This is our first post from one of our Trustify Expert private investigators! Private investigators have a wealth of practical knowledge on everything from running background checks to finding stolen property - and we want to pass this know-how on to you.
This week we asked Melanie Daria, one of our private investigators, how she goes about tracking down someone online. What she gave us can only be described as an extremely thorough, exhaustive list of resources and techniques to do just that. Read on...
Whether you're looking for a missing family member, trying to trace your family's history, or looking for a long lost friend, many people decide to start their search online - and are quickly overwhelmed. A simple Google search might seem like a good idea, but how are you supposed to extract useful information from millions and millions of results?
For private investigators, finding personal details about someone online with little information to go on is routine. In this post, I'll explain the search techniques and information sources that investigators use to locate someone and gather personal details. With these methods, you should be able to identify a variety of information about the person you're trying to find, from their last known address to government records and social media accounts.
Let's get to it.
Step 1: Search for Social Media profiles
Social media networks are the perfect place to start looking for someone online - particularly friends or family that you may have lost contact with. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and classmates.com can help connect you with someone when you don’t have a phone number or address.
Facebook will be your best bet, as it continues to be the most widely used social media platform, with 79% of American internet users registered, but be sure to search all major social media sites, including region or country specific ones where relevant.
Services like Facebook also allow you to run more detailed searches outside of simply typing a first or last name into the search bar. Despite the fact Facebook has removed their advanced search function, you can still access some of its features in the sidebar of your friend request page. You can search profiles by using names, locations, and even groups - like the 1995 graduating class of West Valley High, for instance.
If you cannot locate a profile for the person you’re looking for, then you also have the option to try and find the profiles of friends or relatives of the person you're looking for, who can help you connect with them. A bit of social engineering can really help your search along.
Step 2: Search All Major Search Engines
Search engines are a great way to quickly find the information you're searching for. Google, of course, is the leading search engine, and a common household word these days- in fact, we use Google so often that the trademark “Google” is now a generic verb.
Despite its dominance, you should expand your search beyond Google. Search engines are not all identical, and will not return the same results. Each search engine uses a different database and search algorithm, and this will affect what information is returned. You should never rely on just one search engine - private investigators search multiple search engines to find information and obtain the best results.
Try these search engines:
Meta search engines are a great way to search multiple search engines at the same time. Instead of using crawlers to index the web like Google and others do, they send queries to a variety of search engines, combine the results. Here are a few examples of meta search engines that best for finding people:
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Step 3: Use Boolean Searching to narrow your results
It may sound scary, but using Boolean search methods can make your search queries much more powerful. Boolean logic can help you filter out the junk that isn't related to your search by allowing you to combine words and connectors to exclude certain results.
Here’s how it works: If you search for “Melanie Smith” then search engines will return results with all web data with the word 'Melanie' and 'Smith' within that article, and chances are it won’t be what you’re looking for. If you use ”Not” or “–“ before a term, then your search will exclude the web page that contains that term. If you search “Melanie Smith “using quotations then the search engine will search that exact phrase together.
A typical search could look something like this:
“Melanie Smith” and California or + Melanie + Smith + California
Google has an extensive list of operators and other tips and tricks to help make your searches more powerful on their advanced search page. Other search engines will have their own specific operators, so be sure to look them up before you start using them.
Of course, private investigators use more advanced methods to narrow results further. Other search operators include wild-card symbols, truncation, limiters, and complex searching techniques such as nesting. If these seem overwhelming, you can stick with boolean searches for now - they're still a great way to start increasing the power of your searches.
Step 4: Search Professional Profiles on LinkedIn
LinkedIn is a social media platform used for professional networking, which means that most profiles use real names and current employment information. This is particularly useful if you've had issues tracking down information on Facebook or Twitter - it's often difficult to find someone on Facebook because they can use nicknames instead of legal names - but LinkedIn gets past this issue. Many of the profiles also include a clear, accurate profile picture, which is extremely helpful if you're trying to verify whether a profile is relevant to your search (for example, if you're sifting through John Smiths trying to figure out which one if any is the one you're looking for).
Quick tip: Linkedin is free to use, but the search results are limited. Purchasing a premium membership will let you see the full results, and access more powerful search features. If you haven't had luck anywhere else, or if you have reason to believe the person you're looking for has a detailed LinkedIn profile, it might be worth ponying up the cash for premium.
