How to Find People Online
"Skip tracing" -- as the business of locating missing persons is known -- may seem to the uninitiated like the modern-day equivalent of the black arts practiced in the Middle Ages.
Professional skip tracers claim to be able to locate just about anybody, anywhere in a matter of minutes by means of a couple phone calls or taps on a computer keyboard.
And they often deliver. How do they do it?
Their main secret is the "social security trace." In using this type of search, they're simply running the subject's social security number through the credit bureaus and getting back so-called "header files" from his/her credit report. Header files contain only the "header" section of a credit bureau file, which provides the subject's full name, address, and vital information such as date of birth and sometimes even current employment. Header files were, until recently, considered public information under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The Graham-Leach-Bliley Act has, however, restricted their use to "permissible purposes," meaning, essentially, business/investment transactions, insurance, employment, and litigation.
Given a permissible purpose (and the new law is often interpreted quite liberally), skip tracers can run social security traces by phone or computer and find people very quickly, since nearly everybody uses credit nowadays. A skip tracer may be able to locate several dozen "skips" via credit bureau files every morning before lunch!
But what if the skip tracer doesn't have the subject's social security number? In that case, he can resort to what's known as a "national identifier search" which uses the last-known name and address, without the social security number, to locate the individual. (This search, needless to say, doesn't always work, as many "skips" adopt aliases.)
The skip tracer's secret, then, is to find people through the credit bureaus' files. Can you do the same? Actually, no -- there's a catch. The catch is, you have to have an account with a major credit bureau; but the credit bureaus will open accounts only for specific types of businesses, such as information professionals. And of course, if you use an information professional to run the trace for you, there's a fee.
Still, there are many ways to locate people without spending money. Here are some ideas on how to find people online or offline:
- First, start with the phone book. Sound obvious? You'd be surprised how many people forget to try locating their subject through his local phone directory. (If he or she is out of town, you can might be able to find his/her local directory at your public library.)
- Try locating him/her online, using Internet phone directories like addresses.com or bigfoot.com.
- Check him/her out on HotBot. Enter his name in quotes on the search form; this search may yield a personal home page or other types of Web pages where he's mentioned. Also you may want to click on the "Email Addresses" feature below the search form to search for his email address.
- Run a Department of Motor Vehicles search. This is one of the most effective ways to find somebody, provided he's residing in a state which permits this type of search. Call the Department of Motor Vehicles for the appropriate state and ask to have a name search run while you wait. (If you know the subject's license plate number, they can also trace him, or at least his vehicle, that way.)
- Relatives and neighbors. If you know names and phone numbers of relatives (or can get them, as through a birth certificate), call and ask for him/her as though he is there (this way, you're more likely to get an honest response). If he's not there, don't give up. Ask if there is anyone they know who may know how to reach him/her -- a spouse, for example. Also, you may want to call neighbors. Using criss-cross directories (many are online, such as bigfoot.com) or real estate records (also often online, see the state/county public records section of this website) you can locate the names and addresses of neighbors, or an information professional can run a so-called "Atlas Search" and provide this information. (Note: to evoke honest answers, always speak to relatives and neighbors in the most casual, non-threatening way possible.)
- Employers. Perhaps you're working from a credit application or by some other means know his present or former employer. Call there and ask to speak to the subject as though he is there. Ask where he presently works and how you can get in touch with him/her. Call the Human Resources Department and ask where his last W2 was sent.
- Associations, Licensing Boards, Hobbyist Groups. When people move they take their occupations and hobbies with them. Assuming you know or can find out his occupation and/or personal interests, try locating him/her through his professional association or hobbyist group. Click here for more information on Professional Associations & Licensing Boards.
- Check to see if he has a fishing or hunting license (one-third of adult males do).
- If you went to high school with the subject or know when and where he attended high school, try classmates.com.
- If your subject is of college age, try fraternities/sororities: go to greekpages.com. Or use College Net to find the home page of his college or university (these often feature a link to alumni directories).
