This is the second blog post about private investigators, drawn from research for my next novel. Read the first post, 'What Does A Real Private Investigator Do?' here.
Disclaimer – this research is done for a book with a US setting. The information may not apply to other countries. It is not professional advice and should not be taken as such
It’s a fine and sunny morning. You unlock the door to your private investigation agency and go in. Door closed again, the first thing you notice is the red light flashing on your answering machine. It’s a new client. Their ex-partner has done a runner and taken their prized collection of vinyl records from the 1980’s. Your new client wants their ex found and their records back.
What do you do?
People go missing all the time. Sometimes it’s forced, by more often than not, it’s deliberate. Locating missing people is a regular task for a PI, but how do they go about finding them?
Back to your new case.
Your client’s ex falls into the category known as skips. Skips are people who have deliberately hidden their whereabouts.
The first thing you do (once you’ve interviewed the client for helpful information), is to ask a relative or friend of the skip. A PI may simply call and state they are looking for the person, and this will often result in the PI being told the skips’ location. Some PIs may say they are an old friend who wants to get in touch. This is called pretexting; not illegal, but it’s heading into a grey area of ethics. There are ways a PI can hide their true reasons for seeking the information without lying outright.
If that fails, you then try social media. Many people leave their social media accounts open for all to see. It’s a great way to find people, and by reading their posts you can discover all sorts of information. If the person sought has strict privacy settings in place, searching for the social media accounts of family and friends can be useful too.
Then there are the free public databases: telephone directories, official records, genealogy websites (to see if they have passed away, if it’s been a while), motor vehicles registries (available to PIs, but not general public), correctional service websites (in case they’re in jail), and county property appraiser websites.
If you draw a blank there, then there are the professional PI databases. These are specifically for PIs and usually charge a fee to access the information they contain.
Having successfully located the ex and reunited your client with their beloved Duran Duran records, you then receive a call from a distressed mother—her daughter has run away.
In a case like this, the first thing you do is ensure the daughter is a runaway and hasn’t been abducted. Most runaways will leave a message of some sort to say they’ve gone and they’re not coming back.
The second thing you need to do is make a report to the police. This means the runaway will be logged into a database, and also means the police will know to contact family if the person is picked up for misdemeanors, etc.
Now you start your search.
Parents of your runaway’s friends are your first port of call. Most parents are willing to help locate missing kids and will give any information they can to help. If you have no luck there, you then talk to other family members who may be willing to help the runaway. If the daughter has runaway before, then checking where they were found last time is a good idea. You also send photos of the runaway to police stations in towns where they may have gone.
If the runaway has a credit card that is under a parent’s name, you ask the parent to access the records for the account which show where it’s been used, and when. You look into the social media accounts of your runaway. Most teenagers these days have several accounts spread over various forms of social media, and use them constantly.
Having located the missing daughter hiding in the garden shed at her best friend’s home, you return once more to your office. The answering machine is flashing red again.
This time Bob is looking for his old buddy Kevin, who he hasn’t seen in sixteen years. You look Kevin up in various telephone directories with no luck. Then you check a genealogy website, and call Bob to break the news of Kevin’s passing two years previously. Not all endings are happy ones.
So at the end of a busy day of tracking down missing people, you lock the door of your agency and head home. You’re greeted by your fourteen year old daughter who needs to be at her indoor soccer game in twenty minutes, but she can’t find her mouth guard in the chaos of her bedroom floor.
Good luck with that missing case!
Next week - PIs and criminal investigations.
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