reality TV reviews and news

Fact-checking a scene from CBS’ Hunted

David Windecher on CBS' Hunted. (Image by CBS)

In the three hours that have aired so far, I’ve found Hunted sometimes thrilling and often baffling. While the idea trying to hide from electronic surveillance is fascinating, I also don’t understand how the show works or what its rules are.

How exactly are the hunters able to track the teams through GPS, surveillance footage, and other methods that may be accessible to law enforcement but wouldn’t be available to a reality competition? What are the rules for this high-stakes competition, which awards each surviving team $250,000?

I asked CBS if I could interview one of the show’s producers to ask these questions and more. They said no. Specifically, a publicist told me, “Appreciate the interest but we’re going to have to decline for now.”

So, I decided to check out part of last week’s episode myself—a scene that made me think, What? How? Really? several times.

The four-minute scene, which takes place about 30 minutes in to the first hour, involves David and Emiley, who are driving through Atlanta. Previously, investigators discovered a calendar that had plans visible on it, including that they were going to rent a car.

Here’s the show’s version of events:

  1. The hunters searched for rental cars under Emiley and David’s names.
  2. They found a rental agreement for an Enterprise truck rented by one of David’s friends, on which David was added as a driver.
  3. They located and tracked the vehicle with GPS, identifying exactly where the vehicle was in downtown Atlanta.
  4. A hunter team on the ground tracked the vehicle to an Enterprise location.
  5. An Enterprise employee told the hunters about the person who rented the car, and said the car was rented “as a diversion.”

Did these things happen exactly as depicted on screen? For numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4, the answer is no.

Searching for a rental car

During the episode, we’re shown David and Emiley’s calendar, which says “rental car to SC” on July 4, 2016. Someone wrote that on the June calendar, and the indentations from the writing were visible on the July calendar.

A hunter, Aki Peritz, says, “We’re looking to see whether Enterprise Rent-a-Car or one of the other companies has David Windecher and Emiley Cox in the system for the next couple days.”

First, it seemed weird to me that he singled out Enterprise immediately—why say them by name? As it turns out, the rental was from Enterprise, and it seems more than coincidental that Enterprise was the only one mentioned before they had any information at all. There are at least eight major rental companies in the U.S.: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, and Thrifty.

More importantly: Can law enforcement—or a reality show’s producers—search to see if someone has rented a car in a database?

I called Enterprise to ask.

Christy Cavallini, Enterprise Holdings’ vice president for global corporate communications responded, and I asked her, “Is there a searchable database of rentals that a non-Enterprise employee could access to search by driver names to find out who rented or who was listed as a driver?”

Her clear answer: “No.”

Finding the Enterprise rental agreement

Even though there isn’t a way to search for rentals, the on-screen search is successful. Hunted, Peritz—who’s identified as “a former CIA analyst” and is the co-author of a book about counterterrorism efforts that led to bin Laden’s death—tells his hunter colleagues, “We got something—we got a hit.”

That hit, he says, is a “David Windecher rental agreement. He was added as a driver to a rental vehicle.”

The camera briefly shows his computer screen, which shows what appears to be a scan of an Enterprise rental agreement, the form where you initial next to the boxes that say you’ve declined their insurance. (I’ve rented from them before and recognized it immediately.)

Can law enforcement—or, again, a reality TV show’s production company—obtain such a scan?

Only if they’re “subpoenaed,” Enterprise VP Cavallini told me. “When subpoenaed, we send a hard copy or a scanned copy. In this instance, it looked scanned.”

She added one particularly interesting detail: “This particular copy was the renter’s copy.” In an earlier message, she said, “the contract they show on the screen is the customer’s contract…not ours….we didn’t provide it.”

In other words, it apparently came from the renter, not Enterprise.

If it didn’t come from Enterprise, how did the hunters find it? Were they just given a copy by producers and pretended on camera to have found it in a database?

I e-mailed Aki Peritz to ask. Here’s his response:

“I don’t recall the exact mechanism by which the Command Center received the intelligence about the rental car (we shot the show, per David & Emiley’s calendar, in June, so my recollection of this event is a bit hazy). This is my guess: It might have been that the guy who co-rented the car (or David himself, or the producers) deliberately took a photo of the rental agreement with the assumption that, had we had real law enforcement powers, we would indeed have been able to subpoena the rental car company for the information.

After all, we did not have the coercive powers of law enforcement– if we were, all of his pals would be aiding and abetting fugitives, which in the state of Georgia is a felony charge that carries up to a five year jail sentence.”