- If your subject is of military service age, try GIsearch.com.
- To browse an extremely large list of investigative resources, many of which are useful in people-locating, visit Online Investigative Directories.
More Information On ... How to Find People
For those who want to delve deeper into skip tracing, here are a few of the finer points of the trade:
- Enlist allies whenever possible. Be extremely courteous to whomever you speak in requesting information. Don't be afraid to ask for advice. Don't lie to people or use pretexting. If you're not a creditor, make sure the people you speak to are aware of this; you'll get more cooperation.
- Document all your known identifiers, like full name, address, date of birth (DOB), social security number, occupation, etc. List all possible contacts, like relatives, friends, past employers, etc. List all the information you have about the person into writing so you don't overlook a possible lead.
- Skip tracing can be arduous, especially if the individual is hiding. Be prepared for a long siege and be in a creative frame of mind. In trying to find someone with an obviously ethnic name, for example (and this is not meant derogatorily), some investigators simply cold call people in the phone book with similar names or even names of the same ethnic group. Always speak to the person who answers the phone in a casual way and ask for the individual you're looking for as if he lives there, e.g., "Hi, I'd like to speak to Mike." If he's not there or doesn't live there, ask the person if he/she can help you locate him/her (see next point, below).
- One of the tricks of skip-tracing is the simple phrase: "I wonder if you could help me." NEVER give up when someone answers your first question negatively; persist... ask for their help in finding the person, e.g., "I wonder if you could help me. I really need to locate Mike. Do you have any idea how I might find him/her?... Does he have any friends in the area that you know of?" etc.
- If you're a creditor, be aware that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits you from revealing to a family member or employer that you are attempting to locate the subject because he owes money.
- Sometimes you can find people by calling local business establishments like grocery stores, hardware stores, and banks, and speaking to the manager. Another trick is to call local hang-outs, like restaurants and bars, and ask to have the subject paged. The subject him or herself may not be there but if someone who knows him/her is present, that person may answer the page.
- Yet another trick is to send a package, perhaps an old book, to the subject's former address through UPS or FedEx and ask the addressee's signature or verification of his new address. If whoever now lives at his old address knows his new one, they might fill in the verification of new address form, which would then be forwarded to you by the delivery company.
- Try a news search. Perhaps your subject has been mentioned in a newspaper or magazine somewhere. Also, plug his name into Google Groups to check whether he's been contributing to those online forums.
- Check voter's registration records.
- Check if he's deceased via the Master Death Index or intelius.com.
- Run a public records check or background check. Your subject may have been involved in civil or criminal litigation.
- Check Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) documents.
- Consider surveillance as a last resort. A private investigator may be able to locate your subject by surveiling his former residence or the residence of his spouse or parents. But be aware that not everyone can be found. The industry even has a term for those people -- "lost cause skips."
- Is someone looking for you? Check out Who? Me?
- Scan the following Missing Persons URL's for possible info sources:
- Arizona Maricopa County Unidentified Persons
- Child CyberSearch
- Delaware Missing Children
- Delaware Missing Persons
- FBI Missing & Kidnapped Persons
- Florida Department of Law Enforcement Missing Children Database
- Fugitive Hunter (Wanted and Missing Persons)
- Missing Children Society
- Georgia, Atlanta Police Missing Persons
- International Commission on Missing Persons (Yugoslavia)
- Lost Children's Network
- Missing in Ireland
- National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
- New York City Police Missing Unidentified Persons
- New York State Police Missing and Exploited Children Clearinghouse
- North American Missing Person Bureau
- North American Missing Children Association
- North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (Missing Persons)
- Texas Department of Public Safety (Missing Persons)
- The Lost Child
- The Polly Klaas Foundation (Missing Children)
- Unclaimed Persons.com (Deceased adults for whom next of kin has never been located)
- Unsolved Mysteries Missing Persons List (TV show)
- Washington State Patrol Missing Persons
- West Virginia State Police (Missing Children)