In the Information Age, everybody leaves a digital trail. And if the person doesn't have one, well, let's look harder. With Google, Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and countless other social media sites, whoever you're looking for is bound to have some of their personal information online. Although sometimes creepy, it's easy to follow this trail all the way back to the person you've been looking for.
Finding Someone Online
Write down all the vital information you know about this person.
Trying to find somebody using their name alone will probably cast too wide a net. Make your hunt more targeted by including information such as:
- Full name and nickname
- Age and date of birth
- Schools attended
- Hobbies, likes and dislikes, team sports (especially at schools)
- Places of work
- Old addresses and phone numbers
- Friends, family members, and neighbors
Search for variations on the person’s name and/or nickname.
Every time you find a page or clue that suggests other parts of the profile, write it down in the profile. For example, you might find “Bea Harrington” mentioned in a newspaper in Albany, NY and a “Beatrice R. Harrington” in a brochure in Dallas, TX. Write down both of those locations in the profile with question marks. If you find another indication that the person with that name is in one of those locations, put a tick next to that location every time.
- To pull up exact matches only, put quotation marks around each version of their name. (If you’re unsure as to spelling, don’t use quotation marks.) Plug it into major search engines (Google, Yahoo, etc.); the more variations and engines you try, the more info you’re likely to find.
- If you suspect that the person has gone to another country, especially one where a different language is spoken, try a foreign search engine. Many major search engines have different versions for different countries (Australia, China, etc.). Try those.
- When searching for a woman who might have gotten married and changed her name, try adding “né” in the search box with every variation (née is a word used to indicate that the person is using their maiden name).
Vary your online searches by including other details about the person.
After you’ve done a full sweep on the person’s name and nickname, do a second with a slight modification such as their hometown, age, high school, former workplace, etc. Repeat as necessary.
- If you know of a particular website this person may be associated with, you can search within the site on Google with something like “site: stanford.edu Beatrice Harrington” to focus on those results.
Use a search engine designed specifically to find people.
These allow anyone to perform people searches. Try ZabaSearch.com or Pipl.com, for example. Use filters to narrow your results when applicable.
- Lost Trekkers is another place to find lost people. Choose the country, mode of transport or other option, and leave the details in the relevant forum. You will need to register to place an ad. You can search through existing posts to see who might be looking for you or the same person you’re looking for.
Search for the person’s last known cell phone number.
Since cells are mobile and their numbers can be transferred to new phones or providers, people’s cell numbers are much less likely to change them their home numbers. Though reverse-tracking a cell phone number usually costs money, you might get lucky by simply searching for the number on various search engines. If the person has listed or advertised their phone number anywhere on the Internet, it’s likely to turn up. Put the entire phone number in quotes and experiment with hyphens, periods, and parentheses to separate the numbers.
- In the US, a phone’s three-digit area code can be traced back the location where a cell phone was issued, which might help you pinpoint another area where the person has lived or worked. The next three digits of the number are the exchange area; most exchange areas cover a small town, or a section inside a city, say a 10 x 10 block area. You can contact the phone companies in that area, or get a phone book from the area, and make a map of the exchange area, based on like exchanges in the book. If you have a phone number and ZIP code, you can cross over the maps and get an even smaller area to search.
Search the online white pages.
Type in the person’s name and any other details you find relevant. However, if you don’t specify location, you’ll get results from all across the country, which is useful if the person has moved.
- Sometimes, searching by last name only will pull up a family member that you recognize. If the white pages show a list of associated people, you might find the person’s name listed there. This can be useful in cases where the person you’re looking for has changed their last name after marrying, for example.
- Search the person’s ZIP code if known. If you have a 9-digit ZIP code, it can be tracked to the exact block within a city or town. Now you can search in directories in that area for this person. If they are not in that directory, call directory assistance for that area. Many times people will have an unlisted number, which, while not in the book, is often in directory assistance.
Search social networking sites.
Some people specify that they don’t want their public profiles to appear in search engine results, in which case you’ll need to go straight to the source. Try searching things like Myspace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google profiles. If given the option, be sure to narrow down the results by specifying a hometown or school, etc. To search all the major social networking sites simultaneously, use a search engine like Wink.com.
Consider more non-traditional searches.
Sometimes Facebook and Google don’t exactly give you the information you’re looking for. If there are…special scenarios this person may have run into, you can focus on them instead of the general information every website will warrant.
- Most states have court search websites where all you have to do is (after acknowledging the terms and agreements, of course) enter a person’s name and all their run-ins show up in a nice list. If nothing else, it’s juicy and may give you their location (if they’re in-state).
- If it’s been a while since you’ve seen hide or hair of this person, consider searching the SSDI — the Social Security Death Index.
- While there’s no national website, most states have records of their inmates. A quick Internet query will turn up what your state’s site is (make sure it’s .gov).
- The National Personnel Records Center is a pretty comprehensive list of military records.
Post an ad.
If you know where the person is located, post an ad in the local online bulletin board (e.g. Craigslist). Explain who you’re looking for and why. Leave a form of contact information that you don’t mind having spammed (ex. an email address you set up specifically for this purpose).
- If you want a long-term ad, build a simple website that uses their name as a keyword. If they ever search their own name, your site might turn up.
- If you don’t know the person’s location but you do know which schools they went to, what their career is, or what hobbies/interests they pursue, try posting on forums and e-mail lists (“listservs”). Keep the person’s privacy in mind; don’t reveal any incriminating information that you know about them.
Carefully consider posting in a friend-finder forum.
Friend-finder forums are available and are moderated by “search angels” or volunteers who use special people search tools. However, it’s unlikely that the person you’re searching for will appreciate having their relevant details distributed to strangers online – especially the kind of person who has managed not to leave a paper trail thus far.
