Finding People - How to Find Out Anything (2012)

How to Find Out Anything

7 Finding People

Remember rule number one of research: You need to ask a question that can be answered. By Googling a name, you’re already following that strategy. When it comes to people searching, an answerable question is a succinct “Who am I looking for?” So whether you realized it or not, by Googling for an ex-flame, you quite naturally started your research by using what you know—the name of the person—to find out what you don’t know: his or her current phone number or email or married name or home address or current occupation. You can’t find out anything about a person without some rudimentary information to start with. That’s almost always a name, preferably one that’s accurately spelled. Sure, police track down strangers with little more information than the clues they glean from a crime scene, but we are not the cops. The constabulary has search tools like forensics labs, the National Crime Information Center, and a vast archive of fingerprints with names attached to look through. You and I, however, will need to rely on Google and the contents of this chapter to find the people on our personal most-wanted lists.

When we talk about finding people, we’re really talking about finding a person’s indicators, the contact information we can use to get in touch with him or, in the case of the deceased, information for a close family member or friend. Factual bits of information like phone numbers, email addresses, and home or business addresses can put us in touch with the object of our investigation, who could be a specific individual or a specific type of person. Let’s get sleuthing.

When we talk about finding people, we’re really talking about finding a person’s indicators.

Searching for a Specific Person

It will be tempting to just type a name into Google, but effective people locating is rarely that simple and has its own set of challenges.

Make Sure You Are Looking for the Right Person

The gold standard for personal identification, after a birth certificate, is a driver’s license or an equivalent state ID card. However, identifying information contained on a driver’s license or in the data concerning a vehicle’s registration, discoverable by its license plate, is no longer available to the public. The days are over when anyone could walk off the street into the Department of Motor Vehicles, pay a small fee, provide a license plate number, and then see the name and address of the person who owns that vehicle. The Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) has been federal law since 1994 and prohibits the release of any personal information contained within driver records to anyone, except for some certain clearly defined uses. Those exceptions are for the use in court proceedings, recall of motor vehicles, and market research. (Private investigators also have an exemption that permits them to get to the IDs.) For a complete explanation of the genesis of the law and the series of rather gruesome stalking cases that led to the enactment of the law, see what the privacy advocates from the Electronic Privacy Information Center have to say about the DPPA.

The best you can hope for, when you have neither a Social Security Number nor a driver’s license, is to nail down an address, exact name, a phone number, or other unique identifier.

Unique Names Are Rare

In a nation of 311 million, finding the right edition of the name you’re searching for is task number one. Consider how many Jennifers you can name off the top of your head. It’s not often that you’re going to search for someone with a one-of-kind name, like the former Atlanta Braves baseball player Wonderful Terrific Monds III. Even a name as unusual as Mr. Monds’ is now no longer the only one. To get the right person, particularly one with a common name, try to include additional identifying characteristics in your search, such as age, geographic location, or occupation. Even then, take the utmost care to get the correct individual and not someone with the same or very similar name of the person you are looking for. You don’t want to be looking for Donald Trump of Greensboro, North Carolina, and instead turn up information about a New York man with implausible hair.

Take the utmost care to get the correct individual and not someone with the same or very similar name of the person you are looking for.

Spellings Are a Mess

Names are not always spelled the way they sound. Trust me. I once collected junk mail misaddressed to me and counted twenty-seven different misspellings of my last name. As with knowing how to spell a word to look it up in the dictionary, you’ll need the correct spelling of a person’s name to find her. Even with that, you should understand that many records can be wildly inaccurate themselves. Misentered data, illegible records, and simple misspellings make records containing names unreliable under the best of circumstances. So be warned. There is no simple solution to this problem except to do your best to spell the person’s name correctly from the beginning of your research and be ever vigilant for name variations.

Names Change

Maiden names become married names; some birth names are retained professionally after marriage but changed for family and personal uses; some hyphenate the family name; others might change their name from John to Mergatroyd just because they want to. Stay alert to changes in names and be on the lookout for variations on a name. Someone named Jane Ellen Foster might be known professionally as J. Ellen Foster, but called Ellie by everyone else. Be creative. Not finding John Doe? Try Jon Doe, Johnny Doe, Jack Doe, Jonathan Doe, and any other variation on a person’s name you can think of.

Data Are Often Stale

Even the best people-finder services can’t keep up with our peripatetic population. You’ll routinely find old records, out-of-date addresses, and the names of long-dead individuals popping up in the same results list as vital human beings. Be forewarned that you’ll need to be extra-careful with the data you see.

