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Locate People

In 2019, one would think it would be pretty easy to locate people with the plethora of information available on the Internet. And generally it is, as we found in our recent review of some commercially available databases. While it’s not “free” (what most people on the interwebs are looking for), it’s easier today to locate people than it has ever been.

But that has a number of caveats.

1) The person has a common name

Common names are the bane of one’s existence when you are trying to locate someone. Unless you have the full name, date of birth, and social security number, as well as a hair sample, DNA, and a handwriting exemplar, you are never going to find James Smith from New York.

OK, that might be a bit excessive, but unless you have LOTS of information on someone with a common name, they are going to be really tough to find. And when I say LOTS, I don’t just mean a description of physical characteristics or a recollection of a tattoo.

2) Technology is not what you see on TV

Your favorite crime drama probably showed a blurry photo from a distant surveillance camera that the detectives were miraculously able to blow up so they could see people’s faces as clear as day. Then, with the magic of television, they were able to run facial recognition through a database of every person in the world, and out of thin air, pull up a full dossier of everything that person has ever done and accomplished.

Technology just isn’t there yet, although it may be soon enough…

3) Information is not publicly available

We recently received a request to find a Jose Fernandez who had previously worked for a large corporation in Dallas. Seems easy enough to distinguish the 4,000 Jose Fernandezes in Dallas. The company is not going to give anyone his details, unless you use some sketchy method to provide a pretext for the company to get them to do so, or employ some other unscrupulous method. The IRS might know, but they won’t divulge his information either. Unless he has self-disclosed that information on a resume, social media, or elsewhere, Mr. Fernandez is not going to be easy to find.

4) The search is cost prohibitive

Now, finding Jose Fernandez might be possible, but unless he was the key to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit or someone with deep pockets was willing to spend the money, it might be too cost prohibitive. You could call former employees of the company and ask them if they knew him or know where he works now. Or you could make a list of every Jose Fernandez who lived in the Dallas area and call them one by one, something I have actually done in a different context.

Note: If you need some assistance in those areas, let me know, and I can send you our bank details so you can wire the retainer.

5) You might not have the right information

Sometimes, you may have information that is completely inaccurate. Like the wrong spelling of a name. Wrong birthday. Or even the wrong name.

Years ago, we worked on a case for a Connecticut man. His mother, on her deathbed, mentioned in passing that his father was not who he thought it was; it was a man that she had had an affair with for years in the 1950s. She provided scant details, like his name and the New York department store where he had worked. We spent years trying to track him down, but without success. Several years after working with the client, I heard back from him, and he said that he found his father (who had passed away) after speaking with friends and family members.

His mother had given him the wrong name and the wrong department store. We were doomed to failure.

But at least it had a happy ending.

6) Not everyone can be found

A few years ago, we were asked to identify a man who was owed about $100,000 after his mother had passed away. The man hadn’t been seen or heard from in many years, and the last that anyone had heard of him, he was homeless. The client was about 100 percent sure we would never find him, but we found his last reported address, and what do you know, he was there. He was living on the streets but had stopped at the apartment where he had once lived to sleep for the night.

It was complete luck. If we hadn’t had that miraculous stroke of luck that day, we may have never found him, unless we had spent dozens of hours combing the streets, which was out of the budget range of the client (see #4 above).

7) The person lives off the grid

There was an interesting story a while back about a privacy nut who spent $30,000 to have himself removed from every known database so that no human could track him down. He went so far as to even buy himself a decoy house and hire a private investigator to check his work. It’s a fascinating read, if you haven’t seen it.

And there are also stories of people living off the grid, paying cash barters and not using any electronic databases. That’s a bit extreme, but there are people who do it.

8) Some people don’t want to be heard from

Whitey Bulger, one of the most wanted men in history, lived in California unnoticed for more than 15 years by paying cash, keeping to himself, living an unassuming lifestyle, and rarely venturing out in public. This is a completely extreme case, but there are people who just don’t want to be found. Especially people who are in trouble with the law or are running from someone or something.

9) Are you working with old information?

Last week, we received a call from a Pennsylvania man who, because of closed adoption rules, was only recently able to finally get the name of his birth mother. But he had only a name and an age from when he was born in the 1950s. The name, of course, was common enough that finding her would not be easy. But the bigger problem was that she was most likely married long ago and carrying a different name, which would not be in any electronic database records that are readily available.

Most electronic information that is easily searchable and accessible will date back to the 1980s, but anything from the 1950s will not only be difficult to find but will require some serious digging.

