Tips to Locate a Hard-to-Find Person
Patrons frequently need to find people and businesses. Frequently, the patron needs to find someone so they can serve them with legal papers to start a lawsuit or family law case. Finding what you need might be as simple as using Google, but often those searches come up empty. Here are some resources and strategies to help you locate people and businesses, both in the Law Library and on the Internet.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A. Locating Individuals
B. Locating Businesses
II. Library Resources
A. Self-Help and General Books
B. Specialized Resources
III. Websites and Online Databases
IV. For More Research: Online Guides
It is very important to keep careful records of every search you make, and the results of that search, when looking for a person or a business. This is good advice for any type of research, but it is crucial if you are trying to find someone so you can serve them with legal papers. If you cannot find a person, it may be possible to serve them by publication -- that is, by putting a notice in the newspaper for four weeks in a row. To do this, you need a judge's permission, and to get that permission you will need to prove that you have made a thorough search for the person. Keep copies of your letters and responses, and keep a diary of your contacts.
A. Locating Individuals
Here are some steps you can take to search for individuals.
1. Contact relatives, friends, or neighbors who might know the person's whereabouts.
2. Search "people finder" sites on the Internet. One good site is www.zabasearch.com. Additional suggested sites are listed below under "Free Websites and Databases."
3. Contact the person's last known employer.
4. Call telephone information (411). Try online phone books; one comprehensive service is www.argali.com/ (compiles data from many online phone listings). This service requires a download and payment, but offers a limited free "home" account.
5. If you have a phone number but no other contact information, try a reverse telephone lookup. One service is www.whitepages.com. (Cell phones and unlisted numbers will not come up.)
6. Go to the last known home and work address of the person.
7. Send a letter to the person at their last known addresses. Be sure to label the envelope "Return in 5 days if undeliverable." Send the letters registered and keep returned envelopes to show failure.
8. Check the county tax assessor's records in counties where the person may own property (in Sacramento, the assessor's website is at www.assessor.saccounty.net/).
9. If you know their full name and approximate age, try www.birthdatabase.com/query.php to find their exact date of birth. This can help narrow a search.
10. Search for their profile on social media sites, like Facebook, Instagram, dating sites, or other sites that fit their interests, such as music or art sites. The paid site Spokeo.com can search many of these sites at once.
11. Contact trade unions or professional associations to which the person may belong. If they are a member of a licensed occupation, find the licensing agency and listings at verifyprolicense.com/.
12. Contact the US Military for information about a service member's whereabouts. Resources for the various services are listed at usmilitary.about.com/cs/locatorservices/a/millocate.htm
13. To locate an incarcerated person, visit the following websites:
a. California: www.cdcr.ca.gov/visitors/Inmate_Locator.html (916-445-6713).
b. Federal: www.bop.gov/inmate_locator/index.jsp
c. For resources on locating prisoners in other states, see: websearch.about.com/od/dailywebsearchtips/qt/dnt0606.htm.
14. If the person was ever on probation, contact the probation department in the city where that person was placed on probation.
15. Use the sheriff or a process server to serve papers, as they can give you documentation of their inability to find the person.
16. Child support cases only: If you receive welfare benefits, contact the district attorney's office to seek help in locating the person.
17. Automobile accidents only: your attorney can request address information from the DMV.
18. Hire a private investigator.
B. Locating Businesses
Here are some steps you can take to locate businesses and their agents for service of process.
1. Check free online directories. Some suggested sites are listed below under "Websites and Online Databases."
2. Call telephone information (411) for the area where the business is located.
3. If the business is a corporation (Inc. or Corp.), limited liability company (LLC), or limited partnership (LP), and does business in California, it should have a listing at the California Secretary of State's website: kepler.sos.ca.gov/. This listing will contain the entity's address of record and the name and address of its designated agent for service of process. Find other states' Secretary of State at www.e-secretaryofstate.com/.
4. For any type of business, you may be able to get information on it from the city or county clerk where it is located. Ask about "FBN" (fictitious business name) or "DBA" (doing business as) listings, or business licenses. Sometimes this information is available on the city or county website.
5. If the business itself has a website, you may be able to find contact information for its headquarters, officers, or owners. You may find this under "contact us," "about us," "staff directory," or a site map.
6. If the business has a website, try using the "Whois" service to see who owns the website. Visit www.internic.net/whois.html to search by typing in the website address (URL) for contact and address information. Some website owners shield their identity by registering through an intermediary such as Domains by Proxy (domainsbyproxy.com/). If so, you might be able to get the contact information from the intermediary with a phone call or letter, but it may require a subpoena.
7. Search business directories, industry, or trade associations, and other business resources. The Sacramento Public Library offers free access to excellent "Business & Finance" databases at the library or from anywhere with your SPL library card (www.saclibrary.org/Research/). "Reference USA" is particularly helpful for location and contact information.
8. Publicly held companies (companies that sell stock) must file various disclosures with the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC). Annual Reports and other SEC filings can have a wealth of information, including contact information, reports of significant litigation, and more. You can search this information at the SEC's EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval) site, www.sec.gov/edgar.shtml, or the easier-to-use website www.secinfo.com.
9. If the company holds patents, their contact information should be available in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's database, www.uspto.gov.
II. LIBRARY RESOURCES
A. Self-Help and General Books
How to Find Out Anything ZA 3075 .M33 (Self-Help)
This book includes information on the most recent technology, including Google and the "deep web" (online resources which, although open to the public, are not indexed by search engines). Chapter 7 focuses on finding people, while Chapter 8 focuses on finding businesses.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigating KF 2042. D48 B76 (Self-Help)
Chapters 4-8 discuss "skip tracing," or finding people who have dropped out of sight, including the use of public records, courthouse records, and for-pay databases. Chapter 22, "The Diligent Search: Adoption and Estates," discusses requirements for service by publication, problems with the requirements, and possible approaches to fulfilling them. While the book is aimed at private investigators, non-PIs can also benefit.
