Detecting “Ghosts”

On rare occasions researchers are called on to be “ghost” detectors.  Public records “ghosts” aren’t traditional poltergeists or specters.  Instead they show up in public records as placeholder names and are often listed as early plaintiffs in class action lawsuits. 

Here’s how it happens:

When an issue that is prime for class action status explodes on the front pages of the papers there is a rush to file and, in this rush, some (certainly not all or even most) plaintiffs attorneys will insert a “ghost” into their legal pleadings because being the first to file is tremendously advantageous and, as the thinking goes, a non-ghost will eventually find the attorney and they can then be substituted as lead plaintiff.

Here’s how to detect it:

Ghosts will often have common sounding names.  While not definitive proof that you are dealing with a ghost, don’t overlook the possibility that the common sounding name doesn’t track to a real person.  Other “tells” come in the form of listed plaintiff’s addresses that don’t lead to a physical address but instead track back to a rented postal box and phone numbers that don’t ever get answered and don’t have voicemail attached.  The bottom line is that if you can’t find the “person” using traditional public records verification techniques, the “person” might actually be a “ghost.”

For a real life example of how to track a public records “ghost,” see this article in The Orange County Register which documents how one attorney came to conclude that hundreds of Americans with Disabilities Act claims filed by a single plaintiff were actually filed by an Orange County law firm using a ghost plaintiff.