In hot pursuit of clever pursuits
February 24, 2009 8:24 PM   Subscribe

Any clever ideas (based on truth, fiction or anecdote) of how a resourceful character might potentially track down someone who's fled the country?

For a story I'm writing: a father leaves the country in haste via plane. The following day, his exceptionally clever and estranged son wants to find out where he went, and as a civilian, only has access to his father's property and computer. What are some clever ways the son might track down the father?

I'm thinking more than one trick, but several in a row (A leads to B leads to C type deals.) But one really smart one would do.

I myself am not exceptionally clever, and though I imagine the son could sort through his father's garbage cans to find receipts of purchase, check a google cache to see where the plane ticket was purchased for and hotel reservations, etc. But I am hoping for something more interesting and challenging than that.

To clarify, I'm looking for something along the lines of, having the son see the indentations on a memo pad underneath where the father had written a phone number for a hotel, the son dusts it with some chili powder or something to "reveal" the phone number that was pressed into the bottom sheet. But I suspect that trick's been used a million times already, and it seems like a bit of a stretch.

I don't watch cop shows so I'm not well versed in this stuff, therefore I am mining the hive mind. What interesting tracking methods, that don't involve the police or super technology, might a clever but regular Joe use to track someone who doesn't know he's being followed?

Many thanks.
posted by np312 to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
gmail has that sort of nifty newish thing where if you're logged in it will tell you not only whether you're logged in elsewhere but what the last IP address was that accessed that account. If the kid has access to the laptop and the gmail is logged in, he could track the dad by seeing the IPs when he logs into gmail. I mean it's totally hackable, so it depends on how clever the dad is and an IP address is rarely an exact location but it could be part of the tracking mechanism.
posted by jessamyn at 8:28 PM on February 24, 2009

Rich criminals see the country, set up a real estate investment deal to make sure they have a cash flow that will provide spending money. But then there's a fight between them and the fugitives, and details of the deal, and where they can be reached come out.
posted by Kirklander at 8:37 PM on February 24, 2009

Airlines' websites are a pain to access - there's always a unique frequent flyer number plus user ID, and so on. And once you're logged in, they don't kick you off like a bank website. So maybe the father doesn't think to log out of the airline site, and son can see the whole flight itinerary?

Husband offers "as a blood relative, I'd call the State Department and tell them there was an urgent family matter and I needed to reach my father. They'd track him through the RFID chip." Sounds like super-tech to me, though.

What about something to do with the country codes for phones? Clever son spots a phone call log that begins with a plus sign or a set of weird digits, which he can then research?

There's also the fact that the number of countries one can disappear to overnight are winnowed down to the ones where one doesn't need a visa.
What about the fact that many American credit cards don't have the hologram dealie that cards issued in Europe have? (I know my US debit card often only was *guaranteed* to work at ATMs, when I was in the EU. At CC points of purchase, it was hit-or-miss.) Maybe dad could be followed that way to a hotel that is American-business-traveler-friendly.

What about how if there is sudden geographic activity that makes a credit or bank card appear stolen, the bank will telephone an accountholder at the phone number of record to verify the card wasn't stolen? Maybe after a €400 charge in Lanzarote, the bank calls and leaves a message for dad, which son hears.
posted by pineapple at 9:09 PM on February 24, 2009

Check their Facebook updates, even though it's a private profile!
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:11 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

If this estranged son has a sadistic streak, he could leave an anonymous tip with Homeland Security about a man with his father's description & information being involved in a terrorist plot. Then he can just sit back and watch the news for the arrest.

Along similar lines, he could look up the symptoms of SARS or Ebola or something and notify the CDC that his father has those symptoms and has recently gotten on a plane - they'll find him lickety-quick. He could also "leak" the story to a news agency. If he does all that anonymously, he can probably sit back and watch for the headline on the news ticker, plus his father won't even get in trouble after they run some medical tests.

You could also do something involving the GPS chip that is probably in the father's phone. Find some hacker friend who can call his cell, then hack into GPS chip and get his location.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:22 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like the IP idea since you can use the IP database to get country and city. If say the dad changed flights, but checked mail at the airports, you would have a trail there.
anything bought online tends to send you a receipt in email, often most flights are e-tickets, even if deleted, it can be "undeleted" for most OSs. The dad would presumably also print it, so if you were fast, you could undelete the print spools as well, again, on most OSs. This works for browser cache, and so on as well.

