Is my online friend an imaginary one?
May 22, 2007 3:49 PM   Subscribe

How can I go about verifying some information on someone I've been corresponding with online for years, but recently am starting to doubt? (He's in Vancouver, BC; I'm in the U.S.)

I've known this person (online only) for about 7 years, and thus should have been able to lay to rest any doubts about the truthfulness of what he tells me, right? Well, this may sound ridiculous, but I just watched "The Night Listener" and parts of it really struck a chord. Just some information, beyond emails/chats/a voice on the telephone, would help to put my mind at ease.

As sneaky and distrusting as it is, I'd like to try to verify some of the information this person is giving me, but I'm stumped as to how to proceed. I've already looked in the online white-pages type of sites for Vancouver, BC and found nothing; I've also Googled his (rather unusual) name and still nothing. I took a stab at calling the branch of the company where I believe he works, and using the "dial-by-name" feature, but it didn't produce anything. I also contacted some Vancouver-based private investigators, but their costs were rather prohibitive ($400-600+) for what is really just a nagging concern.

Any ideas on how to track down (from afar) the validity of someone's information? (Specifically, I'm thinking areas like employment, marital/parental status, major health crises, etc.) Thanks in advance.
posted by justonegirl to Computers & Internet (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You could enter it into the Lexis Nexus database, which you may have free access to through your library. It's got lots of stuff that's hard to google up.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:58 PM on May 22, 2007

I'm in Vancouver. Most, but not all people, have their land line registered through Telus. However, if it's a cell phone, that won't help. Perhaps that's why you couldn't find a phone number. Also, many company directories are hopelessly inadequate.
posted by acoutu at 4:02 PM on May 22, 2007

Is it possible that he altered personally identifying information (e.g. his name, the name of his employer) to protect himself, but that the rest of his info is true (e.g. the industry he is in, his health crises, his marital status).

I don't know the nature of your relationship with him, but it's possible that he's basically being honest even if he gave you an alias.
posted by alms at 4:04 PM on May 22, 2007

I've also Googled his (rather unusual) name and still nothing.

Some people choose an alias that looks like a real name. It's no more wrong than choosing an alias that doesn't; especially if he didn't specifically say, "Yes, this is my birth name".

Or maybe he hasn't done much that would put his real name on search results pages. Googling my real name brings up barely anything.

Seconding that he could be being basically honest but cautious about sensitive personal information.
posted by Many bubbles at 4:28 PM on May 22, 2007

Also, think about whether you'd appreciate it if he decided to hire someone to investigate you because of a nagging concern (and it sounds like you would have, if it weren't for the expense). Going too far with this is kind of creepy.
posted by Many bubbles at 4:31 PM on May 22, 2007

You could ask him straight out what company he works for, then give a real person there a call.

Alternatively, you could tell this person that you want a bit more information about their life and see what happens.
posted by sindark at 4:34 PM on May 22, 2007

For all that folks are defending this guy, I do know people who have been deceived for many years after forming deep emotional relationships with dishonest folks over the internet.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:35 PM on May 22, 2007

You might want to take a look at this question, if you haven't already.
posted by gnomeloaf at 4:44 PM on May 22, 2007

I know this is a weird situation and I've realized it may come off as creepy, which isn't my intent. I know the name of the company he works for (a large one with lots of branches in Vancouver) but not which specific office, plus I'm chicken to actually call and risk him finding out. I know that's probably dumb, but I don't want to anger/hurt/insult him if, in fact, he's not been dishonest.

I don't know how I'd feel if he was investigating me. I do know I've been honest about all of the details I have shared with him, which, over the past seven years, have been many. Most of my information is easily verifiable via Google, company websites, etc. So it's not really the same thing.
posted by justonegirl at 4:48 PM on May 22, 2007

tell him you just saw "the night listener" and see what he says.

in general, listen to your gut. if you think he's lying, he probably is.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:56 PM on May 22, 2007

How do you know this individual lives in Vancouver, BC? Have you entered an originating IP address from one of this person's email into something like this?
posted by docgonzo at 5:01 PM on May 22, 2007

I don't know how I'd feel if he was investigating me.

I know that if someone was doing that to me, I would feel incredibly violated, threatened and would cut off that relationship like whoa.

If he didn't want you to have the information, then you should respect him enough to not go looking for it without speaking to him first. If you continue on your search, going against what he's already told you, then yes, you're creepy.

btw - I hope he doesn't know your Mefi screenname, because if he does come across this post (honest or not) it's not going to be fun for you.
posted by saturnine at 5:13 PM on May 22, 2007

Just call the company and ask to speak to him. If he comes to the phone or the receptionist acknowledges his existence, hang up. If they say "sorry, we've never heard of that person", then it's time to take your investigation a little further.
posted by reklaw at 5:21 PM on May 22, 2007

Find someone in his area that likes meeting new people. Ship him a small, relatively inexpensive item as a gift for your guy friend. Tell your guy friend that your friend will be in the area of his work, and offered to drop off this small gift item if he's going to be around, and if not, where can you send it?

