At any hour, at least six investigators from Gavin de Becker’s elite Los Angeles-based security firm are prowling cyberspace, looking for anything that might endanger the lives or reputations of its roughly 50 celebrity clients. ”If you’re proactive,” says Michelle Taylor, who works in the firm’s Internet Threat Assessment Management department, ”and have someone monitoring what’s being said and done with you out there, you’re ahead of the game.”
De Becker’s high-profile clients, whom the firm keeps secret, have reason to be worried. Celebrities ranging from Jodie Foster, the subject of reported rape threats on the Internet in late 1995, to fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, last month the target of a vicious E-mail campaign which painted him as a racist, are discovering that there are worse things than finding nude pinups of themselves on the Web.
In recent months, websites and Internet search engines devoted to tracking down people — in many cases helping reunite relatives or friends — have become increasingly popular. And celebs are learning that obsessed fans can not only issue threats and spread rumors about them, they might also be able to use these search services to uncover unlisted phone numbers, street addresses, E-mail addresses, or social security numbers. Taylor says that the most common hazard facing the celebrities she and her team protect comes from people who try to find entertainers’ addresses and phone numbers and then trade the information. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, for instance, was able to locate what are apparently the home addresses of an Oscar-winning actress and a legendary director in Manhattan within minutes using one of the better-known search engines.
In many cases, there’s little the rich and famous can do about cyberstalking. One Missouri-based company with a website that bears the slogan, ”There is no knowledge that is not power,” claims to be able to produce anyone’s unpublished number for $95. If you know the number, it can provide the person’s address for $75. ”We could conceivably see another Rebecca Schaeffer incident,” says Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, referring to the 1989 murder of the 21-year-old actress by a deranged fan who located her through California motor vehicle records. (Since Schaeffer’s death, California closed its records to the public.) ”The risk is there and there just aren’t the privacy laws needed to protect people.”
Of course, it still takes some work for the average person to locate a star’s personal data. Most sites on the Internet that offer access to phone numbers and addresses maintain that the info is culled from public directories and doesn’t include unlisted numbers. The major online services and Web search engines like America Online and excite have made deals with specialized people-finding sites such as www.switchboard.com (AOL), www.Four11.com (Yahoo!), or www.whowhere. com (excite); these all claim the information they provide could be likened to one giant phone book for the entire country and is all in the public domain.