more than 500 customers since its March launch, don’t look like the grungy, underground offices in which you might imagine a PI working. There are exposed-brick walls, sleek Macs and iPhones, and millennials eating Jolly Rancher candies with iced coffee. Boice, the founder, has tattoo sleeves covering both arms and “SELF MADE” inked on his knuckles.
On the desk, there’s a copy of “Secrets of Surveillance: A Professional’s Guide to Tailing Subjects by Vehicle, Foot, Airplane, and Public Transportation” — a bible for detectives who have to tail cheating spouses or people fleeing custody battles. But half of the company’s clients need services that don’t require anyone to leave their desks.
The requests pop onto the screen at Trustify’s headquarters or come in by phone: Is this guy who he says he is on his Tinder profile? Or: Can you do opposition research on my competitor? And now: Is my husband on Ashley Madison or Adult FriendFinder?
Staffers can watch the searches in real time. When an inputted e-mail address matches a user e-mail from the FriendFinder hack, the screen flashes a less-than-subtle message: Cheater!! Cheater!! Cheater!!
Alas, while that might give some suspicious spouses “peace of mind,” Trustify will never solve the real mystery here: Who hacked Ashley Madison’s database, and why? At this point, at least, most PI firms are still too light on programming power to sleuth that one out.
“In a case like Ashley Madison or Target or Wal-Mart, the hacking’s done by a syndicate,” said Philip Becnel, a partner at the D.C. investigative firm Dinolt Becnel & Wells. “It’s all done on the ‘dark Web;’ it’s all paid for in bitcoin. It’s virtually untraceable. At least it’s not within the capabilities of any private investigation firm I’m aware of.”
But Trustify is unconcerned with that particular mystery: They’re too busy with calls from nervous husbands and suspicious wives. Their FriendFinder hack tool, soon to be updated with data from Ashley Madison, is seeing a new search every five to 10 seconds. Most turn up nothing. But every once in a while, it gets a hit.
Cheater!! Cheater!! Cheater!! it says.