Some People Don’t Want to Be Found

For reasons spiritual, marital, or legal, a fair number of people don’t want to be found. They choose to live off the grid. If people prefer not to leave the ordinary trails that the rest of us do simply by being a member of society, your hunt may never pan out. And unless you want to become your own private investigator and start working the phones and pressing every contact who ever knew, saw, or spoke to the person, there’s not much else to do to gather information on them. One word of advice though. Should you have a last known address for an elusive contrarian, you might be able to skip-trace them. Find the neighbors at the last known address (or job or friend) and contact them to see if they might be able clue you in to the person’s whereabouts. Don’t feel bad if you can’t find someone. I don’t advocate ever giving up, but sometimes you do hit a dead end simply because the public trail goes cold. If it’s important to contact an otherwise unfindable person, turn to professional investigators who have the experience and manpower to look in greater detail.

If people prefer not to leave the ordinary trails that the rest of us do simply by being a member of society, your hunt may never pan out.

Research Tools for Finding People

With some caveats established, let’s get going by looking at one of the reference tools long used by researchers and now updated for the twenty-first century. May I suggest that you start not with Google but with the phone book.

The Phone Book

The phone book query is the most basic person search of all. Back in the days when landlines were standard and cellphones were giant and found only in Sean Connery-era James Bond movies, phone books were marvelous people finders for one simple reason. In addition to the telephone numbers, phone directories also listed the physical address of where the subscriber was located. It was a snap to find people by phone number alone. So up until the time that cellphones took over the world, reporters, cops, and private eyes routinely started their searches for people in the most obvious place of all: They looked in the phone book. You should too. Names, addresses, and yes, phone numbers come quickly, accurately, and at no cost.

The phone book query is the most basic person search of all.

So before you wrack your brains trying to Google for someone’s phone number or address, look him up in one or all of the three major online directories: AnyWho (from AT&T), WhoWhere? (from Lycos), and (from WhitePages). They load data from phone books across the nation into one giant database; in practice, local city and town phone books are turned into an immense countrywide people finder service. The services are excellent and fast, though some small print exclusions apply. Only individuals who choose to list their phone numbers in the phone book are included, and you will need to know both the correct spelling of the person’s name and at least the state (preferably a city) in which the person lives. The listings are for land lines only.

Even with these constraints, there’s plenty of research mojo left in looking up people in the phone book. Land lines still count for roughly three quarters of all telephones in the United States; only a quarter of American households are cellphone only. As you might imagine, the split between cellphone only and landline only (or landline primarily) runs along generational lines. The days of landlines and phone books may be numbered, but until that day comes, the old-school phone book search is still a worthwhile gambit.


So what about cellphones? How to do you locate someone’s cellphone number? The short answer is that you can’t do it reliably. Unlike landlines, cellphones clearly do not need to be assigned to a specific location. Also, privacy laws that never applied to landlines protect cellphone numbers. Still, because the marketplace abhors a vacuum almost as much as it does a dollar fleeing unearned, some companies have stepped into the business of providing cellphone information for a fee. The National Cell Phone Registry is a for-profit service that trolls public records for cellular information and then sells access to its database. Other personal-information data providers, like Intelius, will provide a cellphone number for a fee as well.

We may yet see the day when cellphones will have a repository similar to the phone book database to offer numbers to the public for anyone who chooses to make his cell number available. It will require some regulatory changes and a shift in how our new telecomm networks develop socially, but such a service would certainly be a winner.

Reverse Lookup

Reverse phone lookups correlate a phone with an address. With a phone number in hand, a reverse lookup reports on the name of the number’s owner and usually an address as well. If you really want to play detective, you can use these address and phone number searches in conjunction with a map service like Google Maps to search for neighbors of the person in question. In the predigital dark ages, researchers relied on a publication known as the Coles Directory for reverse lookups, a process that uses a known phone number to find out who it belongs to. These artifacts of the twentieth century are still useful for historic research, and a handful of libraries may still retain old versions of the directories. This is handy if you have an address for a person who has since moved. Find out who the person’s neighbors were and contact them to see if they know where the person you are searching for has gone. This is a technique long favored by skip-tracers and law enforcement to find people who have moved on from their last known addresses.

Reverse cellphone searches are challenging, but the site Lookup a Cell Phone Number will narrow down the geographic region of a given number by reporting on the cell company that provides the service to that number. To get at least a general sense of where the cell number is located, try it. The site won’t tell you the name of who owns the number, but it will narrow down the list of potential owners.

Historical Research

Print phone books are on the way out, but if you’re conducting research into the recent past, obsolete phone books offer a way to verify addresses of people and businesses from the last century. Bigger libraries will keep a collection of these treasures specifically for the benefit of researchers. Think of how helpful it is to find an address for a person from the 1940s for genealogical research, for instance, or to find the exact name and location of a long-gone business from a really yellowed Yellow Pages directory as a way to verify the history of a particular neighborhood.

