Catherine Townsend
Crimes of passion are my passion.

Digital Detox: How to get rid of Stalker Apps

Recently, ‘Karen’ a 27-year-old paralegal, called me in a panic. Several weeks after ending a relationship with her ex-boyfriend over his controlling behavior, Karen was freaked out because he kept appearing everywhere. She wondered how he always seemed to know her exact location: Had he installed a GPS tracker on her car? Was he following her? For Karen, and many other clients lately, the answer has been far simpler – though just as sinister. While meeting her for coffee to get ‘closure’, Karen’s ex had waited until she took a bathroom break to fish out her cell phone and install a ‘stalker app’.

Cyberstalking has become a huge part of my domestic abuse cases. NPR recently reported on MSpy, an app that is marketed to parents monitoring their children – but has been co-opted by jealous and obsessed lovers. There are tons of these apps out there, including StealthGenie and MobileSpy.

The spyware only requires that the person who installs it have access for a few minutes – in the time it takes to go to the bathroom at a coffee shop or take a quick shower, a stalker can gain access to your entire life.

Along with pinpointing exact GPS locations, apps like MSpy allow users to remotely access call history, text messages sent and received – and even listen in to conversations around the phone by activating microphone. The app has exact instructions – with screenshots – that explain how to install the app quickly, then go to the victim’s ‘settings’ page and delete any trace.

So how do you know if your phone has been compromised?

For iPhone: Check to see if it is jailbroken

Unlike on Androids, there is no surefire way to examine the files on iPhones. The good news? Installing spyware requires that the phone to be jailbroken -meaning that someone has modified the phone to get past the built-in security controls. If the phone is not jailbroken, you’re most likely safe. Apps like Cydia and Icy are dead giveaways that the phone has been compromised.

If it is, upgrade the latest iOS release to get the phone un-jailbroken, then install a program such as Lookout Security that will warn you if the phone is jailbroken in future.

For Android: Look at the phone’s program files

Many apps will leave behind telltale signs in the program files, if you are comfortable with looking for them, such as ‘stealth’ or ‘spy’. However be aware that many of the apps aren’t visible unless you know exactly what you are looking for – they hide under innocent-sounding names such as ‘Android.sys’. So I still advise doing a factory reset (details below).

For everyone: Chose strong password

Pick a password that no one – especially a potential stalker – can guess. Don’t use mother’s maiden name, street you grew up on or pet name – because these things can almost all be found online.

Perform factory reset

This will delete almost all of the stalker apps – but can also result in losing data. To avoid this, first back up contacts, music, etc. (Note: For Blackberries, a factory reset is almost always necessary because it can be very difficult to locate stalker apps in the directory files).

DO NOT automatically re-install all apps – instead, put in the ones that you need manually. You don’t want to re-install the spyware!

Buy a burner phone

Buying a non-smart phone is the first tip that I give my clients who fear that they may be compromised. It’s as easy as walking into a phone store, buying a prepaid SIM card under a name like ‘Mickey Mouse’ and combining this with an old-school flip phone. While analyzing the situation, they can leave their at-risk phones somewhere safe, like a desk drawer.

Even in a technologically advanced age, sometimes the old-school methods are still the safest.

Roommate Background Checks

We’ve all done our share of Google background checks, especially after meeting a new friend, new crush or potential job lead. Now, in a plot twist that reads like a 21st century Single White Female, the search engine has helped one woman bust a serial scammer who became her new roommate.

The Oregon Statesman-Journal reports that a woman accused of befriending people throughout the state of Oregon, then stealing their cash or running up huge charges on their credit cards, has been nabbed in Los Angeles.

This happened after her new roommate – the tipster – called the LAPD and said that she and the scammer had met three weeks prior and become instant BFFs. However, after noticing that something seemed off about her new housemate’s descriptions of her background, the tipster called the cops. It turns out that the 24-year-old suspect had been scamming people for the past three years – and even stolen a car from her own sister.

I’ve done my share of roommate and/or tenant background checks – below are my tips to ensure that using Craigslist doesn’t lead to parting with cash.

1. Don’t rely on the credit check

Credit checks can give you helpful information that can help gauge a potential roommate or tenant’s financial history, income and ability to pay. But a credit check is NOT the same thing as a character check – and many scammers appear to have decent credit history because they keep multiple cards open with just the minimum balance paid – or because they have stolen multiple identities.

2. Check social security numbers

A private investigator can run a check on a subject’s social security number, which can contain a wealth of information. The social security number can, among other things, ensure that you are checking out the right person – and that the potential tenant isn’t using a dead guy’s identity (this happens more often than you might think).

3. Check address history

A complete address history is essential when looking for someone to share your space. Pay especially close attention if the subject is older than his or her early twenties and gives a parent’s or close relative’s address as their only point of contact- they could be omitting unpaid landlord and friends. Address history should also include liens on properties, lawsuits related to the address, evictions and other names linked to accounts. Which brings me to my final point:

4. ALWAYS make phone calls

There is no substitute for picking up the phone to call references – not just the ones that the subject provides, but anyone else who may have information about a candidates history. A good investigator can provide names and telephone numbers of former and current neighbors and colleagues to help get the complete story.


