After 15 years as a private investigator, I have become an expert in finding people. Long-lost relatives, hard-to-find witnesses, biological fathers, ex-boyfriends – you name it, I have found them.

I don’t say this lightly either. I think that people who call themselves experts at anything are idiots. So I guess I am breaking my own cardinal rule.

But after hundreds of cases in which I had to track down people nobody else could find, I realize that I am pretty darn good at it.

How do you become an expert in finding people?

Get lots of practice. But here are a few more tips.

Know Your Limits

Finding people has its limitations, and before you even get started, you need to know your limits. I get inquiries all the time from people who from across the pool saw someone on vacation with a few drinks in him or her, and they think that someone should be able to track down that person with a sketch and the hotel name. It’s just not possible.

If you don’t have a name, the city they live in and some semblance of details about their lives, it’s just not possible.

Get the Right Tools

I subscribe to dozens of professional-grade investigative databases, including TLO, IRB and Lexis Nexis, that contain millions of records. In my toolbelt, I’ve also got hundreds of other free and paid databases, including Ancestry.com and Archive.org, and some not-so-secret techniques to mine social media. Quite often it takes a combination of multiple tools to nail people down.

There is always that slim chance you may find that difficult-to-find person with a few Google searches, but more often than not, you are going to need some serious database horsepower and some creative juices.

Get the Facts

It’s important to gather as many pieces of factual information as you can about the person you are looking for. Where he or she lived, when he or she was born, age, date of birth, schools attended, street the person lived on, places he or she worked, businesses he or she ran, and parents’ and siblings’ names. Even old friends, neighbors or former spouses can be helpful. You never know what may help.

It’s also critical to separate fact from fiction. For example, you may have an incorrect spelling of a name. You may end up “down in rabbit holes” because you were told the person went to Harvard University, but he or she really went to Hartford University.

While most information can be helpful, some information, such as hair color or the size of the tattoo on an ankle, is not.

Understand What Is Available

If there is one takeaway here, this is probably the most critical: becoming an expert in finding people is about understanding the resources that are available to you. There are millions of data points of public records and open-source records – from college yearbooks, professional licenses, old telephone books, property records, military records, legal records or archived websites – that can help you find someone. Each of these sources may be helpful in tracking down the person you are trying to find.

Of course you could pay some sketchy source to get you hotel records, boat manifests, passport records or sales receipts, but then again, you are more than likely breaking the law.

Leverage Time

Finding people is time and resource intensive. There really is no way around it. If it were easy, there would not be an entire cottage industry of people who do this for a living. A few taps on the computer are just not going to get you there.

By the time a search has gotten into my hands, our clients have Googled themselves to death and taken it as far as they can go with the tools they have. Be prepared to either spend lots of time and resources of your own or to pay for someone else to do the same.


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14 replies
  1. Yolanda
    Yolanda says:

    Hello Brian,

    Do you have a promo code? I appreciate experience investigators sharing their techniques, but as long it’s not a sales for other agencies that I don’t already know about, that provide out dated Information.

  2. Freddy Mason
    Freddy Mason says:

    Great stuff again Brian. As someone new to PI work I’m struck by how much more info is available to PI’s in the US. I suppose it’s all down to being regulated. It’s been on the agenda here for some time but the govt seem to be busy with Brexit at the moment so I won’t hold my breath! Meanwhile do you have any advice about Brit tools that you know of apart from the usual OSINT suspects that are discussed. I’m talking to LexisNexis about a free trial at the moment but if there are any others you know of I would be grateful. Love your blogs!

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Hi Freddy. I don’t know of any UK specific tools since much of my work focuses here in the U.S., but products such as Lexis Nexis have have a variety of tools with data worldwide. The non-U.S. stuff is much more limited. Good luck to you.

  3. Anna Stowe
    Anna Stowe says:

    Great reminders. As someone who locates people from long ago relationships (30’s, 40’s, 50’s) most databases aren’t much use. I rely heavily on other sources and sometimes take it way back to the library and old phone directories, old deeds, etc. Love your blog articles.

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