People Finder Websites

Let’s now move from rotary dial to digital and tune in to a quartet of sites that collect disparate personal data from phone books and public data sources and turn that information into searchable websites. These sites try to overcome the deep web query problems that keep other search engines from dredging up details on individuals.

At the top of the list is Pipl, which pulls together background reports, blog posts, real estate listings, bylines in professional publications, profiles extracted from social media, and a variety of databases that might conceivably contain information about a person. The results are impressive, if a bit of a mess in the hard-to-read display. Spokeo is a deep web service that trains its algorithms at public records sources, which Spokeo describes as “including but not limited to: phone directories, social networks, marketing surveys, mailing lists, government censuses, real estate listings, and business websites.” Wink bills itself as the “world’s largest people search engine,” and as I have no evidence to the contrary, I have no reason to doubt it. Its main draw is its inclusion of non-U.S. citizens, particularly from Canada and the United Kingdom. Zaba Search is a free name-and-number search engine powered by Intelius that in its premium form offers reverse search by phone number, Social Security number search, and background check information for $4.99 for a single phone number.

Last, an interesting piece of programming wizardry is a little add-on for the Firefox browser named Who Is This Person? As the blurb for the download promises, “Highlight any name on a web page and see matching information from Wink, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, Facebook, Google News, Technorati, Yahoo Person Search, Spock, WikiYou, ZoomInfo, IMDB, MySpace and more…” It’s a helpful mash-up of personal information from some of the leading producers of factual data.

Google and People Searching

You probably don’t need much advice now on the nuts and bolts of how to use Google to locate a person. The best additional advice is to pay close attention to the clues that come up in the results list. While reviewing that list, be aware of hidden references that point to the person you’re looking for and that may not be obvious at first glance. An alumni newsletter that mentions the spouse of the person you’re searching for may be exactly the bit of information that in turn will help you find your quarry. In fact, reading a stray Google document was how I found a long-lost college acquaintance. It had been years since I’d been in touch with “Sarah.” I wasn’t finding any information in any of the sites we already detailed, and she wasn’t even on Facebook or Linkedin. But then, while sifting through a Google results list, I came across the pdf of a flyer from an elementary school in California. Google doesn’t throw documents into its results list just for fun, so that flyer had to have popped up for a reason. Inside the flyer, I saw a passing reference to Sarah. This Sarah had the same name as my friend; she was working as a part-time teacher at the school. That tidbit was exactly the information I needed to take the next steps. With some additional Googling for the elementary school, I found a small bio on the school’s website that confirmed this Sarah went to my college and so was likely the one I was looking for. A search through the phone book and a quick spin through Google Maps and I soon had Sarah’s home phone number and address. And by looking at the school’s website, I could determine the email convention they used so that I could make an educated guess at her email address.


Making a good guess at someone’s email address can work wonders. Is it or or If you’re wrong, the email bounces back. If not, the address is probably a valid one.

In this instance, an obscure fact snagged from a little publication was all I needed to open the door to what I was looking for. My advice is to read everything.

Google also helps in people searching by turning up references in the press via Google News or biographies of businesspeople in Google Finance. News stories are valuable for helping to pin down a location or an occupation. (“R. A. Ceisler, 55, junior account executive for Worldwide Cheese Distributors in Bellmore, NY, was promoted to senior sales manager.”) Such stories can also be valuable for indirect references to the person you want to find. News stories frequently contain references to spouses, relatives, coworkers, or neighbors, which can point you to the right person and offer clues about where to look next.

Social Networks

The explosion of social networking has made it much easier to chip away at those famed six degrees that theoretically separate everyone in the world. The advent of social networking tools has introduced an entirely new way of locating individuals. In a world in which people willingly broadcast their age, gender, marital status, religion, hobby, photos, and formerly intimate personal data, who needs detective skills?

The explosion of social networking has made it much easier to chip away at those famed six degrees that theoretically separate everyone in the world.

Little needs to be said about Facebook. With more than 500 million users worldwide and more being added every day, Facebook is an indispensable tool for finding people. Of even greater interest to a researcher is Linkedin, if only because it is aimed at a professional audience and dispenses with the pictures of backyard barbecues and game updates. By joining Linkedin, you’ll be able to search for individuals from many different companies and occupations. And just as Facebook connects friends and families and Linkedin connects colleagues, Classmates is the service to help connect old school chums. This trio of social networking sites covers a broad spectrum of the online population. Use them all when your research requires someone’s email address. These services aid in the preliminary part of people searching, which concerns getting the right person. Often you can distinguish Dave Johnson the salesman from Dave Johnson the plumber with a query inside one of these social networking tools. Each is easy enough to use that no additional instruction is required. Join them today if you haven’t already.

