What could an online private investigator discover about you? Madeleine Chapman paid $99 to find out.
When my colleague mentioned in passing that she once stood front row at a Beyoncé concert and incoherently screamed a line of a song into Beyoncé’s microphone, and that footage of the incident was somewhere on Youtube, I knew my day was ruined. I would spend as long as it took (which ended up being six hours over a long weekend) to find the video. Even now, years later, I can’t provide a logical explanation for my very sudden obsession with not even discovering but simply confirming the presence of an obscure video. Sometimes you just want to know.
My wanting to know was pointless. I want to know everything, all the time, regardless of its pertinence. Most of the time the things I want to know serve no purpose beyond scratching an itch in my mind. But sometimes that itch is intuition, and wanting to know becomes needing to know. Having suspicions about someone you’ve just met is a survival itch, and Date Check NZ has come along, promising to scratch it.
Launched by private investigator Cheney McGlynn in March 2019, Date Check offers a “swift, simple and thorough online background check”, specifically on people you may have met through a dating app. The hook is the price ($99 flat rate) and the convenience (simply fill out a short online form and provide an email address to receive the results). The website and instagram page are pink and almost cheerful, with a lot of memes, which has the effect of playing down the serious nature of background checks.
McGlynn has spoken about her motivations for setting up the service, the primary one being safety. For $99, women (and it is mostly women who would feel compelled to use such a service) can purchase peace of mind about a potential suitor. Or they can purchase confirmation that they’ve been conned. Or they can purchase knowledge about a person for no other reason than curiosity.
I was curious. I wanted to know what others could learn about me if they, like me, just wanted to know. I asked my colleague to order a Date Check on Madeleine Chapman. She filled out the form accurately but vaguely. Address: “near Dominion Rd”. Birthday: “pisces”. Known associates: “Duncan Greive, Alex Casey, Steven Adams, Christel Chapman.” It took five minutes, no interaction, and the order was placed. I was nervous. I had nothing to be nervous about; I’m an open book and regularly share personal details within my work (like right now), but the thought of someone snooping gave me pause. What if they could somehow investigate my inner thoughts and share my deepest insecurities with, as far as they knew, a total stranger?
Date Check didn’t share my darkest secrets with my colleague but they did share something equally scary: my home address.
If I wanted to, I could learn everything there is to know about, say, Lemsip, which I can see on my colleague’s desk right now. The origins, the active ingredients, the interactions that occur internally once it’s been ingested. If I learned all of that, I would be smarter. But at the same time as wanting to know how a human body fights influenza, I want to know, with equal intensity, the full life story of the person who works across the office from me and with whom I very occasionally converse. Knowing everything about this person won’t make me smarter in any real sense. I just want to know.
But just because knowledge is accessible doesn’t mean everyone should have it. In promoting Date Check on The AM Show, McGlynn drew from recent tragedies around online dating encounters gone horribly wrong to emphasise the importance of the service she offered. While she didn’t say Date Check could have prevented such tragedies, she did suggest it could help other women by revealing dangerous potential suitors. But the service isn’t limited to women and it isn’t limited to those with good intentions.
My colleague provided only my name and email (I’m a writer online with a very public work email) and in return received my home (as well as work) address. Replace “my colleague” with someone sinister and the distribution of such information feels not just unnecessary but unsafe.
The address given given to my colleague by Date Check is in fact my old address and, more pertinently, where my aunt and uncle still reside. It concerns me that their address could be given out to a complete stranger for $99. And while I know that all information given by Date Check is technically in the public realm, I have no idea how they found it. My own subsequent search of my name + the address didn’t provide any results, suggesting a casual snooper wouldn’t uncover it, and for good reason.
I’m aware that a full-time private investigator would probably offer a whole lot more about me to a stranger, but there’s a chasm between someone who would go through the process of hiring and paying for a private investigator, and someone who would fill out a brief online form. The practice offered by Date Check isn’t new. But the ease with which anyone can engage with it, particularly those with bad intentions, is.
McGlynn also told a number of personal anecdotes to prove why her product was essential. One involved her friend meeting a man over the phone who had “implied” that he was good looking but refused to FaceTime. She used Date Check and “we did a bit of digging and found out that actually he was a bald, overweight alcoholic”. Putting aside the truth that beauty is subjective, sometimes knowledge is meant to be given, not discovered.
Telling a potential partner of addiction struggles, or any struggles, rarely happens in the early conversations. And discovering that your date isn’t as good looking as they appear in their carefully curated online profile is the third certainty in life after death and taxes. I’m sure the specific example McGlynn spoke of was indeed a catfish situation, but baldness and addiction struggles are not indicators of predatory behaviour, even if they are revealed by a private investigator.
My colleague sent through my completed Date Check report as soon as it arrived, adding only “I didn’t know your dad was from Nebraska”. Aside from giving my (previous) address, the Date Check offered a rudimentary bio, particularly for a subject who is Very Online. It was so rudimentary that when I asked The Spinoff’s intern to find everything she could online about Madeleine Chapman in 30 minutes, she did a far better job.
Date Check got some minor details wrong (my university degree, the number of siblings I have, and when I returned to New Zealand), but recovered enough to deliver the devastating one-two punch of “We have been unable to locate any information regarding the subject and any previous relationships.” and “The subject does not own any property.”
Besides the home address, intern Hannah found all the information Date Check found, with greater detail and accuracy, and only made one error; assuming I own the property I currently live in. She too managed to include a devastating burn, ending her report with “enjoys Harry Potter”.
Date Check purports to be a safety measure for those concerned that the person they’ve met online is not who they say they are. But with no human interaction, and virtually no real information required to order one, Date Check leaves itself open for exploitation. They did not “confirm my identity” because my colleague offered very little resembling one in the first place. Instead they provided it, virtually from scratch, and complete with locations but not much else.
Date Check promises “honest advice”, suggesting there is a judgment presented by the investigator after completing their research. I don’t know what their advice would be if they discovered a bonafide scam artist, but the final sentiment in my report felt both vague and pointed.
“Please note the subject is known in the comedy and news community and has many followers, some who do not agree with what she writes.” You’ve been warned.
If Date Check promises to vet a person and confirm whether or not they are who they claim to be, it’s possible to do so without potentially endangering that person by also providing details of where they live to whoever is willing to pay $99. And as for all the rest? The education, the travels, the opinions with which some people disagree, the embarrassing concert cameos? It’s 2019 and the world lives online. All the information is right there if you just want to know.