A small but incorrect detail

During the episode, after a map shows the relationship of the hunters and the rental car, we hear an investigator tell the ground team, “it has a Florida tag on it.”

He gives the license plate number: CEM 8194. We see an investigator in a chase vehicle write this down.

I live in Florida, and our license plates have six characters (XXX 123), not seven. But we also have an insane number of specialty plates, so it’s possible a tag I’ve never seen could have seven digits.

I looked up the vehicle, using public databases, and the plate is real, and is registered to a 2016 Ford F-150. But it was not registered in Florida. Instead, that is a Georgia license plate number. I knew thanks to the show itself.

When the hunters arrive at the Enterprise location, the camera zooms in on the license plate on the pickup truck, which says CEM 8194, and is a Georgia plate.

I searched using its VIN number, which is basically a car’s serial number, and learned that, according to the Georgia Department of Revenue, “records currently indicate that This vehicle is commercial vehicle”

Enterprise later confirmed to me that the Ford F-150 is owned by Enterprise.

So why did the investigators say “it has a Florida tag on it”? If they’d been searching the wrong state’s records, how could they even have found the car?

Do most post-2010 cars track us?

Once they discover the rental agreement, Theresa Payton says, “Mike—it’s a newer vehicle: telematics.” Mike says, “We’ll get on vehicle telematics immediately.”

In an interview, she says, “Almost every car built after 2010 has an onboard computer system. It’s called telematics. That means GPS satellites can actually track that onboard computer—tell us how fast you’re going, whether or not the car is stopped. It ultimately tells us where the car is as you’re on the move.”

Is that true? Can law enforcement really have instant GPS and data on “almost every car built after 2010”? Can law enforcement and/or a reality show track a rented Enterprise vehicle to find its exact location?

“Telematics” is a broad term that refers to cars’ computer systems, but can also refer to specific technology, such as OnStar. Edmunds has a chart with various kinds of telematics technology.

And here’s what Popular Science reported about GPS specifically:

“Most navigation systems are separate from a car’s computers and cannot track your location. Nav systems rely on the Global Positioning System, which is a one-way data stream to the car. Your car may know where it is, but nobody can track it via the GPS link, and no location data is stored in the EDR.

But everything changes when you add a cellular connection. Cars equipped with telematics systems such as OnStar or Hyundai Blue Link have two-way links to service providers that relay GPS data. The operators of these services do, indeed, have the ability to see where you are, how fast you’re going, and what state your car is in mechanically. They can also track and remotely disable a stolen vehicle.”

I called an Atlanta-area Ford dealership, and was told by a salesperson that a 2016 Ford F-150 does not have any GPS tracking capabilities built in. (The 2017 version, however, has FordPass, which allows its owner to locate or even remotely start their car from their phone.) However, LoJack can be added to a vehicle optionally, and that, according to the company, will “allow local law enforcement to track the signal being emitted from the LoJack unit in your vehicle while they carry out their regular duties.”

However, commercial vehicles may have different capabilities. The web site for Ford Telematics powered by Telogis says it “gives you complete visibility of fleet operations. Monitor a wide range of performance metrics including vehicle location, speed, hard braking or acceleration, excessive idling, seat belt use, oil life and engine temperature – all in real time.” The site also says it is “Deeply integrated into Ford vehicles” and “comes already installed on” models including all F-150s since 2009.

So clearly, it is possible to track a vehicle.

But is it possible to track a rental car—specifically the rented truck we saw on the show? Enterprise’s VP for global communications told me no.

“We have no access to anything like this,” she said. Even if a vehicle had OnStar or another technology, Cavallini said, “we have no access or way to activate.” She added, “You would have to ask the show how they did it.”

Would Enterprise give up information on a renter?

Even though Enterprise says they could not track their own vehicle, Hunted‘s team tracks the car on interstate 85, and sees that it has exited at exit 120, where “there is another Enterprise rent-a-car nearby.”

I found the Lawrenceville Enterprise using Google Maps, and matched the image of the storefront and nearby businesses to what was shown on television. I called them.

The agent who answered the phone said they are not allowed to talk to media, and referred me to corporate communications. Enterprise Holdings’ news room page has “press guidelines” that explicitly states, “Employees in our rental branches are not designated as media spokespeople unless authorized,” and more interestingly, says, “All videotaping and photography of our rental branches must first be authorized by our Corporate Communications department.”