Vital Records

As a rule, the basic vital records of birth certificate and death certificates are accessible only to the next of kin or others who have a provable legal interest in the documents. These records are maintained by public agencies, but access to them is strictly regulated. Other vital records, which include marriage licenses, divorce decrees, immigration and naturalization papers, and adoption records fall into a gray area. Some states allow access, others don’t. To help sort out what you can and cannot obtain, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes Where to Write for Vital Records, a guide to each of the state agencies that provide them. It helps you gather the information you need to quickly obtain the records to which you are entitled, by listing the known facts you’ll have to provide to get a copy of a marriage license or a death certificate, for example.

Financial Information

For many businesses and certainly for many legal actions, an asset search is an important component of people searching. It is not enough to know where a person lives or what her phone number is. It is frequently important to know what assets an individual controls. Hunting for assets is a hunt for the records that document ownership of certain tangible objects like a house, airplane, car, or boat. We’ll talk about public records in Chapter 9, but for the nonce, one of the people-finder search engines will be your best friend for quick access to asset information from public records sources.

Hunting for assets is a hunt for the records that document ownership of certain tangible objects.

Credit reports and bank records are off-limits to the public; only people or businesses with a legally defined purpose can see them. Access may be granted when extending credit, renting an apartment, or screening potential employees. So if you are neither a lender nor a landlord, the best you can do to figure out someone’s financial status is make some educated estimates. If you know what a person does for a living, a salary survey from one of the major jobs sites such as can reveal a general salary range. (You can ask about three jobs for free before you have to pay for the premium content.) Look into job listing sites like Monster,, and Indeed, which all offer salary estimates for a variety of occupations.

For some broad insight into what particular jobs pay in different parts of the country, query the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “National Wage Data” for more than 800 occupations. Data are displayed by job, region, and state.

The civil service, the military, and other public positions pay according to easily accessible pay grades. Military pay charts from each of the military branches detail pay based on rank and years of service; most federal jobs are compensated according to the Base General Schedule Pay Scale, but more senior or professional positions fall into the Wage Grade or Senior Executive Service scales. A Google search for “civil service salary” and the state or city you’re interested in will bring up the compensation for public servants.

Don’t overlook industry associations as a source for salary information. Most associations survey their members regularly and compile the data. Some groups will share data with you if you ask.

Investment Filings

The publicly available servers of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s EDGAR database can deliver some insight on the wealthy individuals who work for public corporations. Every corporate officer and director must report their transactions in the stock of the company with which they are affiliated. These so-called insider filings are on Forms 3, 4, and 5, and by tracking them you can get an idea of how well the well-heeled are faring. Anyone who is selling 50,000 shares of stock for $85 a share is doing just swell.

It always helps to look into the compensation of a corporation’s officers—the salaries and other compensation paid to the five most highly compensated individuals is listed in the 10-K or proxy statement.

Another SEC filing to tip you off to what the moneyed classes are doing is Form 13-D. Any individual or group who owns 5 percent or more of the outstanding stock of a company must tell the SEC, and hence the public, about it by filing a Form 13-D. It’s a good way to see how individual investors are loading up on a stock.

Charitable Donations

Organizations that receive charitable donations need to report that source of income on Internal Revenue Service Form 990. GuideStar has extracted this information from the filings and compiled it on a searchable database. Use its excellent services to see who is giving what to whom. The Foundation Center is another terrific source for the lowdown on philanthropic givers. It provides some minimal contact information for the foundation and general parameters for how much the foundation hands out, but you can safely presume that anyone who donates $500,000 to the Illinois Committee to Save the Ryan Expressway probably isn’t hurting for carfare.


The word bankruptcy comes to us from the Italian for banca rota, or “broken bench.” The traditional way of removing a tapped-out trader from the marketplace was literally to break the bench from which he conducted business. In the United States, bankruptcy is a more humane, albeit public, process. The documentation of assets and debts are listed in the bankruptcy court filings. To track down bankruptcy filings at these bankruptcy courts, you will need an account with Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). With a PACER account, you will be able to search nationwide for filings by an individual, with significant details about the assets and liabilities involved. Before you start your search, you should know which court to search by determining where the person in question lived at the time of the bankruptcy filing. The filings, especially the exhibits and schedules that accompany the main documents, will contain remarkably detailed financial information.

