Finding a person is perhaps the broadest of all categories for private investigators because there are so many various reasons that can be behind a person search. Potential clients who could hire a private investigator to find someone are insurance companies, attorneys, individuals, businesses, adoptees, or birth parents. That pretty much covers everyone under at least one of those categories.
Private investigators conduct three main types of person searches - persons who are intentionally missing, persons who are victims of foul play, and persons who don’t know anyone is looking for them. Those who intentionally go missing have “skipped town”, therefore, this is called a skip trace. In this category, you might find debtors who owe money, some runaways, some witnesses to a crime, some victims of a crime, or simply people who decided to leave and start over for various reasons. Persons who could be victims of foul play are runaways, witnesses to a crime, victims of a crime, or a person missing under suspicious circumstances. All the rest typically fall under persons who don’t realize anyone is looking for them such as a lost love, witness to a crime, hero, relative qualified for an inheritance, client who can’t be reached, old friend, homeless person, adoptee, birth parent, former employee of a particular company, or military buddy.
These examples are not all-inclusive, but do cover a good portion of cases in which a person or entity is attempting to track someone down. When I have a potential client call me with a request to find someone for them, I first try to place the person being sought into one of the three categories above. It’s not always completely clear under which category they fall, but as the case progresses, it typically becomes clear. For example, an attorney could be looking for potential witnesses to a crime whereas they don’t even realize they were a witness to anything at all. Perhaps it was a murder that occurred in an apartment building on a well-traveled street corner and the attorney is looking for anyone who might have been traveling that area during the commission of the crime. Or maybe it’s a case of a runaway who might intentionally be evading detection or who could have unintentionally run into foul play.
No matter the case, there are some uniform steps I take as a private investigator when I get started. Every case is different and each one can take me in very different directions. But generally, I start with collecting as much information as I can on the missing subject. I ask my client loads of questions, collect their answers, group the known information into categories, then start verifying the information they gave me and recording any new information I find along the way.
One of the first places I check is with my proprietary databases that are available to private investigators and law enforcement only. These databases collect information from credit headers, civil records, criminal records, motor vehicle registration, driver’s license information, property records, telephone information, and others regarding corporations, professional licensing, etc. It’s a great one-stop-shop for finding lead information. However, I ALWAYS verify any information I glean from these databases, as any good private investigator should do with secondary sources such as this.
After gleaning information from my databases, I often have various trails to follow to see if any of them lead anywhere. If I have potential location information on the missing person, I might follow up with physically visiting these locations, talking with neighbors, contacting former landlords, utilizing the services of the post office, and/or checking local property records. If I have phone numbers, I begin calling them to see if any pan out. I might locate a valuable contact who ends up giving me more information on my missing person. I might get the missing person him or herself. I check the Department of Motor Vehicles in the state or states where the missing person has been or could be.
I get on social media and attempt to locate profiles for the missing person, his or her family, and his or her known contacts, friends, associates, and coworkers. Social media investigations is a specialty in and of itself, so there is much more to this than can be discussed here. (I have written a previous blog post entitled Uses for a Social Media Investigation that gives a few more details).
I also find all of the publicly available information I can on the missing person. Much of this can often be conducted online and via phone calls, but sometimes, a physical trip to the courthouse or state repository is necessary. There is a plethora of open source records available that cover criminal histories, civil records, marriages, divorces, wills, property records, judgments, liens, deeds, bankruptcies, voter registration, etc. (Again, a previous blog post entitled What is OSINT gives more information on open sources).
Sometimes, I check online directories, get in touch with a high school reunion coordinator, sift through pages of an old yearbook, inquire of state professional licensing boards, run through local newspaper pages at the local library, visit a Family History Center, or plow through cemetery records. I chase every potential lead I can find until I either find the missing person or exhaust all of my leads.
The best parts of any missing person search are the variety, the challenge, and the creativity they elicit. No two cases are alike. Sometimes I get lucky and find the missing person very quickly. Other times, it takes a lot of persistence and digging. But the primary reason I provide this particular service is simple - to bring resolution to my client.