Step 5: Search the Deep Web
The internet as we know it is comprised of three parts: the surface web, the deep web, and the dark web. Search engines like Google access the surface web, but they do not access information on the deep web or dark web. The deep web has images of court records, census records, often archives of old newspapers. The deep web is largely academic databases and government archives, which are highly authoritative.
Here’s a quick summary:
- Surface web: Accessible and indexed.
- Deep web: Accessible and non-indexed
- Dark web: Difficult to access, non-indexed
Fortunately, there are free search engines that will let you access the deep web. Pipl is a great people search engine that lets you access deep web records. This means that it can help find information that search engines such as Google won’t provide.
Also known as "invisible web", the term "deep web" refers to a vast repository of underlying content, such as documents in online databases that general-purpose web crawlers cannot reach. The deep web content is estimated at 500 times that of the surface web, yet has remained mostly untapped due to the limitations of traditional search engines.
Accessing the dark web is a little more complicated, requiring a specific browser (among other things) to view web pages. Moreover, while browsing on the dark web isn't illegal, accessing some of the information on is. Private investigators specializing in research are familiar with moving around on the dark web, but for most searches for personal information, the dark web is not relevant.
Step 5: Search for Phone Numbers
Regular search engines are great tools to research phone numbers, but often you'll need to turn to a proper phone directory to find the information you're looking for. While many directories have good records for landlines, keep in mind that cell phone information may only be available through paid databases which require licensing, and cannot be accessed by the general public. Licensed private investigators have access to these types of databases.
Here are some online phone directories that you can use to track someone down online:
Step 6: Run a Reverse Image Search
Reverse Image search can be used to link anonymous profile pictures to a person or public profile. This is a great tool to use if you meet someone online, and want to look into their background, or you're trying to link profile photo an anonymous online account to a real-world identity.
A reverse image search can be done by uploading an image or image URL to Google Images, or another image search service. On Google, all you need to do is drag an image into the search bar, or click the camera icon on the left to upload an image or paste in an image URL. The image will then be compared to billions of other images on the web and examined to see if they match. Google will return the pages that matches appear on, which are often personal profiles of some kind.
This can be helpful when you are trying to confirm details of a new online love interest, make sure you’re not part of a “catfish” scam, or to check that the person in question hasn't simply stolen some better-looking photos from someone else. If your image search returns show that the same photo is linked to multiple accounts, then the person likely isn't who they claim to be - or at least doesn't look like their profile picture would have you believe.
Some great reverse image sites are:
Step 7: Search Public Records
Public records can be a treasure trove of information. Private investigators often search everywhere they can to find that missing link, and public records often offer information that cannot be found anywhere else.
Records relating to marriage, divorce, birth, death, census, obituaries, probate, voter registration, criminal and civil cases, inmates, licensing information, taxes, and land ownership are all public and can be accessed if you know how.
Here are a few places that you can search for federal, state, and county records:
- Social Security Death Index. This is a list of people reported as deceased pulled from the Social Security administration, and searchable through services like this one.
- County Clerk of Court records
- County Sheriff’s department's records
- State Department of Corrections inmate search. Here's California's for example.
- Federal Bureau of Prisons
- US Census Records. Only available for records before 1940, unless you are the heir of the person in question.
- PACER. Good for court records.
- National Archives. Particularly good for service records.
- State Department of Corporation. Good for business and corporate records. Each state has their own database, here's a full list of them.
- Relevant state's Department or Division of Licensing. Good for private security agencies and businesses - here's Florida's for example.
- Relevant county's Tax Assessor’s office. Good for property and tax records. Here's Clark County's, for example.
- County Title and Land records
Or, You Could Just Hire a Private Investigator...
Of course, you can always give the information you have to a private investigator and have them conduct the search for you. Private investigators (like me!) are skilled at finding people and uncovering information quickly and efficiently. While the methods I've described above will go a long way towards finding someone online, investigators have access to even more records - we do this for a living, and we're pretty good at it! From online searches to combing through paper records, we know how to track information (and people) down.
If you think you need some extra help with your search, let us know.
About Melanie Daria: Melanie is a highly experienced investigator and CEO of 13th Floor Investigations, specializing in everything from surveillance to deep background checks. With over 14 years of experience and a BA in forensic science, she's one of our most skilled and experienced investigators.