Searching for Types of People

A people-searching project is not always in pursuit of a single individual. Sometimes you might be looking not for a known person but rather for a type of person. Perhaps you need to find a dentist in Cheboygan, Michigan. Or maybe you need to know about licensed airline pilots in Essex County, Massachusetts. Or you’re trying to find out how many registered Democrats are in a specific location and need the contact information for each of them. In each instance, you are looking not for a specific person, but for an individual who fits a certain profile: dentist, pilot, Democrat. Thanks to the wonders of publicly accessible databases, searching for types of people—from judges and doctors to criminals and prisoners and everyone in between—has never been easier. The sources and techniques for digging up the dirt on specific individuals overlap with the how-tos for unearthing information about groups. The same tools that help you find members of a group can also provide you with critical clues to people who fit the profile.

Thanks to the wonders of publicly accessible databases, searching for types of people—from judges and doctors to criminals and prisoners and everyone in between—has never been easier.

Licensed Professionals

The easiest people in the world to locate are licensed professionals. Precisely because doctors and lawyers and others in the learned professions need to demonstrate to the wider world their qualifications to practice, licenses are required.


Your research into physicians should begin by checking on their licenses to practice. Depending on the state, all doctors must hold a current and valid license to practice; it is the job of the state board of medical examiners to determine if an applicant is qualified to practice as a physician. The license contains the doctor’s educational credentials, addresses, hospital privileges, and other pertinent information that a patient would want to know. Associated with the board may be a licensing commission; you can find out through the American Medical Association’s links to state medical boards, where you’ll also find licensure requirements and statistics.

Now just because a doctor holds a license doesn’t mean that he doesn’t occasionally mess up. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) publishes “Criminal Cases Against Doctors,” which it describes as “a listing of investigations of physician registrants in which the DEA was involved that resulted in the arrest and prosecution of the registrant.” It also pursues administrative law cases against doctors that can result in the suspension of their license to prescribe drugs. If you want to make sure that your own doctor hasn’t run afoul of the medical board, refer to the medical licensing boards in your state. In New York, for example, the Office of Professional Misconduct and Physician Discipline will display disciplinary information for doctors in the state; California provides the Medical Board of California License Lookup System to help patients check on licenses and public actions takenagainst a doctor. For links to state medical license lookups, refer to

Other Health Professionals

Non-MD medical professionals, such as dentists, chiropractors, osteopaths, and others in the healing professions, are also required to be licensed. Each state has a licensing board for these professions that every practitioner must meet, though the actual requirements vary from state to state. Almost every individual whose occupation pertains to providing a healthcare service—psychoanalysts, social workers, and veterinarians—also must prove his fitness to practice to a licensing office, though some states are less stringent in their licensing than others. A Google search for:

“[profession]” “[state]” “license”

“dentist” “New York” “license” “board”

ought to find you a link that will deliver you to the front door of the agency or board that regulates the profession. Enter and conduct your own specific search.

Lawyers and Judges

Throughout the United States, either bar associations, the state courts, or a combination of the two regulate and license lawyers. To locate lawyers with minimal effort, turn to FindLaw’s “Find a Lawyer” database,, or simply Google for them. Few JDs shrink from posting information about themselves online, so finding a lawyer is one of the easier research tasks you’ll ever encounter. To make sure the lawyer you’re looking for is still in good standing, check with the bar association in the state where the lawyer is admitted. If she is not a solo practitioner but is instead associated with a firm, locate the firm and then search the firm’s site for biographical information. Unless a lawyer is unusually shy, an extremely rare disease among attorneys, her online biography ought to list the states and courts in which she has been admitted to practice.

Finding a lawyer is one of the easier research tasks you’ll ever encounter.

Certain specialized courts like the august U.S. Supreme Court or those with special subject matter jurisdiction like bankruptcy or tax courts will require a lawyer to be admitted to that court before he is allowed to practice before it. A quick check with the court’s clerk will tell you a lawyer’s status. To locate the clerks’ office, use the federal court directory from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts; state courts are linked to the National Center for State Courts.

Judges and Magistrates

It’s the rare court that doesn’t have a website, and contact information for all the judges and magistrates is a key component of it. If the bio of a judge is missing from the court’s site, look up federal judges in the convincingly named Directory of Federal Judges (which also contains the venerable Almanac of the Federal Judiciary); state judge bios are standard fare in the reference tome The American Bench. These books are standard items at any law library. A call to your county law library should get you an answer to your question from the librarian, who will have these books no more than ten steps from the front desk.

Other Occupations

If on a chore-filled Saturday morning, you say hello to the gardener on the way to a massage before you pick up a prescription and get a haircut, you will be dealing with at least four people who, as a condition of their livelihood, obtained a license to practice. In order to practice one of the learned professions, such as medicine or law, a license is obviously required. Society has a significant interest in knowing that a person who holds themselves out as being skilled in the art of removing pituitary tumors or arguing on your behalf in court actually knows what he or she is doing. But the same holds true for other professions, as well. Learning how to cut hair may not require as much post-collegiate study as neurosurgery, but there is a significant public interest in making sure anyone wielding scissors has some degree of skill with them. Because of that, you’ll be able to track down the current whereabouts and contact information for many millions of individuals if you know what they do for a living and where they are employed.