Most phones have GPS as well, and you can sign up to google for "sharing your locations with family" but that would mean the dads phone was setup for that before the fled, either intentionally or not.
posted by lundman at 9:27 PM on February 24, 2009

He opens up iTunes and sees that Dad has downloaded podcasts including "Italian 101". He then looks at Dad's favorite painting on the wall behind the computer and sees [some classic painting by an artist from Florence?] Or more directly, he sees Dad has downloaded a "Walking Tours of Florence" podcast and knows that Dad's fave hotel chain is the Westin.
posted by txvtchick at 9:28 PM on February 24, 2009

Supposing the father has left via plane, the kid searches recent pictures taken in or around the local airport, eventually stumbling on a goodbye picture from another family with the father recognizable in the background. Based on positioning of some architectural element in the background and floor plans of the airport freely available online to find out which gate the picture was probably taken at.

After looking up the flight based on the timestamp on the photo, he proceeds to get together a list of the closest hotels to the destination airport. He then skypes the hotels in question and assumes the father has checked in under a phony name (this is hard to do in the US as most hotels require a credit card to even get a room, but in other countries cash is still fine). Kid has good intuition on the name (family dog, family friend's name etc) and eventually gets the right hotel.
posted by kinakomochi at 10:12 PM on February 24, 2009

You can buy sets of power adapters with many different plugs for different places. Here's a set for Apple products, which comes with plugs for 6 different regions. The son could find 5 of them left behind, go online, and check which one the dad took with him, which presumably would be where he's headed (some are for broad regions, like continental Europe, while others are specific, like for Hong Kong, depending on how much of a clue you want to give).
posted by martens at 10:32 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

One technique for tracking someone via email is to send them an email that tricks them into clicking a link or viewing linked images; that then gives their IP address to the web server hosting the page/image.
Maybe the son doesn't even know the dad's email address, or whether he'll be using one, but considers all the services and account names he might use (perhaps writing a script to go through permutations of words/names/numbers) and spams them with the trick email. From that he might get several possible locations to investigate, and by analysing the IP addresses and locations narrows it down (e.g. to an internet cafe near an airport).
posted by malevolent at 11:44 PM on February 24, 2009

Salvor's ideas about involving the Feds or the CDC...evil, but might actually work. Not sure how the character feels about his dad, or if he wants to continue a relationship with him after he gets out of Quarantine Camp.

The cell phone thing...a lot of what people think can be done with GPS is more CSI Miami than reality. That said, if it's fiction, and the cultural unconscious already accepts that there are satellites up there tracking our every move, they you might as well exploit that "knowledge". It's not, however, so much true. (E911 capacity is different than tracking someone who has left a carrier zone, or is outside of triangulation, blah blah blah. I'm not an engineer, but an engineering friend of mine at Nokia went OFF about one of the CSI shows and their "flagrant disregard for science". Your mileage, and engineer, may vary.

If the character has access to the computer, there's all kinds of stuff you can do to get information out of it. The only non-accessible hard drive is one that has been shredded. If the platters spin, the data can be retrieved.

Most countries require a visa for extended stays. Many countries have online access to visa applications and status checks. Have the character look in history files for .gov type addresses, or extensions of other countries (.uk, .hk, etc.)

Indentations in paper can show as white lines if you scan the paper in a flatbed scanner.

Onliine banking (access via your complete list of passwords that he stored in his browser), should show real time transactions, allowing you to see where charges are being made. Check the bill pay list to see if other cards have had payments, pull that account info, go to those websites and log on using the credit card number and a deduced pin.

Send out the zombies!
posted by dejah420 at 11:44 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think it would be cool if whatever the son used to track down his father was based on personal information that only the son has about the father.

Maybe you set up earlier in the story that the father took the son on a trip earlier in life, and the father is always really fastidious about writing out an itinerary in this notebook. So the son tracks down the notebook and is able to do some kind of rubbings to get the indentations from the page that's no longer there. I'm not sure if that's it, but in my mind the more the techniques for finding the father can be personal and emotional, the better.

