Saturday, May 31, 2008

Guest Blogger Colleen Collins

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 (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 (; and one can even look up a seller/member on EBay at

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,, 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:

· Another recent online article with tips on 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, (, Facebook (, 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 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 United States and Canada. This book cross-references addresses and names, and provides places of employment for many of those listed.

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!


Anonymous said...

I have a question for you that is a little different from the "how" of this process. If you are looking for a person, but not because of some criminal reason -- let's say just an estranged family member -- and you do find the person, but that person does not wish to be found by the family, would you be obliged to report your finding back to the family? It seems to me that some people just want to disappear for personal reasons. What do you do in a situation like that? Do you stay loyal to your client or do you respect the autonomy of your quarry?

Sandra Parshall said...

Great information, Colleen -- thanks so much for sharing it. This is useful not only for those writing about PIs, but also for anyone writing an amateur sleuth.

Anonymous said...

Must check my library for Cole's. Thanks for all the information. This is amazingly useful for any writer. I especially liked the insights into the character of the investigators.

Unknown said...

Good morning, everyone! Thank you to those who've already posted.

Paul, regarding your question: in a case where a family might request an estranged family member be found, we let it be known up front that if we find that family member, it's up to that person if he/she wants to contact the family. We're happy to forward a letter from the family to the subject if they'd like (where, within the letter, the family can explain their reasons for wanting to find that family member and how the estranged family member may contact them), but it's our obligation to protect people's privacy and therefore we actively respect the autonomy of the subject we've found.

In the beginning of our business, my business partner and myself had a lively, several days long, dialogue about protecting others' privacy in such cases. My business partner, a retired attorney with extensive background in U.S. Constitutional law, felt we were not obligated to protect public information (i.e., if we find a subject through public means, we aren't obligated to protect information about that individual). He used the First Amendment to support his claim.

I, on the other hand, felt it's our duty to protect others' privacy. True, the First Amendment opens the doors to public disclosure of publicly available information, but as private investigators it's our ethical responsibility to protect individuals' privacy because as private investigators, do we know the full intentions of the person trying to find this subject? True, the person could be a family member but that doesn't mean that person's intention isn't to do harm.

He eventually came to the same conclusion. We both agree the Constitution, and other laws, form a baseline from which everyone operates. However, private investigators and other professionals are obligated to protect people's privacy. You'll find most (if not all) private investigators operate the same way.

This was a long response, but I thought it worthy of some elaboration. Also, the ethical ramifications of a PI releasing personal information are great fodder for fiction writing.

I'll be working a case for most of today, but I'll check this blog when I return home and answer any other questions.

Regards, Colleen

Anonymous said...

Colleen, very cool. I love your books and really enjoyed hearing about your other life, too!


Beth Caudill said...

This is great information. My wip has the heroine's sister missing as one of the subplots and I haven't thought about how to go about finding her yet. This will give me some clues to leave for the heroine to find.


Sofie Kelly said...

Colleen, I'm curious about what a PI has for ID. Do you have anything? Does ID vary by state?

Sonya said...

Thanks for the great post. For fiction purposes, if someone is sending threatening messages to a person, how would a PI go about finding out who it is?

Jane said...

Hi Colleen,
Are most PI's armed? In many books, the PI says that many of their cases involve try to catch a cheating spouse, is this true?

Anonymous said...

Colleen, thanks for the brain-starter. In our WIP, the missing person is being sought by an off-duty detective who already has a connection with the family [hence off-duty]. This is a fresh situation where the missing man i with his wife and child in the city, and he leaves them to get change and doesn't return. A report is filed so enter the detective.

What sort of things might he do? This is different from the examples in your article because the directories and internet stuff doesn't fit this situation.

Thanks for your help!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insights, Colleen. In the novel I'm currently plotting, my missing person is missing (in another country) due to loss of memory. He doesn't know who he is or where he came from. He's tried the obvious -- media, local ads, etc. but no luck. Any suggestions how he might proceed? And conversely, any suggestions for what his family might do to find him?

Joyce Tremel said...

Great information Colleen! I'm a secretary for a police dept. and I have to tell you about a missing person we had once.

A wife reported her husband missing. He was a cook for a homeless shelter and she was sure he'd met with foul play because of some of the clientele (ex-cons, etc.) at the shelter. The sergeant in charge of the case really made an intensive effort to find this guy. He'd worked on it off and on for over a year.

One day, our department got a call from a police department out west (I forget where). They pulled a guy over riding a bicycle and arrested him for DUI. When they ran his name through NCIC, he came up as a missing person. Sgt. V. talked to him and it turned out he just didn't want to be married anymore. They had money problems and weren't getting along, so he walked.

Our dept. also uses the online Cole's Directory instead of the print one. I don't know if libraries can subscribe to the online edition, though.

Unknown said...