US Attorney on shady lawyers

Preet Bharara has offered an explanation for why more banks were not prosecuted in the aftermath of the mortgage meltdown : Shady lawyers.

At a breakfast sponsored by Crain’s New York, the US Attorney compared banks to the mob, explaining that the executives at the ‘top of the food chain’ often had plausible deniability that their actions could be criminal – in part because they had law firms that okayed the transactions.

As a PI who works closely with lawyers, I thought about how our professions are often put in the difficult position of having to uphold the law and maintain ethics, while at the same time getting the best possible result for clients – often rich and powerful ones – who are footing the bill.

Crain’s writer Aaron Elstein pointed out that, although Bhararawas speaking generally, his explanation paralleled the situation at Lehman Brothers. The firm spent $1.1 billion on ‘professional fees’. A substantial amount of that money went to Linklaters, the UK firm that finally agreed to sign off on the company’s complex financial transactions – after several US firms refused.

One moderator at the breakfast said that legal opinions were “bought and paid for” by banks.

Bharara explained: “There are lawyers who are prepared to be the firm that blesses something that they know may be fishy. And they know that the first firm wouldn’t bless it, the second firm wouldn’t bless it, the third firm wouldn’t bless it, the fourth firm wouldn’t bless it, and maybe the fifth firm located abroad somewhere will bless it. It’s a leap from that to proving beyond a reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury in America that someone knew they were committing a crime when they had the benefit of that opinion.”

I have had requests to do all kinds of illegal things – from wiretapping phones to hacking into bank accounts – and refused. I know that clients can be so desperate for results that they may pass me by in order to find an investigator who will.

But a shady shortcut is unethical, criminal, and never the answer. Clients need to trust that you will tell them the truth – even if it’s something that they may not want to hear – in a difficult situation. And I would NEVER want to be sitting in front of a judge and have something I did compromise a case – not to mention my reputation.


A PI’s perspective on Ray Rice

The world may have been shocked at the footage of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee Janay Palmer – but sadly, my PI colleagues were taking bets on when her ‘stand by your man’ statement would appear. We were proven right when she posted a statement on Instagram blaming media intrusion for making her life a nightmare.

Any investigator who handles domestic cases will be familiar with the domestic violence cycle – breaking up, followed by the abuser begging for forgiveness and promising to change, then the client dropping the case – rinse and repeat. Private investigators are only human, and it’s upsetting both professionally and personally when a the client tells me stories of horrific abuse, cruelty and infidelity and asks me to collect evidence – only to ultimately return to the relationship.

I always ask what the client plans to do with the information – and despite the fact that they assure me that they plan to leave their abuser, I estimate that between 50 and 60 percent waver in their decision and go back at some point – and about one in five of my clients go back permanently.

This is extremely frustrating for an investigator who has spent time building a case and wants to see the guilty party punished – but understanding how the cycle works is crucial to building a case. Several friends have asked me how I keep my sanity while attempting to support a client/friend/loved one while working a domestic case – following is my advice to them.

1. DO Accept that your loved one will drive you crazy

Be ready for your loved one to defend the abuser, bail him/her out of jail and inexplicably beg HIM for forgiveness. Remember that their self-esteem is at rock bottom – and in many cases, they may be embarrassed and/or blaming themselves.

It can be tough to keep an emotional distance – more than once I have hugged a client, then gone out to my car, shut the doors and screamed – but it’s necessary for survival.

2. DO Remember that abusers come in all shapes and sizes

Yes, abusers can be female too – and men on the receiving end are often especially eager to sweep everything under the carpet. In fact, one of the worst abusers that I have ever encountered was a five-foot-one woman who probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet. Her husband was a huge Marine – but a gun is the ultimate equalizer.

3. DON’T demonize the abuser

When you are staring at a mug shot, remember that the abused person is poring over wedding photos and going through what we all experience at the loss of a relationship: The loss of the illusion of happily ever after. Calling someone a dirtbag or evil is indirectly an insult to the abused person – at least, they may take it that way – because they picked them.

Instead, try to introduce the idea of dealbreaker behaviors. No one is all good or evil – Jeffrey Dahmer had his tender moments and Ted Bundy could turn on the charm on the suicide crisis hotline, yet I think everyone will agree that murder is a dealbreaker. So is abuse. Blaming the behavior rather than the person will also make it easier when the abuser comes back and apologizes . . . which brings me to #4.

4.  DO Document evidence

Often, during the ‘reconciliation’ phase, the abuser will convince the abused party to delete text messages, emails and photographs that document the abuse. Having a forwarded copy could prove crucial if and when s(he) finally decides to press charges.

5. DO be supportive – but DON’T insert yourself into the insanity. 

Never, ever compromise your own safety: An objective third party such as law enforcement or a private investigator can conduct an investigation safely and legally. I have seen well-meaning friends and family move into the home to try and ‘keep an eye on things’, help cover up signs of abuse in front of law enforcement and even help buy pot to ‘calm down’ the abuser. Remember, enabling the abuse to continue will only make things worse in the end!