Finding Someone Through Alternative Means
Get in contact with other people that knew the specific person you’re searching for (or can put you in touch with someone who does). Ask them questions about when they’ve last seen them, talked to them, or any personal information like last known email addresses or phone numbers.
- Be sure to explain why you’re looking for this person. They may not tell you anything to protect the person’s privacy, but they’ll probably tell the person that you’re looking for them, and the person might want to get in touch with you. Leave your name and phone number behind for that purpose.
Look into organizations that the person might have joined or been associated with.
It could be a hobby, church, non-profit, or professional organization. Ask for a copy of their membership directory, if available, and check for the person’s name there.
- This is also a good place to find people who may know something. If they can’t tell you exactly where the person is, they may be able to get you one step closer.
Consider forking over some dough.
If you’re really hard up to find this person, spending some change may get you the info you’re looking for. Sites like www.intelius.com (which is actually used by zabasearch.com) often have more comprehensive files but charge for their data. If you’re willing, it could solve your troubles.
- If the internet doesn’t or won’t do it, consider hiring a private investigator. If you’re having no luck, or you don’t have enough time to track this person down, it may be better to pay a professional to do this.
Make some phone calls.
Though it might be a bit awkward, the best way to get to the person is through their network. Whatever you know of them last, get the people in those circles on the phone. Whether it’s a boss, an old girlfriend, or a neighbor, make the call. It sure beats driving all over the place.
- Be sure to be friendly and to appear sane. The world is so full of negative media nowadays that a stranger inquiring to us about a friend of ours comes off as really shady. You might get a few nasty responses, but you also may strike gold.
Visit the courthouse.
Though an online search should warrant similar results, sometimes a good trip on foot to your local courthouse (or whatever courthouse is in the person’s vicinity) can churn up new information. Find the public records office and make good with the clerk. Who knows? Maybe there’s something back there that could get you on the right track.
- Fair warning, there may be a charge. It should be fairly insignificant. Just be glad they’re not handing out your public records, too, like candy.
Finding a Missing Person
Call the police.
Once you’re fully confident this person is indeed missing, alert your local law enforcement. Unfortunately, people disappear every day and there is a routine to this event.
- Be sure to give them all the person’s information: age, height, weight, hair color, eye color, skin color, distinguishable features, what they were wearing when they disappeared, etc. Give them a current photo and their fingerprints (if you have them), too.
File a notice online.
NMAUPS (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System) is the largest system in America for missing persons. Make a notice online so everyone, law enforcement included, will have access to the information. You’ll be able to update it accordingly and see if anyone else has posted further information.
- There’s also the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council — if your person fits into any of those categories, consider filing something on their respective sites.
Thoroughly search their social profiles.
Whether it’s a child, a teen, or a full-fledged adult, search their social profiles (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) for clues as to what may have happened. They may have posted something that leads to something you were unaware of.
- Look at their friends’ profiles too — the information may be on there instead. If you’re so inclined, you may wish to contact these friends to ask if they’ve heard anything. Sometimes people seek refuge in others they don’t have to see face-to-face.
Post pictures around town.
Hopefully this person is still within the area — and if they are, posting pictures around town is the only way you’ll be able to alert those in your vicinity. Others will be able to keep an eye out and contact you if they see anything.
- Include all the vital information (like what you gave the police) and be sure to include several contact phone numbers. Give at least your first name and stress that you can be called day or night.
Search your home, the surrounding area, and local hospitals.
In cases like this, it’s impossible to sit at home and hope someone else will handle everything. Once you’ve exhausted all the nooks and crannies of your home (or theirs), expand it to the neighborhood, then the town, and eventually contacting hospitals. It’s not the happiest of events, but it’s necessary.
- When contacting hospitals, be sure to describe the person you’re looking for. They may not be in under their real name. Bring a current photo to make the process go more quickly.
Alert friends, family, and neighbors.
The more people that can be on the lookout, the better. Not only should you exhaust your social network, but exhaust theirs. Whether it’s the barista at Starbucks that they see every Monday through Friday morning or the afternoon crossing guard, let them know.
- If possible, contact these people with the information and a picture too. The ones who are acquaintances may need the picture to jog the memory.
Alert the media.
Once you’ve done all the groundwork for your area, alert the media. The best way to reach a large amount of people is through local TV stations, newspapers, and other publications. Hopefully someone has seen something somewhere.
- Remember that everyone is on your side. There’s no need to be embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty to this situation. You are doing what you can to make sure this person returns home safely.
- Go to a trusted person for help if you feel it is important enough to get others involved. Also beware of the pros and cons of doing this task alone.
- Be honest if you find the person. If you do manage to track someone down, don’t pretend you just happened to be in town. Be up-front about your search efforts. It may be embarrassing, but the person might be flattered. If it makes them uncomfortable, be understanding and do not contact them again. The worst thing will be if you resume your interactions with this person and later on, they discover that you searched for them high and low. That can be very alarming and disturbing, especially since you hid something from them.
- Change your thinking. This may no longer be the person you once knew. Their appearance, preferences, lifestyle, and habits may have changed dramatically, even within a short time. All the information you have may be outdated. Don’t rule out new information because “She would never have moved there” or “He would never have done that.” You must also accept the possibility that the person has died or gone to jail.
- If you do not want to be found, then do not put your personal information online, most often there is no need for you to enter a home address, so don’t.
- Do not lie to people in order to get them to give you information. Not only is it unethical, but the person you’re looking for may find out what you’re doing and become suspicious of you, resulting in legal action.
- Doing this with the intention of stalking someone (which includes even just watching them) can get you a restraining order and eventually arrested.
- These same steps can also be used for someone to find you.
- Always remember that this person may not want to see/meet you.
- Be prepared to pay for online services that advertise helping you find someone.