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.

Bonus Tip

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 Alternatives

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. 

There are also some alternative and specialized search engines, like Runnaroo, which integrates dozens of deep search sources to provide more relevant search results.

Bonus Tip

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.

Social Media

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.

Bonus Tip

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.

Paid Databases

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.

Last Resort

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.

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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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One of the most frequently asked questions we get is, “Can a private investigator find someone?”

In short, the answer is 100% yes! Private investigators can find just about anyone. It’s a core skill that just about every investigator can do. Some, of course, are better than others are.

But that’s not the whole answer. If you are looking for a more complete answer, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

What does it depend on?

(This is not a discussion of missing persons/adults, abducted children, runaway teens or even human trafficking. That’s a whole different ball of wax.)

Why you are looking for the person?

The reality is that private investigators have access to some powerful stuff and are bound by state and federal laws and ethics that prohibit us from giving information to anyone. I say this to people all the time – everyone sounds like they have the best of intentions, but their real motives are a bit more sinister.

Most people who reach out to us are looking for someone whom they haven’t been in touch with for many years, like an old friend or a family member. Or it could be someone they dated many years ago. Whatever the case is, it’s typically someone they have not been in touch with in several years.

In other scenarios, it’s someone they have been in touch with recently who has mysteriously stopped calling back, a “friend” that they are just trying to reach, or an old flame (that didn’t end so well) and they just want to “get back in touch.”

These are two very different scenarios. The first group of individuals may have the best of intentions, while the second group has a distinct possibility of having some not-so-good-intentions.

In either case, however, a private investigator needs to take precautions. Why? Take the case of Rebecca Schaeffer, the model and actress who was shot by an obsessed fan who stalked her for years. He found her only with the help of a private investigator.

To combat this, in most cases, we will contact the person they are trying to find and make sure that it’s okay to pass along their contact information. Chances are that if it’s scenario number two, the potential client will just go away.

How much information do you have?

We’ve discussed this in posts before. We get requests all the time from people who are trying to find someone without knowing anything about them. Like, they only know that they were at the 7:30 p.m. showing of “Star Wars” in Park City, Utah, last night.

It might be possible if we spent hundreds of man-hours combing through social media, interviewing people at the movie theater, and revisiting the movie theater every night for the following few weeks in the hope that the person would show up again.

And just the other day I got an inquiry from someone who had a “very sweet and short encounter” with Chris from the Bronx, New York, who was in Texas the week before.

For whatever reason, some people think there is some magical way that private investigators find someone. The reality is that it takes some skill, investigative tools and a little bit of know-how.

What type of information is valuable? First name, middle name, last name, month/day/year of birth, Zodiac sign, birthplace, where the person’s family is from, parents’ names, siblings’ names, friends’ names, neighborhood he or she grew up in, school name, college name, former employer, or even an address from 40 years ago can each be a valuable piece of information when you’re trying to find someone.

How much you are willing to spend to find them?

There are a couple of things to consider here. First, anyone can use the do-it-yourself approach. We have a number of resources on this website that can help you. There are also a number of consumer-based online databases out there such as Intelius or PeopleSmart that may be able to help you. Spend as much time as you want.

But if you get to a point where you are stuck and need to hire a professional, there are a couple of things to consider.

First, you are paying a private investigator for not only his expertise, but also for access to information that consumers don’t have.

The truth is, if you don’t really have much money to put toward finding the person and you haven’t been able to find them on your own, you’re probably not going to be able to afford to find them.

Fees vary widely between private investigators and range from a few hundred dollars to possibly thousands of dollars (more about our fees here). It really depends on the complexity of the case, but the simple fact is that by the time you have contacted a private investigator, you’ve probably already done quite a bit of work, so it’s unlikely to be as simple as a quick Google or database search.

Do you physically find them?

In some cases, there is a reason that you need to find out where the person is physically. It may be to serve papers, or to prove they are violating some sort of court order. In other cases, there may be a need for just a phone number or mailing address.

Either way, these are very different scenarios – one requires some legwork, while the other can be done behind the computer.

How patient are you?

