The Art of Finding Someone
May 13, 2014 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Fellow skip-tracers and family historians: I am looking for ways to improve my investigative skills in public records and the like. What are some good tips and tricks for tracking down people, dead or alive?

While I do use sites like U.S. Gen Web and and am an avid document diver in various libraries and the like, I'd like to improve my skill set when it comes to locating individuals alive as well as dead. I have worked with a private investigator in the past, but I was wondering if any MeFites out there would lend a budding young boffin some tips and tricks for tracking down the baddies or just Aunt Mary from Nova Scotia.
posted by Driven to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
A friend of mine does this and told me once that she's never spent more than a couple of hours trying to track down a person -- if she can't find them in that much time, she shifts to tracking down who the person will be around. Family and friends is how she always finds people who are making the slightest effort at staying lost.
posted by Etrigan at 8:42 AM on May 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

Check social networking sites, especially Facebook. So many people post personal details on Facebook and have it set to public so everyone can see.
posted by sevenofspades at 9:31 AM on May 13, 2014

Response by poster: I always hit the Social Network sites pretty hard. But sometimes they don't yield much. I'm looking for strategies or tools when I am starting with nothing more than a name and last city or place of residence. I use TLO a bit at work, but I want to be able to skip-trace 'by hand' more efficiently.
posted by Driven at 9:33 AM on May 13, 2014

It won't help with Nova Scotia, but Lexis/Nexis public records searches are the most direct way to find a person or a business in the US. The "free" sites aren't useful, I think. The old census records are useful, in a pinch for historical research, like, but it's not free.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:35 AM on May 13, 2014

here are some resources i use at work, although as a private citizen you naturally may not have access to all of these...

-marriage records
-property ownership records (county recorder's office, Lexis)
-corporate records (for someone who had a small business or owned part of a business)
-voting registration
-professional and trade licensing records (probably goes province by province)
-DMV records (auto registration, licensing)
-firearm / hunting licensing records
-criminal or arrest history
-welfare benefits/medicaid benefits/public housing benefits (people always list real contact info when they're getting paid)
-facebook, instagram, twitter, foursquare - figure out who they hang with and where they hang then switch to those people/places for further information
-credit records (ex. the CLEAR database)
-if you know what schools the person attended contact the alumni office or look at alumni publications and ask what they are up to now
-if your target is a lawyer sometimes the state bar will publish an address and their full name
-search for the person on social networking targeted to job seekers. maybe they posted a resume or application somewhere on monster, indeed, linkedin, etc. which could possibly contain an address, phone, email or a history of previous gigs/employers.
posted by zdravo at 9:42 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I worked as a professional skip tracer for several years in the recent past.

One invaluable resource/method I made use of was finding out property information for any addresses you might have.

This method is US-specific, but if you have a possible current or last known address, you can, in most cases, find out the name of the property owner, which is public knowledge in most jurisdictions. The office you need to contact is the Assessor for whichever county the property is located. Many counties even have an online property lookup tool, but if they don't, it's easy to phone and ask. This site is awesome, and will let you plug in a zip code and show you contact info for the Assessor (and Appraiser, and Clerk, etc) and a link to the site for the county you need. Exception: in New England, you need to call the city for this information.

Anyway, once you have that info, there's lots you can do.. Maybe the person you are looking for owns the property? Find out where the property tax bill is being sent.. if it's going to them at that location, it's a save bet that they probably live there. If it's being sent to them at another address, maybe they live at that other address? Or, if it is being sent to a completely different name somewhere else (ie. a landlord), try finding contact info for that person and ask them.

Also, neighbours can be quite helpful! Try a phone listing site like the white pages and see if you can reverse address search on the same street and see if any phone numbers show up for anyone living nearby.

Tracing in Canada is a lot harder than the US, since national info databases such as TLO or LexisNexus don't exist in our fair country (for which I am glad, personally).

I do have other tips.. but they may tread into ethical "grey area" territory (though nothing illegal)... feel free to memail me if you'd like to talk further.
posted by wats at 10:21 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The old census records are useful, in a pinch for historical research, like, but it's not free.

If you're a library nut you might have library access to a library that has access to this or to Heritage Quest. I've found it pretty useful in having keyword access (by county) to historical censuses as well as a lot of searchable family history books. I'm better at historical research than skip-trace type stuff but I also have some luck with big archives of historical books that are keyword searchable such as the Internet Archive's texts, Hathi Tust (better if you have access) and Google Books.

With current stuff sometimes you can track down stuff via someone's college website or alumni resources. And, in line with what Etrigan says, sometimes obits for relatives will have location information for surviving family (or unmarried vs married names which is a huge thing in finding women). This stuff is sometimes only searchable at the website level (i.e. not surfaced to google) so you have to do a little digging to figure out where you have to get to in order to even start searching.
posted by jessamyn at 10:27 AM on May 13, 2014

Regarding property records, if you are looking for someone female beware the cheap sexist software that allows for one name in the owner field. Sometimes wives end up in the address field. If there are two wives, one wife ends up in the address field. Sometimes this address field is searchable using the name, sometimes it will only take the house number or street name. Sometimes the second name is in a mystery field that is not searchable at all.

I discovered this looking around in my county's property records because I wanted to adopt a hamster from the local shelter. Looking up my name would not prove I own my house and thus can have a pet without someone else's permission. LAME! (I adopted via Craigslist instead; no property records search required).

If you suspect this is the case, you can search with the other person's name, or you can call (call in the morning on a Tuesday; cheap software might equal short-staffed or overworked, which means busy Mondays and closed Fridays).
posted by AllieTessKipp at 10:54 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having just watched all 3 seasons of Veronica Mars in preparation for watching the new movie, one tip I can give you is this: if you have a photo of the person, pay a lot of attention to the background of the photo and to other people in the photo. You may find club memberships, hobbies that have a group meeting, travel locations, etc. Look at the clothing to see if there are any membership pins or T-shirts with schools/clubs/bars/etc.

Probably not really helpful in the real world, but I was fascinated by how often they could find someone based on things that I never would have noticed.
posted by CathyG at 11:12 AM on May 14, 2014
posted by goml at 10:15 PM on May 15, 2014

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