Cyber ‘locators’ help facilitate stalking, other crimes

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Some of the account of “locators” are seen on Twitter. The top one reads, “If you have a grudge against someone for being defrauded, etc., we will identify the person’s address, which will help you, as at least a threat.” (The image is partially modified.)

They advertise openly in the cyberworld that they can find anyone’s address.

Stalking is proliferating through the help of shadowy characters who call themselves “locators” and dig up addresses and other personal information from data freely available on the internet.

They use comments, messages and photos posted on social media to find what they are looking for, and police and cyber experts are warning the public to exercise caution.

No shortage of accounts

A search of Twitter unveils accounts one after another declaring the ability to “locate a specific address” or saying “send me a direct message to request an address.”

One account calls itself “the Avenger,” and offers to search for information on someone against whom the person holds a grudge.

“I asked the Avenger to search the social media account of a woman,” a Saitama Prefecture man, who was arrested in June last year by the Metropolitan Police Department on suspicion of stalking a woman in her 20s, told investigators.

The man met the woman on a dating site and, after she spurned his advances to start a relationship, he obtained her bank account number by telling her he would compensate her as a show of remorse. In the process of the wire transfer, he learned the woman’s name.

He then turned to the Avenger, whom he found on the internet. The Avenger dug up her social media accounts. The man analyzed the woman’s posts to pinpoint her home. He then set off on a scourge of harassment, including maliciously having her mail forwarded to a different address and shutting off her water.

The man was charged with violating the antistalking law and other statutes and, in February this year, was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended for four years, by the Tokyo District Court.

Approached by The Yomiuri Shimbun in April, the man replied, “It’s done. I have nothing to say.”

In the case, the Avenger faced no charges. “We may interrogate them to determine if a crime was committed,” a senior investigator said.

‘Helping people’

“I receive several requests a month and respond with the intention of helping people,” said an Osaka Prefecture woman in her 20s who has been working as a “locator” for the past decade.

Many of the requests are for people needing actual assistance. For example, a person wires money for a product, but it never comes and they cannot locate or contact the seller. Or they just want to know if the person they like is seeing someone else.

She charges ¥5,000 to ¥10,000, but to keep herself and her clients anonymous to each other, asks them to purchase an electronic gift coupon at a convenience store or other place, then tell her the coupon number as payment.

In her investigations, the woman carefully analyzes the social media accounts of the target. If a photo is posted with a comment like “Tokyo Skytree, which we can see from our home,” she can deduce the neighborhood from the distance or the scenery.

Seeing a photo and comment such as “cake from the local shop,” she will use image searches to find the same product. She sometimes creates a social media account that matches the target’s interests and exchanges messages to obtain information.

“I refuse requests that might lead to a crime,” she said — although she has no way of confirming how clients use the information she provides.

Outside the law

Under the law regulating private detective services, private sleuths are required to secure a written pledge from a client not to use investigation results for illegal purposes, and must also halt an investigation when they know it is being used for nefarious reasons.

However, the law defines private detective services as “on-site investigations,” meaning that “locators” operating only on the internet are outside the reach of the law.

“Even for a professional detective, it is difficult to confirm the real purpose of a request,” said Dai Miyaoka, 31, head of the Tokyo-based private detective company JCI.

“For example, in a request to locate a family member, the client might be a wife or child abuser. These locators should be strongly aware of the risk of information being misused, and should avoid investigations where even a small element of danger exists.”

Risks of posts

The danger of personal information being deduced from posts on social media has long been an issue.

In one well-publicized case, the MPD arrested a man on suspicion of indecent assault resulting in injury and other charges in September 2019.

The suspect was able to see a train station reflected in the woman’s pupil in a photo she posted on social media. Using Google Street View and other tools, he was able to locate the station, then laid in wait for the woman at the ticket gate.

Recently, some experts have pointed out that with improved performance of smartphone cameras, there is the fear that fingerprints shown on images might be used for unlocking fingerprint authentication devices.

“The best measure is not to post private information or photos on social media,” said Isao Echizen, 49, professor at the National Institute of Informatics. “Before making a post, closely check the content and blur photos as needed.”