In the era of the internet, finding a long-lost friend or relative often can be done easily and at a low cost. But to locate people who are flying under the digital radar, you may need to use some advanced methods to track them down.
As a last resort, you may need to hire a professional who has the tools, resources and know-how to track down friends or relatives who are more difficult to find.
Before you go down the professional route, here are some tips from someone who has been doing this for 20 years (that’s me!).
Things to Keep in Mind
Here are a few things you should keep in mind.
The more common the person’s name, the more additional information you are going to need in order to locate the person. The proverbial John Smith is going to be much more difficult to find than Kamren Fernsby. While you might be able to find Kamren Fernsby with a few Google searches, finding John Smith with a few Google searches is going to need an act of God.
I frequently see people getting hung up on the spelling of names, where they thought they had a high degree of certainty about the spelling only to be proven wrong. In fact, we are working with a client as I write this who has been trying to find a middle school friend but has been searching for a misspelled name all these years. Don’t be that person. You are human, and people get things wrong all the time. Be conscious of searching under multiple spellings. Also, there’s a chance that the name that you knew the person by may not be the official name (e.g., John Doe might actually be William John Doe) and/or he or she may have changed the name (e.g., through marriage).
This is not going to be easy. You are here reading this blog post for a reason. If it were easy, you probably would have found the person already. I am here to tell you not to give up. It’s 2020 and everyone thinks you should be able to find anyone in a few minutes. That’s just not always the case. If this is really important to you, you are going to have to grind through the process.
Send some emails. Make phone calls. Connect with friends or relatives on social media. The worst that can happen is that you will be no further along than you were at the start.
Last, some people are really hard to find, and locating them will take an enormous amount of time and resources or some professional help.
First Step: Gather Your Facts
Before you begin your search, you need to gather as much information as possible on the subject: full name, middle name, day/month/year of birth, approximate age, schools attended, relatives’ names, profession, addresses, names of friends, jobs held, former employers, etc.
While other information, like physical features, tattoos or shoe size, may come in handy, it isn’t going to be terribly helpful in this phase.
So You Think You Can Google?
You’ve probably heard of Google before ;-), but most searchers don’t really know how to use Google. There are dozens of advanced operators and searches you can try, and there are endless combinations of possibilities for search terms. For the purposes of searching for people, here are some tips:
“John Doe” – Otherwise known as the exact search, this tells Google to search the exact phrase. It’s critical that you use quotes when searching for exact names or phrases in order to eliminate Google’s guesswork, as Google likes to take a guess at your intent and then gives you results that are not always directly related to your search request if you don’t use quotes.
“John” “Doe” – This may seem repetitive of the above search, but the above results won’t provide results with John William Doe or John W. Doe. Searching with each word in quotes will return any results containing the two quoted phrases.
“Doe, John” – Many public records, including things like voter rolls, can be listed last name first.
“J. Doe” or “Doe, J.” – Use this just in case the first initial is used instead of the full name.
“John * Doe” – When you use an asterisk in a search term on Google search, it will leave a placeholder that may be automatically filled by the search engine later. So in this case, you may come up with John Smith Doe or John Kamren Doe.
There are dozens of advanced operators and searches you can try, and there are endless possible combinations. Try using the details collected in the first step along with the name.
If you are not finding anything on Google, set up a Google Alert to notify you when something new related to your search is published on the internet.
Bonus Bonus Tip
If you know that the person went to the University of Pennsylvania, you may be able to get a digital copy of the yearbook through the school website. Also, you can do a site-specific search to look for specific mentions of the person you are looking for on the University of Pennsylvania website: site:upenn.edu “john doe”
Google is the 800-pound gorilla and still the king of the hill, but there are dozens of other really good search engines, like Bing and DuckDuckGo, and country-specific search engines like Yandex, which is great for Russian-language searches.
I love using search engines like millionshort.com, which lets you remove any results from the top one million websites, so you can get some really deep search results that normally wouldn’t show up until page 167 on Google.
Bonus Bonus Tip
If you have an old photo, try uploading it to the Yandex Image search engine. They have a shockingly good facial recognition search engine. It’s a real long shot, but it might be worth a try if you have a photo of the person as a young adult.
There were about 3.5 billion social network users in the world and about 2.3 billion users on Facebook as of 2019, so there is a pretty good chance the person you are looking for is on one of the various social media platforms, and the best place to start is probably going to be Facebook.
Virtually all social media sites, including Facebook, have some type of search functionality to search for a person’s name. You also typically can search by phone number, email address and username to varying degrees on each of the platforms. But keep in mind that Facebook users can restrict their names from showing up on public searches. It’s also smart to keep in mind that many people will use a different username or alternative name on their forward-facing profiles.
In addition to using the using the built-in search functionality of the biggest social media platforms, you can get some additional results using a site search.
site:facebook.com “John Doe”
site:twitter.com “John Doe”
site:instagram.com “John Doe”
Bonus Bonus Tip
Everyone has heard of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. But don’t forget sites like LinkedIn (professional networking), country-specific social media platforms like VK (Russia) or WeChat (China), popular messaging apps (Telegram, Skype and WhatsApp), niche sites popular with younger generations (TikTok and Snapchat) or one of the dozens of niche social media platforms.
It’s also helpful to remember that not everyone is on social media. While 3.5 billion sounds like a lot, that’s only about 45% of the population, and while 68% are reportedly on Facebook, not all of them can be found on public search engines, and some may be using a different name.
In the United States, there are a number of available commercial investigative databases that are good at tracking down people IF you have enough information to find them. In fact, we did a review of some of the most popular databases out there (Intelius vs. Spokeo vs. BeenVerified).
Many of these sites make bold claims about how much information they can obtain and their accuracy. Personally, I think it’s a lot of marketing speak and they don’t have a lot to back it up. I say that because I use professional investigative databases that I pay thousands of dollars a month to access, and they have huge holes as well. For example, phone numbers and email addresses are often inaccurate, and address history is really difficult to nail down with any real degree of accuracy without other data to back it up.
That being said, these databases also can be really helpful. If you do end up shelling out some money for these databases, don’t let it go to waste. If they give you 17 different phone numbers, email addresses and physical addresses, write or call each and every one of them. Take notes on the responses to each.
Nobody said it was going to be easy.
Other “Free” and Paid Sites
There are literally hundreds of free sites that could be useful, but here are some sites I have found to be the most valuable resources (paid sites are marked with $):
- Alumni Networks/Yearbooks – Most schools have some type of alumni network that can help you connect with a former classmate. Many colleges and universities post old yearbooks on their respective websites. Archive.org also has a massive collection of old yearbooks.
- Archive.org – Do you know, for example, that in 2002, the person you are looking for was the owner or an executive of a small business or the owner of a website? While the website and the business might be long gone, you can check Archive.org, for any pages captured back during that time period that might help provide some details about the person’s background.
- SearchSystems.net – This is a guide to over 70,000 public record databases across the country, including county clerk websites, criminal repositories, civil litigation searches and real-property records.
- Ancestry.com ($) – This site can assist you with finding historical records like marriage records, census records, old phone directories, military records and the like. Much of the information on Ancestry is more than 30 years old.
- Newspapers.com ($) – This is a great source of old newspaper clippings.
Even with all of these resources, there’s a chance that you may not find the person you are looking for. We’ve had cases in which we spent weeks tracking down a homeless man in New York City and another in which we ultimately found a birth mother living off the grid in a trailer in Oregon. While these results are more the exception rather than the rule, they do happen.
If you are at the end of your rope, you may be ready to hire a professional. Certain cases are just best suited for a professional, someone who does this on a daily basis and can give you an honest assessment of what can be done.