We just wrapped up a case in which it took us more than one and a half years to find a person. Yes, you read that right. One and a half years.

The person that we were looking for had a really common name, making it challenging to find him. But, we knew the general vicinity of where he had lived and that he was in the U.S. Army. So, we ended up sending nearly 50 requests to verify his military service, and after a year and a half, we got the response we were looking for.

Luckily, our client was in no rush.

Otherwise, they would not have been able to find them.

In conclusion…

Each case has its own unique challenges. Some cases are more complex than others are. Common names, lack of information, or historic information all change the complexity of the case.

In other cases, the person we are trying to find may be living off the grid, or covering their tracks if they just don’t want to be found.

Can a private investigator find someone?


But it depends on why you are looking for the person, how much information you have, how much you are willing to spend, if you need to physically find them, and how patient you are.

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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Here’s a question that pops up so often, I figured I would share it with everyone:

How much does it cost for a private investigator to find a person?

At this point you have probably spent countless hours scouring the Web. Maybe you spent some money using one of the many online databases, reached out to everyone you know and have searched Facebook until you turned blue in the face.

You may have even used some of our tips in How to Find Someone on the Internet.

But you are stuck. Every lead you have found has ended up a dead end.

So now you are considering getting some professional help and may just want to hire a private investigator.

Of course, one of the questions that everyone has when they want to hire a private investigator is how much does it cost to find a person. The problem with answering this question, though, is that there are so many possible scenarios that the answer is not so simple.

I am going to do my best here to give you some realistic price ranges, but keep in mind that every situation is unique. There are literally hundreds of factors that can change things.

For example, the amount of information you have (full name, date of birth, etc.), the commonality of the person’s name (hint: finding John Smith is not going to be easy) or trying to find a person living completely “off the grid” may require investigation outside the scope of what is offered here.

Below is a quick rundown of how we approach it with our clients. However, keep in mind that this may not be the way every private investigator does it.

What Do We Do?

After gathering some initial information and before even taking your case, we will conduct a 10- to 20-minute phone interview, gathering as much information as we can in order to find the person.

After obtaining all the information, we will conduct some initial research to determine whether finding the person will be realistic. Only then are we willing to take on the case.

What Will It Cost?

We presume that you have searched Google and done all of the “normal” things to find the person you are looking for. If you haven’t tried tips in How to Find Someone on the Internet, go ahead, we will wait …

For a first phase, we charge a $1,000 flat fee (plus tax if applicable). This covers our time and effort, database costs and any other costs associated with finding the person during the first phase.

Keep in mind that it may take some additional work after the first phase if the person is difficult to find (see below), but we have a strong track record of finding the person in the first phase.

What Will Be Provided When the Investigation Is Completed?

At the conclusion of the case, in addition to providing information about the person’s address and phone numbers (if available), we will also provide some details that came up during the course of the investigation. For example, if criminal records, a bankruptcy record or court documents were identified during the course of the investigation, we will provide that to you.

How Long Will It Take?

Typically, it will take approximately five business days to complete the search.

Do You Guarantee Results?

I know that you probably want some sort of guarantee, but unfortunately, there are too many possibilities to guarantee anything. There are an infinite number of possible reasons that things may not end up the right way, factors that are completely out of anyone’s control. The person may be dead, may never answer your phone calls or letters, or may have moved halfway around the world and is living in the woods.

Every situation is unique and it’s impossible to guarantee that the person will be found immediately. In some instances, additional research or on-the-ground investigation will be needed to find the person.

But here is what we can tell you:

  • Our reputation is based on providing our clients with results, not giving false promises. We will do everything in our power to find the person, but we can’t make any guarantees.
  • Before retaining us, we will provide you with an open and honest assessment as to whether we think the person can or will be found.
  • We are realistic about our possibilities; we don’t take on cases that we don’t feel we can help with (frankly, we turn away more cases than we accept).
  • We have a very high success rate in finding people (you can check out our recent case study Finding a Biological Father).

Final Thought

We have outlined some general guidelines as to how much it would cost to find a person. We haven’t covered everything here, so if you have some additional questions, feel free to set up a time to talk to an expert in finding people.

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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