How strange, then, that an employee readily gave information to people working for a reality competition series.

Christy Cavallini, Enterprise VP of Global Corporate Communications, said in an e-mail message, “We were unaware of the program happening, until they showed up on our premises.”

The footage of the Enterprise location on Hunted was filmed outside the store, from what appears to be the parking lot, and the camera zooms in through the glass storefront. An employee is not shown, but is heard. The hunter asks, “Can you tell me anything about the guy?” and the Enterprise employee says that the man had “tattoos, sleeves.”

He’s shown a picture by the hunter, and says that is not the person who came into the store: “He definitely did not have a beard. He specifically said my friend told me to rent this car and add him as a driver as a diversion.”

Would an Enterprise employee really give up that much information to someone without a warrant? Can I walk into an Enterprise and ask them for details about a previous renter?

Cavallini told me:

“…when the person returned the car on the show (he rented from one location and returned to another) he tipped off our employee that he was on a television show and told him more about it and informed him that he was a diversion.  When the actors (hunters) showed up 30 minutes after the person returned the car, they knew the car had been returned to that employee. Actors, cameras etc. were on the premises, so it wasn’t your typical situation, and he knew from the man who had returned the car that this was part of the television show.  He asked not to be filmed and didn’t want to be on the show.”

I followed up and asked why she’d referred to the hunters as “actors,” and she said they are former law enforcement “doing this role for the show. I think you should ask the show.”

I did; more on that later.

I asked Enterprise explicitly, “If law enforcement came into a location, would an employee freely answer their questions?”

Cavallini told me, “No.” She added, “we have a regular protocol. He only gave the information because the person returning the car gave him a tip that this was all for a show. Thirty minutes later, a film crew showed up.”

That seems to be a loophole in protocol that law enforcement or anyone else could exploit—just say you’re on a television show and get information.

But clearly, what happened on screen in that moment was accurate: someone rented a vehicle in one location, returned it to another, revealed that he was doing this for a friend who was on a TV show, and then the employee shared that information with hunters later.

What all of this means

After all of this research, what’s clear to me is that the version of events presented on Hunted are plausible, but do not actually reflect the way the hunters tracked the team.

Peritz’s response to me confirms this. While he doesn’t recall that specific piece of evidence, he suggests the rental agreement was provided to the production “with the assumption that, had we had real law enforcement powers, we would indeed have been able to subpoena the rental car company for the information.”

In other words, the show is simulating possible behavior—which makes sense, but also opens up a world of questions about how the hunters are receiving information, and what is provided to them by production, and under what circumstances.  Crucially, though, it is not being transparent about that with viewers. A disclaimer on the show says that “procedures have been replicated for broadcast.” What does that even mean?

What’s clear from my research into these four minutes or so is that the show’s version of events are just not possible, according to Enterprise. How, then, did the show locate the rental vehicle? How did the show track the car?

I asked CBS, and later, Endemol Shine US, which produces the show, those exact questions. I will also update here and/or publish a new story with any responses I receive.


Update: This afternoon, I spoke with a member of Hunted’s production team on the condition that they not be identified or quoted directly. While they would not give me details about the rules or any of the methods that were used, the person confirmed the conclusions of this piece: that the information the hunters obtained—such as the Enterprise rental agreement and the car’s location—came from the production itself, provided to the hunters when they requested it.

The “replicated” procedures mentioned in the disclaimer are simply the production providing information to the hunters that would be accessible to law enforcement. It seems that part of the production documented what happened to the hunters, and then secured that information until it was properly requested. That may explain the awkwardness of the command center interaction—if the hunters are talking to producers to request information, and none of that is being filmed and/or included, we’re essentially seeing them pretend to discover information.

I was told that the production team did considerable research to ensure that the requests and receipt of information simulated what would happen in the real world, such as waiting for a subpoena.  The person I spoke with confirmed that the hunters had to make proper requests, and were sometimes denied information by the production team.

While I am convinced that it was truly important for the show’s production team to make the chase an authentic experience for both the teams and the hunters, with a production firewall in place between the teams and the hunters to protect information from leaking, the show also made an intentional decision to not be transparent with viewers—or journalists!—about those actions.

The editing focuses on drama rather than rules or procedures—so even if everything is legitimate, we can’t verify that as viewers. The show is also concerned about future contestants (it is now casting for a second season) learning its secrets in advance.

This focus and strategy has obviously been successful in drawing viewers to the first few episodes, even if it leaves some viewers, like me, frustrated with Hunted.