Either way, you'll find out a little bit more about this person -- a shipping address that's valid, or his approximate age and place of work, or that he's dodgy and avoiding either option. After all, you need to be a bit dodgy to turn down a small gift from someone you've communicated with for years, right? Make sure you don't tell him what the gift is, so that he can't fake that knowledge if he has you ship it to an address that isn't his.

And if he puts up a hard time about this, then either he's been lying all along and doesn't want to get caught -- or he values his privacy more than your gifts, and is *likely* to have been lying all along to protect that privacy.
posted by davejay at 5:34 PM on May 22, 2007

Oh, and one more thing: if you're never planning to meet this person directly, why does it matter if they're lying or not? I mean, everybody has casual acquaintances that they don't know a lot about, and this guy can be that to you without giving up accurate personal info, right?
posted by davejay at 5:36 PM on May 22, 2007

Reading into the last part of the question, it seems like (maybe) he's given you a lot of hard luck stories over the years? And you're worried that the emotional investment you've made had has been over imaginary concerns?

If that's the case, confront him as nicely as possible. I don't like the idea of you going behind his back. But don't let those lingering doubts eat at you.
posted by roger ackroyd at 5:57 PM on May 22, 2007

Yeah, I'd say that if you're gut is nagging at you, you should listen to you. I've had great luck w/online relationships (am actually married to one of those guys) but it's also very easy to deceive people long term online. Most people are fine, some are scary. If you're planning to meet up, or do anything like give him your address, lend him money, do favors for him, I'd say you should try and think of some kind of upfront way of getting info from him. Seven years is a long time-wanting to know more about him isn't creepy (though if you're thinking of hiring a private investigator then it sounds like you're really worried and/or really invested in this person).

Or, on the less honest side :), could you just call the big company he works for and say, "I have to talk to Joe BLow who is one of your employees but I can't remember which office he works at" and see what happens.
posted by purenitrous at 6:33 PM on May 22, 2007

Thanks, everyone, for the replies so far. It's been helpful to get a few ideas but I'm hoping for some more. A few comments I wanted to respond to directly:

thinkingwoman, I am hesitant to bring up the movie because he has described some issues in his past that are very similar to the ones in the movie, so I don't want him to assume that I think abuse = liar.

docgonzo, I was really excited to look at the site you suggested (I never thought of anything like that) and even looked up how to find an IP address in Yahoo mail, but the site couldn't find anything with the IP address shown.

davejay, it matters to me whether he's lying because I have invested a great deal into this person emotionally. I don't know if somehow I implied that the relationship is casual, but it's not, by any means.

roger ackroyd, you are correct about the hard luck stories. I hate to call them that since, quite likely, they are true, but the sheer magnitude of them (horrific childhood, major health catastrophes, accidents, spousal death, etc) makes me question them ever so slightly.

Again, I'm grateful for the sincerity of the replies so far -- I knew when I posted this I was opening myself up to judgment -- and any further responses would be appreciated.
posted by justonegirl at 6:45 PM on May 22, 2007

Here's an approach that might give you some insight, even though it may not answer your specific question.
I'm assuming the friend hangs out online somewhere, or is reachable. Have a (preferably girl-) friend that lives in ghe same general area Email/IM/whatever him and strike up a conversation. She should mention her location (I assume he knows the city you live in). See how the conversation flows and compare notes. Does he mention he knows you? Does he have the same up and down waves with her?
posted by forforf at 7:08 PM on May 22, 2007

To get around the fact that the canadian online phonebooks generally suck, perhaps you could call directory assistance (411 here in canada) and see if they can track down a number for you? But as previously mentioned, if it's a cell phone or otherwise unlisted number, you're out of luck.
posted by cgg at 7:18 PM on May 22, 2007

justonegirl, I have a friend who's going through something very similar. What you're going through, the doubt and the desire for confirmation, is, I think, pretty normal for emotionally invested virtual relationships. My friend chose to talk to his friend about it, basically pointing out how improbable certain things sounded as a whole. Not in a confrontational way, but more in a "you know I'm trusting you a lot, here, right?" kind of way. It gave his friend the opportunity to clarify a few things, and it gave him the chance to talk about the things that didn't add up (similar to your situation with calling the company) in a way that was, again, non-confrontational.

