Finding The Lost And Missing: Skip Tracing 101
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Finding the Lost And Missing: Skip Tracing 101

The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) recently reported that there are approximately 90,000 unresolved cases of missing persons at any time in the United States. In addition, millions of people are disconnected having simply lost touch with one another. Most readers can probably name several family members, friends, classmates, or colleagues they would like to find.

Skip Tracing can be defined as the process used to locate a person's whereabouts whose contact information is not immediately known. Professionals who specialize in locating missing persons include, police and private investigators, debt collectors, process servers, bail bond officers, repossession agents, , attorneys, and journalists. Many of their methods can be effectively adopted by lay persons searching for lost family, friends, classmates, and colleagues.

Traces of a person’s existence and activities are scattered like the bread crumbs in the children’s story, Hansel and Gretel. Locating an individual requires that you track their travels and relationships. Your search will involve networking and learning to follow the trail of digital footprints left in public data bases and social media. Your job is to collect the clues and follow their historical path to your subject’s door.

What follows is a simplified version of skip tracing for the lay person. This three step method includes (1) collecting the subject’s personal information, (2) identifying members of his/her social network, and (3) performing internet searches.

Data Base: Collecting the leads

The first step is to gather as much personal identifying information as you can find. Organize the data in an amendable outline or spreadsheet in order to add and correct information during your investigation. Here are some important types of information you will need:

  • Name: first, middle, last (be sure the spelling is accurate)
  • Date and place of Birth
  • Address(s) with zip codes
  • Telephone Number(s), land line and cells
  • Social Security Number
  • Schools (elementary, high school, tech school, college, professional school)
  • Relatives
  • Friends

Networking: Four degrees of separation

The theory of interpersonal connection suggests that since the dawn of the internet and specifically social media we are only separated by a few relationships. From an investigator’s perspective, this is a probability problem. The more contacts you make with members of your subject’s social network, the greater the chances are that someone will provide you with an important lead. This step requires that you catalog contact information for as many members of your subject’s social network as you can locate. The following groups constitute some of the affiliations you should explore.

  • Immediate family members and relatives
  • Friends and acquaintances
  • Classmates
  • Coworkers
  • Alumni associations
  • Military/ service groups
  • Community associations
  • Interest/hobby groups
  • Professional /trade associations

Online Searches: Digital detective

There is a maze of web sites typically referred to as “people finders.”Most of these resources use thinly disguised “bait and switch” tactics to get you to pay for information you can obtain freely. In addition many sites are sold and converted to fee-for-service businesses after they become successful on the free internet market. You must be willing to do your research and learn to “bob and weave” to avoid ever increasing numbers of profiteers on the internet highway. Here are a few of my favorite search links that I use to track the lost and missing.

I recommend doing an initial Google search with the subject’s full name and last known address. If that does not produce a viable lead, I try additional searches with people finders such as Pipl or Zaba. Next, I search social and professional media sites such as Facebook and Linkedin. If I still do not discover useful information, I make contact with members of the subject’s social network and re-search using the new information I have discovered. Finally, I query search engines that contain specialized information about ancestry, alumni, military or data recorded in public information data bases.

Summary

Most readers can name several family members, friends, classmates, or colleagues they would like to find. This article provides a simplified three step version of skip tracing for the lay person seeking to reconnect with a family member or an old friend. Locating an individual requires that you track their travels and relationships. Your search will involve networking and learning to follow the trail of digital footprints left in public data bases and social media.

The image used in this article courtesy of Pixabay under the creative commons license 2.0.


Street Talk

Very informative article, James. I always wondered how professionals go about finding someone that's missing... those are staggering statistics you quote about the number of missing persons.

Reply
  about 7 years ago

Thanks for your feedback Juan. It is estimated that skip tracing using this method can locate over 90% of dislocated persons. Individuals who have intentionally gone off the grid or professional criminals often require more intensive investigations.

Reply
  about 7 years ago
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