State law varies on exactly which jobs require a bureaucratic stamp of approval, but the way to find out is always the same. Spend some time poking around a state’s website to find the office of licenses or some similar operation. States also are quirky about which state departments have power over regulating professions, so you will need to do some initial work to find the regulatory agency in charge of licensing professions. For example, check with the state department of education website to verify teacher certifications.

Pilots also require licensure. Information about them, a group the Federal Aviation Administration quaintly calls “airmen,” is available from the Airmen Inquiry database. You’ll first need to register on the site—it’s free—but after that you can quickly pull out records for individuals by searching for a specific name in a particular city or state

Holders of Nonoccupational Licenses and Permits

Licenses are required not only to work in certain occupations but for certain privileges, such as flying a private airplane, owning a horse or a dog, or operating a store that sells alcoholic beverages. Any diligent searcher should go through some of these license databases to obtain addresses and proper names for elusive individuals.

Because we live in a society in which even hanging a neon sign outside your store requires a permit, tracking down information on business owners is a task for which online searching is perfectly suited. The researcher who wants to master the art of knowing who’s who in a community will discover that some time spent learning the ins and outs of the state and county boards that oversee buildings, permits, inspections, and the other regulatory needs of a community will pay off quickly. In these public records, you will uncover names, business relationships, and patterns of ownership in a way that no amount of random Googling could possibly provide.

Here’s a simple exercise. Be sure to have your camera phone or a notepad with you the next time you visit a grocery store, drugstore, or restaurant. Note the licenses and permits hanging in plain view near the front door. When you get home, locate the website for the agency that issued the permit or license, and I will wager you the site contains searchable data collections for finding other similar documents. These databases of permits and licenses equip the researcher to find out who owns what and, when used in tandem with information gleaned from the company and corporate records that we’ talk about in the next chapter, empower citizens to see who’s allowed to do what.

Liquor licenses, cabaret licenses, licenses to store chemicals, licenses to own wild animals…the list of things that require the payment of a fee and the filling out of a form goes on and on. The benefit to you is that all of these licenses and permits name names. This is very helpful if you happen to be tracking down an old pal who ran off to join the circus to become a lion tamer. (Check with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a part of the Department of Agriculture, to see if your friend registered with the agency, as all animal exhibitors are required to do.) These are documents and records that can frequently turn up a stray fact like an address or an association with a company or business, which can, in turn, be leveraged into a much more detailed collection of information about the licensee or permit holder. This is the detective part of research we talked about in the first chapter. You’re not slogging through some dreary databases. You’re sleuthing!


Part of finding people is finding people with expertise so that they can share with you what they know. When we talk about experts, we’re not only talking about Albert Einstein. Experts abound in all fields, and what qualifies a person to be one varies with the discipline. Professor Einstein’s work on physics might make him an expert on how much energy is created when matter is transformed, but nowhere in his work will you find a reliable opinion on the best way to make yogurt at home or the value of the Scandinavian defense in chess. Those are not his field. For all Einstein’s genius, his opinions hold weight only on very specific subjects.

Part of finding people is finding people with expertise so that they can share with you what they know.

Experts come in unlikely packages. A teenager who spends eight hours a day with thumbs securely glued to a cellphone may not be able to name the chemical weight of iridium, but you can count on her, in my humble opinion, to be expertly fluent in the telegraphic language of texting. A retired FBI agent may be wise to the ways of the embezzler. And your brother, who spends every waking moment listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, may actually have a very good grasp on when they last played the Cow Palace in San Francisco. In short, by broadly defining experts as people with a specialized knowledge in an area, we need not restrict our search for expert opinion to only those who teach at large, expensive universities. The world opens up when we understand how much learning is walking around in people’s heads, many of whom don’t hold PhDs.

One of the handiest rules of thumb I know for locating experts is to figure out where people whose interests align with what you are looking for hang out online. I put this strategy to good use once when I was struggling to solve a tough question posed to me by a lawyer. He said there was a word that meant to “go back and forth like oxen plowing a field.” He was drafting a document and wanted to use the word to describe the action of a printer head as it moved back and forth across the page, printing one line of text when it zipped from left to right, then printing the next line when it made its return trip from right to left. He was sure such a word existed; the problem was, he couldn’t remember what it was. Could I find it for him?