Hello again everyone,

I'm back in the office--thanks for the great questions! I'll answer a few, then follow-up with the others tomorrow a.m. if that's all right.

First, here's Darlene's question about badges:

DARLENE'S QUESTION: Colleen, I'm curious about what a PI has for ID. Do you have anything? Does ID vary by state?

ANSWER: Yes, in the U.S., IDs vary by state. I have an ID from my state professional PI organization, but it's optional because I work in an unlicensed state (most states are licensed, approximately 7 aren't licensed). Tell you the truth, I wasn't sure if there'd be any benefits to having an ID in an unlicensed state, then learned there is (I was in a courthouse in another county when my ID expedited my ability to get records).

My friend, a PI in AZ (a licensed state) told me not only is she required to carry her ID with her, but she must show it every time she requests driving records at her DMV. Doesn't matter if it's the same state employee who's helped her dozens of times get driving records, the PI must show her ID every time.

I'm in the process of joining an international organization of PIs, and they asked me if I'd like an ID and what language would I like it in. I couldn't figure out why I'd like a second ID, so I declined. Who knows--maybe there's a compelling reason to have this international ID. Maybe it's something to use in one of your stories, hmm?


Unknown said...

Hello magnolia and thank you. To answer your question:

QUESTION: For fiction purposes, if someone is sending threatening messages to a person, how would a PI go about finding out who it is?

ANSWER: Assuming the recipient of these messages doesn't want to go to the police, below are several options on how I'd proceed.

Not sure the medium used to send these threatening messages, but let's say they're email messages. There are online options for tracing email messages (very basic utilities), but to tell you the truth, if a potential client contacted me and wanted threatening emails traced, I'd forward this person to a PI who specializes in email/Internet tracing. PIs these days (unlike the Sam Spade characters of yesteryear) have specializations. Some are good at accident reconstruction, some are experienced at fraud, others are experienced at Internet/email issues, etc.

Conversely, what if someone were receiving hand-written threatening messages? I'd probably take this case. I'd also let the client know I'd be working with a PI (or expert) who analyzes handwriting and request sample messages for analysis. I would also ask for exemplars of known suspects' handwriting. Then I'd ask the client to give me information about people who might want to threaten him/her, if something significant had recently occurred in his/her life (what might have prompted these messages?), if he/she has enemies, etc. My business partner and I also work with independent forensic analysis labs, and I'd send the letters for DNA analysis, fingerprint analysis. Obviously, I'd check the postmark and see where the letters were mailed from (although, if a culprit were being exceptionally devious/clever, a postmark might be bogus).

If the threatening messages are being sent via phone messages, I'd suggest the person contact his/her phone provider to get information on where such calls originated. From my past experience, most (all?) phone providers will say they require a subpoena to pull such records. This is where the police have an advantage because when a citizen gives them permission to access their phone records/phone lines, no subpoena is necessary.

Many times the police are the ones who are involved in such investigations. That said, if a PI is working such a case, the answers above are fundamental and basic and must be adapted to the circumstances of the case.

I've answered this question for writers and in no way should this be interpreted as instructive for someone who is actually receiving threatening messages.


Anonymous said...

love pi stories. thanks for the info and great interview

kim h

Dina said...

Wow, so much I did not know about PI stuff.

Brenda said...

This was totally fascinating, Colleen. I had no idea we're all so 'out there'! Thanks for an informative and interesting article. I'll be keeping it for future reference. You never know when a P.I. might show up in a story!


Mario Acevedo said...

Great article. I googled my phone number and found out to my surprise that I once lived in Sedalia.

Unknown said...

Hi Jane and good morning everyone!

Here's Jane's question:

QUESTION: Are most PI's armed? In many books, the PI says that many of their cases involve try to catch a cheating spouse, is this true?

ANSWER: Are most PIs armed? Don't know if it's most, but certainly a solid percentage are. In Steve Brown's (a professional PI's)wonderful resource book on private investigations (Idiot's Guide to Private Investigations), he takes the stance that it's not in the best interest for a PI to carry a firearm (all it takes is one mistaken aim at a stressful moment to not kill an innocent bystander if not the PI him/herself). My business partner and I feel the same way.

However, there are certain situations (such as serving divorce papers to a hostile party)where it's appropriate for a PI to arm him/herself with something other than a firearm (for example, pepper spray or a stun gun).

Regarding cheating spouse cases, they are indeed the bread and butter for many PIs. That doesn't mean all PIs make the bulk of their income on cheating spouse cases. For example, at our agency, we specialize in legal investigations so the bulk of our work is for attorneys seeking assistance with witnesses and litigation support. We do take civilian cheating spouse cases, and those comprise approximately 15-20% of our work.

Thanks for the questions!

Unknown said...

I need to correct something I just wrote. I meant that all it takes is one mistaken aim at a stressful moment to kill an innocent bystander if not the PI him/herself.

Unknown said...