Maybe the son is able to deduce where the father went by the outfits the father packed? By the coats he left behind, or didn't (winter coats not taken, knows it's a warm place.)

Could the father be on some kind of heart medicine and the son is able to tell how many days' supply he took along, and figure out some kind of range of travel that way?

Perhaps the son is not able to tell WHERE the money was spent, but can deduce how much money was spent, and it able to narrow down the options based on pricing.
posted by visual mechanic at 1:03 AM on February 25, 2009

One more idea. maybe there is someone that DOES know where the father went, and the son tricks that person into giving up the information. That's the last step in the process, after the son has narrowed down all possible locations to 2 based on other filters. And again, to do so, he uses information about his father that only a son would have.
posted by visual mechanic at 1:05 AM on February 25, 2009

Between homeland security, immigration/visas/machine-readable passports, airline tickets, frequent flyer miles, credit card/bank databases, mobile phone databases and so on, there are any number of databases which record people's travels and transactions.

Using techniques like pretexting, or bribing a data entry employee, phone operator, or IT employee, the son could get some of those records.

Alternately, if the father departed from a small airport, the son could find his car in long-term parking and see when it was parked from the ticket in the windshield, and by knowing his departure time, narrow down the list of possible flights to only a handful.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:12 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

The cell phone thing...a lot of what people think can be done with GPS is more CSI Miami than reality. [...] I'm not an engineer, but an engineering friend of mine at Nokia went OFF about one of the CSI shows and their "flagrant disregard for science". Your mileage, and engineer, may vary.

I am well informed about GPS.

Most modern mobile phones contain GPS receivers. If you are outside with a clear view of the sky for about 5 minutes, a GPS receiver can determine a position accurate to within 10 meters. Within a building, or no clear sky view, and position information will be less accurate (100 meters), or unavailable. Some devices keep track of a 'last known location' in this situation.

However, the only time mobile phones automatically send your GPS fix is when you call 911. Any other time, it takes user interaction (like setting up google latitude, as some people have linked above) in order to convince the phone it should be transmitting locations. Many phones even keep the GPS receiver turned off most of the time, to save power.

Of course, even if the father has signed up with google latitude and shared his location data with his son, the father still needs to be in an area with coverage for his mobile phone. Furthermore, some mobile phones even turn off data connections when users are roaming, to avoid usurious charges for roaming data.

Anyway, if the father has his phone with him and turned on why not just call him?
posted by Mike1024 at 3:36 AM on February 25, 2009

The son has put himself in charge of taking over the payment of his father's incoming bills. He notices the mortgage bill for his dad's rental property has not been delivered in a month or two. He calls the mortgage company and they tell him his father sold it some time ago. They refuse to disclose to whom. He checks Zillow and learns the new owner lives in Mexico (or wherever). He calls the new owner who tells him he traded his father a sailboat (or airplane) for the property. He traces the name of the boat to its port-of-call (its very unlucky to change the name of a boat) He is able to track the plane's flight plan-- or the boat through refueling records.
(For extra dimension- Since the dad is inexperienced sailor he could change the name of the boat to a beloved childhood pet, a story the boy recalls his dad sharing with him when he was very young.)
posted by Acacia at 4:22 AM on February 25, 2009

I actually saw this on some reality show. They set up a "wanted" web site that asked for any tips about this guy's location, featured all the news clips about him and was frequently updated with new information and even fake stories about how they were getting close to catching him and monitoring his money flow and following his parents.

The real point was not to get any info from the tips, it was the assumption that if he heard about it he would start to check it obsessively, just like people google themselves, so they tracked the IP addresses looking for unusual patterns, and discovered that there were a lot of hits coming from Mexico (Puerto Vallarta, maybe?) and then went down there to look for him.

This sounds like the rich guy from Santa Barbara who was wanted for rape and found in Sayulita, but I think it was someone else. I don't think they found this guy but I thought it was a good idea.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 7:10 AM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

These are all fantastic ideas. Thank you!
posted by np312 at 12:38 PM on February 25, 2009

You could have the son call the credit card company and have dad's statements sent to him, and then have him follow the trail.
posted by reenum at 1:23 PM on February 25, 2009

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