Umm, sure. I diligently checked dictionaries and powered up the search engines, I asked my colleagues and called the New York Public Library, but it was all for naught. Just as I was running out of ideas for places to look, it occurred to me that there had to be a group of people who liked unusual words somewhere online, which is to say, a group of experts. So I logged on to Google Groups, an email-delivered bulletin board service that lets people with similar interests communicate with one another. I turned up a group known as “alt.English.usage” where people who enjoy curious English words can share their love of the mother tongue. So I posted the oxen-plowing-a-field question to the group as a last-ditch effort and left for lunch. To my delight, when I came back an hour later, I discovered twelve responses to my question. “It’s boustrophedonic!” they all said. Oh, really? I wasn’t going to take the word—literally—of some nameless nerds on the Internet. But when I opened the Oxford English Dictionary and looked through the magnifying glass at the 4-point type under “boustrophedon,” what do you know? “…alternately from right to left and from left to right, like the course of the plough in successive furrows.” Eureka! I reported back to the lawyer. To him, I looked like a brilliant researcher who magically plucked an answer from thin air. The truth of it, of course, is much less exalted. I just knew where to find the right people to ask. The ability to tap into the expertise of other people is a very powerful tool. Find the expert, find the answer.

Find the expert, find the answer.

Asking groups of strangers to help solve your thorny research problems is not some fly-by-night technique used only by desperate librarians. No less an authority than the New York Times does the same thing. It recently cast its bread upon the cyberwaters by asking for help identifying the unknown photographer who created a portfolio of World War II photos, including close-up pictures of Adolf Hitler in Hungary. The Times posted the photographs on its Lens blog (and on a blog hosted by the German magazine Der Spiegel) and asked readers to send in their thoughts about who might have taken them. As the Times itself reported, “World War II Mystery Solved in a Few Hours.” The photographer, identified by a German PhD student named Harriet Scharnberg, was photojournalist Franz Krieger from Salzburg, Austria. Again, eureka. The idea of crowdsourcing information is an interesting one. It’s not 100 percent reliable, but when it works, it can pay handsome dividends.

There are other places where you can find experts, and several are mentioned and highlighted throughout this book. Other chapters provide more details on how to extract useful information about people from specific sources. There are smart people all over who will be happy to tell you what they know, and those sources can help you find them.


One positive thing to say about criminals—once they’ve been sentenced to prison, they’re easy to find. State jailers and the Federal Bureau of Prisons now offer searchable inmate locators. These databases will help you find the facility in which a prisoner is housed and usually some additional information such as the nature of the crime for which the individual has been jailed as well as the tentative date of his release or parole hearing. The California Department of Corrections, for example, will inform you that inmate #B33920, one Mr. Charles Manson, is currently a resident at the California State Prison at Corcoran and shall be for the foreseeable future. After prisoners are released from custody, many states report on where they have been paroled to, as a service to the broader community.

Similarly, the National Sex Offender Registry coordinates with the databases operated by each state to obtain information on individuals who have been convicted of sex-related crimes and released back into society. It includes names, aliases, and current post-incarceration addresses. For example, Florida operates the Florida Offender Alert System, which allows subscribers to sign up for email notification if an offender or predator moves close to a designated Florida address, such as a residence, office, or school.

Famous People

The problem with tracking down celebrities, like movie stars, rock stars, athletes, and others whose names and faces are known to the world, is that they’re besieged by fans. And unlike most of us ordinary mortals, the famous take pains to protect their privacy. In certain cases, they keep their personal lives out of the public eye owing to a sensible concern for the safety of themselves and their families. But it’s not impossible to track down the famous; you’ll need to work through intermediaries—namely, their agents or publicity people. And you should have a good reason to want to talk to a celebrity other than to have a friendly chat or say how much you loved his last movie. From afar, celebrities live magical lives of glamour and leisure; the truth close up is that most brand-name celebrities work extraordinarily hard, and their time is very limited. I learned this during my brief post-collegiate stint as a publicist, when I got to see Hollywood on a workday. The daily grind of making a movie is about as glamorous as steam cleaning the subway.

It’s not impossible to track down the famous; you’ll need to work through intermediaries—namely, their agents or publicity people.

So to find out who a celebrity’s “people” are, check the agent websites. WhoRepresents? and its sister sites, WhoRepsMusic? and WhoRepsSports?, are paid services whose subscribers can search the extensive database of representatives, agents, and PR professionals, many of whose clients are household names. You may never get Lady Gaga herself on the phone, but you could probably talk to someone in her entourage.

The Dead

The departed are still with us. This is neither metaphysics nor encouragement to believe in spooks but an acknowledgment that archives and records survive the departed. Those who now sing in the celestial choir left behind a record of their passage through this wicked world. To a great extent, the field of tracking down the details of peoples past is dominated by genealogists, amateur and professional. To serve these audiences, services have arisen that are essentially interesting compilations of public records and historic account. Among them are some familiar reference titles, some fairly new databases, and, for anyone with a research budget, commercial services that put together all known public records and make them accessible for a fee.


