Missing Persons 101 by Colleen Collins
And the winner of the disguised book safe is......Jane. Congratulations! Jane, please get in touch with Colleen at cocowrites2 at gmail.com. (Change the at to @.) Thank you so much Colleen for being our guest this weekend and thank you to everyone who stopped by and commented.
[*Copyright Colleen Collins 2008. All rights reserved. You may not duplicate or distribute this article without written permission from the author.]
Are you writing a story where your fictional PI, law enforcement officer, or amateur sleuth needs to track a missing person? Or maybe you’re simply curious about how to start looking for that long-lost friend? As a PI who is often is hired by attorneys, corporations, and others to perform “locates” (a term that means to find someone), I can tell you some basic, tried-and-true steps for finding people. Because I’m also a writer, I’ve added some questions at the end of this article to ask yourself about a character (such as a PI) who specializes in finding missing persons.
And because I wanted to add some fun, I’m giving away a free gift at the end of the blog. On Sunday, June 1, I’ll throw all the names who posted a comment/question into a virtual hat--one person will be picked to win a disguised book safe (a book with a secret storage compartment).
For the rest of this article, I’ll mostly refer to how a PI does locates because that’s my profession, although as mentioned above, these steps can be used by any fictional character or real person. Also, rather than trying to be politically correct by using the combo-pronoun he/she, I’ll simply switch between he and she.
So let’s get started with an overview of PIs as finders of lost souls…
How Much of a PI’s Work Involves Finding People?
Quite a bit, actually. A large percentage of a PI's work involves finding persons whose location is unknown to the PI. For example, a PI might do a locate for the following:
· To serve a lawsuit on someone whose current address is unknown.
· To locate a debtor who absents himself from his residence with some frequency to frustrate the creditor.
· To find a key witness.
Most people who don’t want to be found do it sloppily, leaving a trail of clues in their wake. Others, however, are more careful and deliberate in hiding their tracks. For example, a father who has abducted his daughter and has taken off to another state might be more deliberate in his efforts, might travel farther, and has probably covered his tracks more thoroughly than a "credit skip.” (Originally, a “skip” referred to collection agencies’ attempts to locate a debtor who’d “skipped out” on his obligation. Today, the terms “skip” and “locate” have essentially blended into the same meaning).
What Steps Might a PI Take to Start Finding Someone?
Here’s the fun part. Finding a missing person (or one whose location is unknown) might involve one or more of the following tasks:
Checking the local telephone directory for each city in the area. Look for telephone listings under the missing person’s name or even a spouse’s name. It’s surprising how many times a simple check in the telephone book does the trick. We know a PI who was contacted by an attorney who wanted to locate a missing person. The PI looked up the person’s name in the local telephone book, forwarded that number to the attorney, and charged $75 to do so! As the PI said, “If the attorney was too dumb to look it up, then he paid me to do it.”
Calling directory assistance. After all, they’d have the most current up-to-date information publicly available.
Searching databases that contain public records and credit header information. Some of these are proprietary and require one to be a PI, law enforcement officer, government official, etc. But there are also many, many online public records than anyone can check (for example county assessor’s sites have lists of owners of real property, along with information about the assessed value of that property; privately owned cemeteries and mortuaries will have burial permits, funeral service registers, funeral and memorial arrangements, obituaries, intermediate orders, and perpetual care arrangements; Social Security Death Index provides lookup on whether a person is deceased (http://ssdi.rootsweb.com/); and one can even look up a seller/member on EBay at http://tinyurl.com/6q6ol.
Interviewing people who may have known the subject (for example, past and current neighbors as well as with relatives, past and current landlords, co-workers, and known associates).
Researching court records (In our class, www.writingprivateinvestigators.com, we discuss this in more depth. For this article, however, I’ll point you to a few links about accessing court records:
· A recent online article about public access to court records: http://www.prlog.org/10049908-public-access-to-court-records.html
· Another recent online article with tips on accessing courts and court records: http://www.citmedialaw.org/legal-guide/practical-tips-accessing-courts-and-court-records
Searching the Internet (using engines such as Google, AltaVista, FAST! and MSN Search for blogs, images, news, etc). You’d be surprised what you can find by simply typing in a telephone number into the Google search window, for example.