10) People can remove themselves from databases

There is a cottage industry of privacy nuts who will do everything not to leave a trace of their existence. If you are interested in learning more, Michael Bazzell has a great book and podcast. Some may have good reasons, such as concerns for their safety. But others just want to be hidden from the Internet. What most people don’t know is that you can remove your personal information from public databases and people-search websites. Given the hundreds of sites, it’s pretty much like having a full-time job, but it can be done. Here is a good place to start.

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6 replies
  1. David
    David says:

    Facebook removing the ability to search for accounts by phone number has certainly made our job harder. Especially in our country (Thailand), where there is no licensing system for PIs and virtually no public databases that we can search through. Nearly all of the online databases relate to residents of north America. We can only obtain data through the greasing of palms, which makes it of limited use in official scenarios. I think American private detectives have a walk in the park finding people compared to our situation!

  2. Anne F Tremblay
    Anne F Tremblay says:

    I have 2 different situations that may actually tie together at some point. What is your fee please, as I’m disabled and live on a fixed income. I need to find information soon and have a lot of pieces that I have been finding on my own. Certain health issues are making it more and more difficult to keep up the search. Please lmk how you handle your business in terms of appointments and length of commitment to my ‘case.’ Thank you.

  3. Brian Hirt
    Brian Hirt says:

    It’s been a few years or more since i’ve been active in a skiptrace or investigative capacity, though I do try and sharpen the claws now and again. As I recall another significant challenge in establishing someone’s digital footprint can be be twofold. I’ll bullet point each since while they may share much the same results, they are due to very different reasons. To wit: footprint bleed from data point overlap, a problem likely to grow worse exponentially over the next five years.

    1) In the first instance, when tracing your target who may have an extensive criminal or mental illness history, you are not likely to find much standalone history not being held in a privileged database beyond your civilian capacity to access. This is largely due to the targets dependance on familial, close friend, and romantic support. Any poor bastard lacking all three is almost assuredly incarcerated, deceased, or homeless(though i’ve had a few that disappeared into cults and such). They do not establish much stand-alone footprints because everything is provided to them by support trinity. Furthermore, they have a strong tendency to share communication platforms with peers, so you’ll get crossbleed there as well. You’ll find:
    a) Spotty social media participation with long stretches of inactivity interspersed with bursts of furious/sporadic activity. Pay particular attention to pictures posted, it’ll highlight your best odds of location by telling you who they’re running with, currently…And where. Look for name mentions in comments as well. Treat the real-time relevance as expired at six months past the posting date.(SIDENOTE: if you see nom de guerre street names, try googling them! Many have a demo reels(or analogous) they’re trying to promote, which requires a web presence you wouldn’t likely discover any other way)
    1a)Check social media of mothers, favored sibling, close relatives, ex’s, children. Moms/kids in particular will lament to family/friends concerns for your target, while ex’s/close relatives tend to bitch about negative contact altercations with the target, even giving away actionable intel…But tick tock, be ready to move on it!
    b)cell phone numbers/email addresses provided by the support trinity, but used by multiple peers on applications, utilities, PoC’s, soundcloud(or similar platforms), foodbanks, day labor, or as craigslist/backpage/pennysaver contacts. There are just too many places for these to pop up, so i cannot list them all. Consider context and time access aperture carefully. Use programs like Maltego if need be to keep everything straight so YOU don’t duck down the rabbit hole, too!

    2) In the past few years, i’ve noted a significant blurring occuring in the databases themselves that is compounding…And accelerating. This is due to the transitory nature of many within our society. We change addresses, phone numbers, forget email passwords and create new email addys rapidly. Houses bought and sold overlapping mailing addresses, phone numbers being re-assigned to a completely unrelated personages. People coming and going from relationships, or changing living situations/jobs. (Sidenote: there is also an increasing trend for spouses to jointly share the same ID social media accounts). The databases cross-aggregators with busy limited A.I. sorters are drawing associations that aren’t reflected in the real world at all. Every detail i’ve been able sniff out from this industry of ironically very private companies that do not like to publicly discuss methodology, algorithms, or problems suggest they are aware of the increasing denaturing/devaluing of the datasets but have no practically implementable solution anywhere in sight. Several well known ones have dumped a considerable sums of cash to big data/machine learning research groups such at Berkley, ASU, and MIT in hopes of arresting this trend…But any real solution will be years away, and years more to implement meaningfully enough to trickle down to us end users.

  4. Marsha Shulman
    Marsha Shulman says:

    Brian, I agree 100% with what you said in your article and I have a No.11 to add to the list! For those of us who are licensed PI’s in Florida, especially in South Florida, where I worked for nearly 14 years, a large number of our subjects are of Hispanic origin and go by both their mother’s maiden last name and their father’s last name. How those subjects’ names appear in databases are not consistent; they are often reversed and a diligent investigator is wise to search the names in a variety of ways in all databases!

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