In the end, my friend basically decided that that he had to make a leap of faith and trust the person. He did that based on the history of their relationship. Even if a person lies in the details, after 7 years, there is something fundamentally real about the person you are involved with. I think that for a virtual relationship to really work, you have to be comfortable with the possibility that you are having a relationship with someone who is, in essence, a persona. That is, I don't think it's likely that people will be good at completely faking who they are in a close relationship that goes on for years, but it is quite possible that they could make up or embellish the story of their life.
posted by carmen at 7:31 PM on May 22, 2007

To locate the originating IP address, turn on full headers display. Since you mentioned using Yahoo!, a) click into your Inbox b) click on any incoming email and there's a small link labeled "Full Headers" toward the bottom right hand side of the page (below the Delete | Reply | Forward | Spam | Move... buttons). You'll notice your email message now displays a number of additional lines, such as "Received:" each with a date/time stamp. The IP address associated with the oldest stamp is the one you want to lookup.

However, using IP addresses in email headers to prove someone's location is unreliable. As as example: one could ssh into a remote server across the world and send their email from there and all you'd know is where the remote server (says) it is, not where the person typing the email is. As nefarious as that sounds, it's not; as an example, it's something I do daily because it happens that the host of my domains/websites is located on the other side of the country from me. Another example is how email sent from * all show an IP originating in Mountain View, CA.
posted by jamaro at 7:44 PM on May 22, 2007

if you're never planning to meet this person directly, why does it matter if they're lying or not?

I think this is the crux of the issue, and a question I notice you didn't answer. I'm going to assume that deep in your heart you hope to meet him directly. (If I'm wrong about that, then my answer is, "forget your doubts, accept the persona he presents, and keep going with what you've got as long as it makes you happy.")

But, assuming you hope to meet him...

This is 2007. If y'all really were planning to meet, you could have already done so. The big heavy stuff he's alleged in his life -- and which he uses as convenient barriers to truth and further relationship development -- send up major, major red flags for me.

Do you love him? If you love him, and I'm guessing you do, then there's no need to keep trying to intellectually minimize your fears with words like "should have already been able to lay doubts to rest" and "just a nagging concern." You've acknowledged that you're way emotionally invested in this, so stop pretending it's no big deal.

As sneaky and distrusting as it is, I'd like to try to verify some of the information this person is giving me

Why is this sneaky and distrusting? In real life, if a friend tells you they work for Verizon or Wal-Mart or JPMorgan, you have numerous tiny cues to verify that. Is it sneaky and distrusting to acknowledge the awareness of those cues? In real life, if a friend tells you he's single and then you see and hear behaviors that suggest otherwise, are you sneaky and distrusting for considering those behaviors?

Online is different. Stop using the barometers of trust that are standard in real life to gauge your online relationship.

I don't think it's sketchy to hire an investigator. And, an honest person that you only knew online would understand that, if he eventually found out. The attitude of "it's dishonest to have him checked out" is predicated on people analogizing their real-life relationships. This isn't one of those; online, people tell lots of lies.

If you can afford the $400-600, then do it and put your fears to rest forever. (I noticed you didn't say it was prohibitive across the board -- only that it was prohibitive if your concern is silly and minor. Which, it's not... you've spent seven years talking to this guy. You deserve to know the truth.)

If you can't afford it, then I say you come right out and ask him. "I'm feeling doubt and suspicion in my gut over your statements of X, Y, and Z. It might be irrational and wrong, but still, intuition is what it is and I can't just ignore it. Please demonstrate to me without a doubt that the things you have told me are true."

Again, if he is real and true, he won't bat an eye at you entertaining some doubts after seven years. If he is fake and a liar, he will freak out and accuse you of all sorts of things -- which will ultimately be an attempt to make you back down out of guilt. And there is your answer.

Meanwhile, go ahead and start processing the possibility of the worst case scenario: "he" is likely lying to you, either about who he really is or about the things in his life that have made you love him, or bond with him.

I believe in the "spidey sense." Humans are exquisitely equipped to interpret potentially dangerous information and react with self-defense -- even when the information isn't as overt as "Hi, I'm here to rob you" or "I'm a poisonous mushroom, but eat me anyway." Trust your gut.
posted by pineapple at 8:59 PM on May 22, 2007

I've used this company to check out questionable characters in the past. You can do background checks, property and employment verifications etc. and the cheapest option is around $20. It's a great option for that piece of mind.