B. Specialized Books
The Cybersleuth's Guide to the Internet: Conducting Effective and Free Investigative & Legal Research on the Web KF 242.A1 L481
Revised in 2014, this book covers more than just people-finding, but Chapter 7 focuses on "Free Investigative Research Ressources: To Locate and Background People," and chapters 8 and 9 cover finding experts and finding legal professionals.
Find Info Like a Pro: Mining the Internet's Publicly Available Resources for Investigative Research KF 242.A1 L4785 +CD
Two volumes, each with a CD-ROM. Volume 1 includes chapters on finding people, finding phone numbers and addresses, using online communities and social networking site for research, and more. Volume 2 addresses public records, including licenses, criminal and civil case records, liens and assets, and using SEC records. Many useful websites (free, free-with-registration, and fee-based) are detailed and instructions on how to use them are provided. The books were printed in 2010 and 2011, so they may be slightly dated, but most of the resources discussed are still helpful.
The Sourcebook to Public Record Information: The Comprehensive Guide to County, State, & Federal Public Records Sources JK 468.P76 S693 (Reference)
An encyclopedic, relatively recent (2009) listing of public record sources and how to access and use them. The first 69 pages discuss types of records that may be useful in researching businesses and individuals and what types of information they may yield; guidelines for using public records; and methods of accessing them.
III. WEBSITES AND ONLINE DATABASES
People Search Sites and Databases
For a modest fee, Spokeo provides a one-stop place to search 70+ social websites, including blogging, dating, music and video, location review sites like Yelp, and professional community sites. A unique feature is the ability to search by username or email address as well as name, phone number, and physical address.
Subscription (free with Sacramento Public Library card):
www.saclibrary.org/Research/ (Click on "Business & Financial")
Contains information compiled from current residential phone directories.
Pipl searches the "deep web," including blog entries, photos, publications, donations on public record, profiles on social and business networking sites, and other overlooked sources. Pipl supports searching by name, username, phone number, and email.
Zabasearch is a free people search engine that scours freely accessible public information and records. More detailed information is available for a fee.
These sites let you look up names, addresses phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. Most are updated only as often as printed directories and most do not contain unlisted numbers. Some also include reverse directories. They often provide inconsistent results; try more than one. Here are a few to start with:
Reverse Phone Directory.com
Exclusively a reverse directory
This newer site aggregates many of the others, letting you search many databases at once. This service requires you to download a program, and charges fees, but offers a free "home" account limited to 10 searches per month.
These resources gather links to free public records databases:
Any number of social networking sites can be useful in locating a missing person. If you are looking for a person with a strong interest in something, try specialty sites such as Café Mom for mothers, Dogster for dog lovers, DeviantArt for artists, and the like. MySpace has a large independent music following.
Here are three social sites that may be particularly helpful:
Adoption Search & Reunion
Registry for birth parents and adoptees wishing to find each other, resources and information on issues facing people searching for birth families or biological children, and forums for asking for help and advice.
Classmates.com - Find High School Friends, Plan Reunions.
Includes elementary schools and colleges as well as high schools. You must register to use the website, and some features, like viewing people's locations, reading bulletin board notes, and reviewing yearbooks, require a subscription.
Hundreds of millions of people are listed on Facebook. Many share location information, friends lists, and other information that can help locate them. Other social media sites are worth trying, as well.
Subscription (free with Sacramento Public Library library card):
Business & Financial Research
www.saclibrary.org/Research/ (Click on "Business & Financial")
The Morningstar and "Reference USA" company listings can help you find profiles, including the names and contact information for officers, directors, and agents. The "Resource Center" also includes a wealth of other research on companies (mostly large businesses).
Coordinated Legal Technologies
This site gathers web sites offering governmental data and other reference information. Particularly useful for locating companies are the California (and nationwide) county online databases and the Professional Licensing Lookups page, which offers navigation links to occupational and professional licensing and regulation lookups at various states across the country.
Information on large companies, including top management, summary of business, and competitors. Basic information is free, but details require a subscription or purchase.
Smaller companies are listed here, along with top contacts, news, and reports (may require payment). This is a good resource for finding information on local businesses.
Pulls information from the Securities & Exchange Commission's EDGAR site (www.sec.gov/edgar.shtml) and presents it in more easily analyzed form. Information on all publicly traded companies in the United States, including executives, contact information, and much more information.
IV. FOR MORE RESEARCH: ONLINE GUIDES
Corporate Research: How to Do Corporate Research Online
Information on how to find corporate information; how to research corporate relationships such as parent corporations, officers, and customers; and how to investigate corporate actions, including litigation, lobbying, and executive compensation.
Cyndi's List: Finding People
Lists many resources for finding people online. Cyndi's List is primarily a genealogy site, but this page lists resources for finding living people.
Free People Search Sites: The Best on the Web
From About.com: free resources that can help you find people and businesses online by using search engines, phone directories, social networks, and sites developed specifically for finding people, such as Zabasearch.com.
Sacramento Public Library's "Finding People" Delicious.com Bookmark Archive
The Sacramento Public Library has compiled even more websites to help you find people.
Links to hundreds of indexes, useful sites, and specialized search engines. Scroll partway down for "People Finding."
IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS GUIDE, OR IF YOU NEED HELP FINDING OR USING THE MATERIALS LISTED, DON'T HESITATE TO ASK A REFERENCE LIBRARIAN.