To respond to jwhit's questions:

QUESTION: In our WIP, the missing person is being sought by an off-duty detective who already has a connection with the family [hence off-duty]. This is a fresh situation where the missing man i with his wife and child in the city, and he leaves them to get change and doesn't return. A report is filed so enter the detective.

What sort of things might he do? This is different from the examples in your article because the directories and internet stuff doesn't fit this situation.

ANSWER: Regarding what an off-duty detective might do (after a police report is filed) to find a missing person, we're talking how the police operate. I think it'd be in your best interest to interview detectives at your local police department. From our own experience, we've learned that besides other equipment/utilities law enforcement has access to, many times an officer such as a detective only has to how his/her badge (even if he's off-duty) to get access to information versus a PI getting the door shut in his/her face. For example, say your missing husband has been traced to a hotel. If the PI were to go to the management of this hotel and ask to see their security surveillance tapes, chances are the PI would be told no (or show us a subpoena, buddy). But if a detective were to flash a badge and make the same request, chances are the detective would have a first-row seat to watch those surveillance tapes.

So we recommend you interview a detective for your book. If you haven't contacted one already, we suggest you write the PI Public Information Department or even the Chief of Police who will forward your request to the right individual who will be more than happy to answer your questions.

Unknown said...

Ilonka asked:

QUESTION: In the novel I'm currently plotting, my missing person is missing (in another country) due to loss of memory. He doesn't know who he is or where he came from. He's tried the obvious -- media, local ads, etc. but no luck. Any suggestions how he might proceed? And conversely, any suggestions for what his family might do to find him?

QUESTION: Another country, hmmmm. When an American is in trouble in a foreign country, they should go to the local U.S. Embassy. A troubled family would report their missing kin and forward ID such as photos, date of birth, physical characteristics, address, etc. If the missing person, even with a bad memory, wandered into the U.S. Embassy, chances are the dots would easily be connected thanks to the family's information.

If for some bizarre reason, like maybe there's a conspiracy and some bad egg at the embassy doesn't want this memory-challenged person to be correctly ID'd, the family could always contact a PI located in that country through an international PI organization such as WIN (World Investigators Network). This feels a bit far-fetched, but hey, if you make the premise compelling and plausible, maybe the family must resort to hiring a PI in another country.

As to what such a PI in a country other than the U.S. would do, it's based on what utilities are available and what's legally possible for a PI in that particular country.

Unknown said...


What a great story about a missing person! That online Cole's Directory sounds very cool. Because we're cheap :), we're not paying the subscription fee for online use (instead we do it the old-fashioned way at the library).

Anonymous said...

Colleen, what a fascinating blog! I'm going to be much more careful about my garbage from now on. ;-)

Playground Monitor said...

What a goldmine of information! This blog has given me some great ideas and I'm going to bookmark it. Thanks for emailing me the link, Colleen.


Rebecca McFarland Kyle said...

Thanks, Colleen, I was particularly interested in reading the characteristics of private investigators.

Can you tell me if there's an online course for PIs or other manuals that a writer might use to get more information on this business?

Thank you!

Terry Odell said...

This is a great post. Perfect timing for my WIP. My character isn't truly a PI, but he's supposed to be finding a woman who's avoiding her father. I know what the woman has done to stay under the radar, but wasn't sure what my hero might be doing to try to find her.


Unknown said...

Becky asked:

>>Can you tell me if there's an online course for PIs or other manuals that a writer might use to get more information on this business? <<

To learn more about private investigations in general, I'd suggest checking your state's private investigators' association and see if they offer classes on investigative topics to the public. Or, if they offer training to those interested in becomming PIs, that's an option, too. And last, I believe most state PI organizations open their conferences to the public as well. Here's a list of state PI organizations:

I think one of my favorite books on private investigations is Steve Brown's The Idiot's Guide to Private Investigations. Because it was published in 2002 (I believe) there have been technological advancements since its release, but it's still a great resource book.

Then there's PI Magazine, run by two of my favorite PIs (Jimmie and Rosemarie Mesis). Purchase a subscription and have monthly reading material on the latest issues/equipment/etc. in private investigations. I think investigative courses are advertised in there as well. Here's a link to PI Magazine:

Then, of course, my business partner and I have been teaching "Writing PIs in Novels" going on 3 years. This year, we're only teaching one class (in September). We discuss investigations in general, and we also offer insights to writers developing PI stories/characters. For more info, go to:


Unknown said...

I just noticed the link to the PI state organizations was cut off--make that last "ht" "html" and that'll fix it.

Unknown said...

It's the end of the day, June 1, and I've tossed all the names into a hat for the free gift drawing...

And the winner is...


Jane, please forward your full name and mailing address to:

And I'll mail you the disguised book safe this next week!

Thank you Poe's Deadly Daughters for the warm welcome, and thank you everyone for your great questions and comments.

Have a wonderful summer, Colleen