It looks like you can only search in the US, but you would be able to verify if he has ever spent time here or not, or maybe there's a Canadian version.
posted by paddingtonb at 10:07 PM on May 22, 2007

I second just calling, or getting someone to call, the company he works for. You say they have multiple locations, but they will have a a centralised directory of all employees. So you could say, for example, "I want to mail something to Mr X, who I understand works for you, can you give me the correct snailmail address for him, please?" And you could even be telling the absolute truth if you wanted, for example, to send him a postcard or a present.
posted by londongeezer at 10:59 PM on May 22, 2007

tell him you'd like to send him a gift (articles of clothing are good for this) and you'd like a pic back of him wearing it. don't tell him what color it is in advance. if the pic comes back with the right garment, at least you've verified a mailing address.
posted by bruce at 12:06 AM on May 23, 2007

I don't think it's sketchy to hire an investigator. And, an honest person that you only knew online would understand that, if he eventually found out. The attitude of "it's dishonest to have him checked out" is predicated on people analogizing their real-life relationships. This isn't one of those; online, people tell lots of lies.

It is spying. It is stalkerish. And, good grief, is this "If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't mind"? Really?

It's not wrong to want some confirmation that he's who/what he says he is. But the gift idea is a much better way of going about this.
posted by Many bubbles at 3:46 AM on May 23, 2007

I'm surprised that so many are advocating that you hire someone or personally manipulate circumstance to find out more about this person. It's not that I am against that sort of behavior as general rule, but I think this is an inappropriate situation.

This is a matter of person to person interaction with zero exchange of actual material or services rendered, so why hire a third party to assist the transaction when there has yet to be a need for even the most simple kind of trust? If you are concerned with a personal relationship, then it is important to let your gut drive the interaction with that person. If it is telling you that something is rotten about the situation, then you should go with that...but it can be tricky.

You've gone a long time without meeting this person. Why is that? Would you like to meet this person? If so, then since (as you indicate) you are very loosely connected in terms of Real Life cues, you should consider how you approach the meeting scenario.

But I suggest you take a step back for a moment's pause. There are problems (and benefits) that come with having limited communication channels as the feed for the substrate of a personal relationship. Think about the tone of your communication. How many "Unsend!" moments have you had? It can be an indicator that things have gone out of control. This, is a very poor indicator of your chemistry when and if you do meet in person.

If everything has been going along relatively smoothly, and your communication is intriguing, sterile or spiced with flirtation, you have a much better chance of working out the "Real Life" aspect to your relationship. You obviously seek more reality from this relationship... but I suggest that you won't find this if you seek from fact to face, that is backwards behavior.

Just remember, you've only met a very limited aspect of this person, and that aspect is still unfolding. You have a right to steer the communication however you wish. Be forward, why stalk? Ask the person to confirm things for you. Be polite. Trust your senses and let them lead you to the truth. I mean, I can understand the desire to have details confirmed and so can everybody worth knowing, but gee whiz! It often helps to include the other person in this adventure, considering it is the truth about them that you seek.

When it comes to meeting the person, it is important to be clear, even if lightened by humor, that expectations should be low. People tend to build these meetings up, so that the prospect of living up to the character is too dominant, and nerves destroy natural communication.

All of that said, I am not you and I have very little idea of who you are. Maybe you are fragile and need to be protected. If that is the case, how about you use someone who you know in real life, who knows you, who you trust to help and support you in your quest to find out more about this person? If you do not have such a person at hand, I suggest you spend more time exploring people in safe-ish real life social engagements.
posted by choice at 6:30 AM on May 23, 2007

It is spying. It is stalkerish. And, good grief, is this "If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't mind"? Really?

In this particular case, yes it is. He's been keeping her at length for seven years; he's already demonstrated dishonest behavior, or she wouldn't be here at AskMe.

Many bubbles, she didn't ask if you thought it was creepy. She asked how best to go about gathering more info. The gift idea is sweet but all it will prove is whether he lied about one valid mailing address, one time, or not. He could rent a PO box for $15 for that purpose. How does that answer the poster's questions?

And frankly, I see it as far more deceptive to use a third party to lie to him and try to entrap him via IM, or to find some other stranger in town to deliver something to him, or to call up his office and pretend to be looking for him. What is this, "Three's Company"?

If she hires an investigator, and he finds out, and he minds, then she'll have to deal with that at that time. But putting the needs of a likely-untruthful Internet stranger over the needs of the MeFite who posted the question isn't super-helpful.
posted by pineapple at 6:36 AM on May 23, 2007

An additional note: it's probably helpful to realize that the investigation she might procure isn't some Philip Dick hardboiled gumshoe who's going to go sneaking around and parking on the guy's street to capture grainy photos with a long-angle. They're likely just going to do the same exact sort of computer-oriented background work that has been mentioned here: Telus, Lexis, etc. compiled into a report. How is that different from the OP exhausting her own abilities from afar? Where's the line?
posted by pineapple at 6:47 AM on May 23, 2007

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