Thanks to its ability to search the text of newspapers, Google does a fair job of fetching obituaries. Search for the name of the departed and the word “obituary” or “obit” or the phrase “survived by,” and you can generally find a person’s final news report.

Obit Central is an inexpensive service that culls information from cemetery records, obituaries, death notices, and census and immigration records dating to the 1700s; it offers more than a billion data items for you to search. The Obit Central home page provides a search screen, a subscription form, and, more interesting, a collection of links to other subscription research services into the dead, such as Find-a-Grave. Given the amount of time and legwork these sites can save, the minimal annual subscription is a bargain. But if you prefer not to subscribe, try searching the Newspaper Archive for obituaries.

One curious website that is surprisingly not morbid, given its slant and subject matter, is Obit magazine, a site that is dedicated to the discussion of death. In addition to its excellent editorial coverage of issues related to the final voyage, it’s a good place to find obituaries on the celebrated.

Social Security Death Index

The Social Security Death Index is the final resting place for 87 million-plus former Social Security number holders. RootsWeb, a service of the for-profit, provides more than 90 million records of deceased Social Security cardholders. The database is intuitive to use, but consult the guide “Tracing Family Trees” for limitations on the records contained in the service, especially missing records.

Who Was Who

The familiar set of biographies known as Who’s Who, from Marquis, also includes a compendium of past notables in volumes titled Who Was Who. The capsule biographies are useful guides to basic facts about the dead.

Genealogy Resources

Genealogists have turned the search into family heritage into an engaging hobby for people curious about their antecedents. A number of genealogy sites will provide instant access to an immense range of data that would take hours of research to put together yourself from the available records. The list of resources from ProGenealogists is probably the best of the bunch, but and MyHeritage .com are go-to sources for auld folks too. They all charge fees for access.


You’ll have to get up pretty early in the morning if you want to outdo the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in the race to build a vast bureaucracy. The DoD maintains extensive records on all military personnel. To obtain military records, try the automated system from the National Archives and Records Adminstration known as eVetRecs. You can request records if you are a veteran yourself or if you’re next of kin to a deceased service member. However, limited amounts of information can be released to the general public under the Freedom of Information Act by following a process described in detail by the National Archives. One note of caution: A fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed more than 16 million official records, which had been neither microfilmed nor copied. Many of the records lost to the fire were for army personnel who had been discharged between 1912 and 1960 and air force personnel from 1947 to 1964, meaning many World War I, World War II, and Korean War army records have to be reconstructed from other sources. Handily, the National Archives recommends some alternate sources to help re-create records in response to requests.

Library Resources

The library is still a viable option for people searching. You’ll find the average reference collection abounds with books dedicated to looking up information on people.

The library is still a viable option for people searching.

Marquis’ Who’s Who

Perhaps the best-known set of capsule biographies is the Who’s Who volumes from Marquis. With a collection that it estimates lists more than 1.4 million names, Marquis equips libraries with a searchable database for use by their patrons. The bio entries feature birth date, education, professional career highlights, awards, memberships, contact information, and personal details such as religion and family. The print collections include titles for specific disciplines: Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Art, Who’s Who in American Law, Who’s Who in Corporate America, and others.

The Social Register

Only people rich enough to use the word summer as a verb and droll enough to list the name of their yacht next to the names of their children make their way into the Social Register. Well, even a cat can look at a queen. Any researcher curious about where J. P. Stinkingrich and the Mrs. maintain the “dilatory domicile,” as a summer estate is known, can waltz through the cotillion of data compiled in this entertainingly pretentious phone directory. It’s a standard title at most libraries.

Commercial Services

Businesses and institutions with budget money for public records research can simply buy data from companies that have already done the tedious legwork of contacting county, state, and federal clerk offices and compiled public record profiles of individuals. For those who can afford the search, a number of companies deliver data in a fraction of the time it would take you to undertake the schlep, electronic or otherwise, that is normally required to adequately exhaust the public information compilations. Professional researchers and librarians have long relied on Accurint and KnowX (both are now part of Lexis), and AutoTrackXP (part of Thomson Reuters CLEAR platform for investigations) to divine what is known about an individual.


Florida has one of the nation’s easiest to use databases for checking on licenses issued within the state. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation offers one-stop shopping for inspection of licenses, something the department calls “Instant Public Records.” In a single click, any citizen can see records on everything from elevator permits to the licenses granted to athlete agents. It is a model of public access that other states would be wise to emulate. See the entire inventory on its website, and then check your own state to see if it offers anything remotely as convenient.