Checking Internet communities (such as MySpace, (www.myspace.com/, Facebook (www.facebook.com, etc). We located a missing person who was on the run, but she still found time to log into her MySpace account and blog away.
Putting an ad in the local paper (and in the papers in surrounding areas) where the missing person may reside. Some newspapers also provide the option to do an online search of their archives.
Building a simple website to advertise who you’re looking for. It’s easy to build a simple, often free, website these days. Plus, many services will host/advertise it at no charge.
Signing up with subscription-based services for alumni organizations the person may have belonged to (such as Classmates.com or Alumni.Net). Sometimes high schools have their own alumni organization, so check the person’s former high school’s website and contact the alumni listed there (who are sometimes listed by years of graduation).
Checking the Coles Directory (a handy tool found at the reference desk of many public libraries). Coles Directory publishes household directories for every major population area in the
Conducting surveillance at locations where the subject has been known to "hang out" (everything from bars to Twelve Step Meetings to softball games).
Searching garbage (called “trash hits,” “trash covers,” and our personal favorite “refuse archeology”) for uncovering details about the missing person’s life. Trash, after all, is ripe (no pun intended) with details about people’s lives. It’s amazing how people put their most secret information, from receipts, phone numbers, personal letters, credit card statements, phone bills, etc. into the trash. We don’t recommend this as a real-life approach to finding someone because let’s be honest, not only are there different laws protecting people’s trash in different cities and you could get arrested for trespassing or worse. Also, it could be potentially dangerous for you to start lurking around someone’s home waiting to skulk away with their refuse. However, think how great this would be to use in a story. A fictional PI/sleuth might find return addresses in the subject's trash, such as that belonging to a family member, where the missing person might have taken refuge. Or imagine a humorous scene where an obsessively neat PI (think Monk) is forced to dig through somebody’s trash for evidence.
It was through such refuse archeology that we found a five-year-old who had been abducted by her father. We searched the despondent, unemployed father's garbage (he had failed to return his daughter to the custodial parent at the scheduled time) after we had gone to his apartment and learned that he had suddenly moved earlier in the day. We found shipping boxes, with Christmas labels, which appeared to have contained Christmas presents that he had discarded. Ultimately, it was one of those addresses in a mid-west state where authorities located the child with her father.
Note: As a practical matter, all of the above techniques are often used in combination. In our investigative business, we’ll typically start with Internet/database searches, then work our way up to more specialized techniques (placing ads, interviewing neighbors, etc.). If you’re writing a story with a fictional PI/sleuth, your character can employ bravado, intuition, and creativity while combining these different techniques!
What Character Traits Apply to a PI/Sleuth Who Specializes in Missing Persons?
If you’re writing a story with a PI who specializes in finding missing persons, here’re some things to think about:
· Does your fictional PI have a strong, innate curiosity?
· How tenacious is your fictional PI? This kind of research can be time-consuming, detailed, frustrating, with lots of dead-ends before finding a clue.
· Is your fictional PI a people person? Because most likely he’ll be talking to a number of people and trying to, in the course of the conversations, pull the nuggets of information he needs.
· What kind of tools does your PI use? Does she have access to a computer, different proprietary databases, an adequate vehicle to conduct surveillance? Is she comfortable/knowledgeable doing research in public libraries, courthouses, and the like?
· Does your PI like putting together jigsaw puzzles? Because that’s what locating missing persons is like—assembling varied pieces of information from disparate sources to get, finally, a clear picture.
Thank you to Darlene Ryan and Poe’s Deadly Daughters for inviting me to be their guest blogger. Feel free to post questions/comments, and I’ll be happy to respond. At the end of Sunday, a name will be picked to win the disguised book safe!