How to Find Background Information on People

Admit it — you probably wanted to be a private investigator once in your life. Maybe it was Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, Sam Spade, the Ferrari-driving Thomas Magnum or the esteemed members of Scooby-Doo’s Bloodhound Gang.

In most cases, these fictional characters have spread a number of myths and misconceptions about what a private investigator does and what they can (legally) do.

Whatever your interest, you want to do your own investigating but may just want to do your own amateur sleuthing or can’t afford to hire a private investigator.

Here are some tips and tricks to get you started:


There is an enormous amount of background information online about people and businesses through public records, social networks, news publications and various sources on the Web. While there may be a need to get intelligence from other sources, online is always your best place to start. It’s quick and easy, and the information is available on a moment’s notice. You can find out about where a person has lived and worked, whether they have been arrested and even what they ate for lunch.

While there are millions of places you can start, the few tools that I would recommend are an investigative database that aggregates public records (e.g., Peoplesmart), a social network aggregator (e.g., Spokeo), a comprehensive news search engine (e.g., Google News Archive) and local public record databases (i.e., local court, county clerk, etc.). Familiarize yourself with some of the major search engines (e.g., GoogleBingDuckDuckGo) and ways to conduct advanced searches.

Other Intelligence

In the age of the Internet, people assume that everything is on the Web. But that is far from the truth. Millions of documents and records have not found their way to the Internet. By some estimates, the deep web (information that is not readily available through search engines like Google) has more than 400 times the amount of information available through regular search engine inquiry.

Whether it’s public records, government documents, books (yes, they still exist), ancestral materials, interviews with related parties or good old-fashioned “boots on the ground,” sometimes it takes a little more than a few strokes on a keyboard to find what you are looking for.


I can’t tell you how many times a client has asked me “How did you get this information?” to which I replied, “I asked!” You might be amazed. People actually want to help you. Whether it’s a local or state government repository, a library, a former landlord or a neighbor, sometimes all you have to do is ask (nicely, of course).

There are limits here. I am not suggesting that you pretend you are John Doe and call the bank and ask for his bank records or ask his doctor for his most recent medical records. Doing that would be illegal and might get you thrown in jail. But you may be able to get that transcript from a divorce proceeding or a rental application from a previous landlord or a tip from a neighbor.


More likely than not, the information you are looking for is not going to be staring you in the face when you do a Google search. It may take hours and hours of research to find what you are looking for. After all, if finding the background information was easy, it would take all the fun out of it.

Most people give up, but if you want to be an amateur sleuth, giving up should not be an option.

Other Angles

If you haven’t found what you are looking for, you may need to try a different strategy. Often there are many ways to get to the same result. For example, if you have been trying to find some ancestral history through one of the major ancestry sites, try another site. Try the Ellis Island passenger search; search newspaper archives; head to your local library; review census records, old phone books and historical property records; or call distant relatives or former landlords/neighbors.

There are often many different strategies to get to the answer, but in some cases, it’s just understanding the possibilities of what can be done.

This post originally appeared on PeopleSmart.

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