View Full Version : Finding People, Before Google

05-30-2009, 05:27 AM

Clair Dickson
05-30-2009, 05:33 AM
Two good books on this are "Missing Persons" by Fay Faron (I like this book a lot!) and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Missing Persons."

Is this an amateur sleuth or a professional one? (Pros have long had databases to look this stuff up in, though today there are databases that offer per-search fees rather than just subscriptions.)

Missing Persons is an older book, so it touches more on how things used to be. As in, once upon a time, you could pay a fee to the Post Office and they'd give you the forwarding address of a person. Not true anymore.

Asking people can be one of the most effective ways to find information. Also, phone books and information, of course. If you have a phone number, you can use a reverse directory (now they're online, but there used to be books published that pro. sleuths and libraries had) to get a name. Area code can narrow down the city/ area, which then you can pick the phone book that covers that area. This can take some time, but it can be very effective at getting the information.

(I do not now nor have I ever been a sleuth... but I've learned a lot about the trade since I write private eye fiction. =)

05-30-2009, 06:55 AM
It depends upon the laws of the country and the person'e status or wealth. In Australia you can buy a copy of the electoral roll - the names of all voters. It gives phone numbers and addresses if I remember correctly. Vast amounts of data is stored in councils (for rates etc), Government (tax data, vehicle registration etc). I believe, for a fee, it's possible to enquire about births, marriages and deaths - my wife has paid for copies of death certificates of near relatives. You can walk into a sporting club and casually ask if Joe Blow is a member if you think you know the rough area of search and any sporting interests of the victim. If secrecy is not important, ads in the classified section of main newspapers under "missing person". Membership of clubs, address his old University sends Varsity News and other correspondence.

Then there are tricks. An official-looking ad in the main paper stating a prize has not been claimed - naming the missing person. It would have to be an attractive amount (though you wouldn't have to have the money) and a feasible competition (Lotto in Australia would be a suggestion).

The main thing you need for good searching is the date of birth. This cuts the field down, even for John Smiths. And if a person doesn't want to be found they often change their name slightly. John James Smith goes by James Smith. And if you're looking for Alexander also look for Alec, Alex, Lex, Sandy, Alejandro, Jano - all the usual shortening of the names. You can dedicate a whole chapter to the way a person will change their name so they won't get it wrong (it would have to be near the real thing unless the person is a professional criminal). People also change their DOB by swapping month and day - 1/11/44 tp 11/1/44. This is so they can claim it was a pure mistake if they're caught.

So work on you plot backward. Think up how much the victim DOESN'T want to be found. Once you determine that, work out the sly ways he/she alters personal details. Then you'll know what the searcher will have to do to find the person.

05-30-2009, 10:37 AM
the Red Cross has always been good at finding people or helping people find people internationally, as has the Salvation Army.

05-30-2009, 11:19 AM
There's always the Mormons. They have the strangle hold on family history data. You could find out as much as possible aboiut relatives to keep an eye out for the victim staying with family.

Tsu Dho Nimh
05-30-2009, 02:59 PM

It's a slog through phone books, city directories, drivers licenses and other lists of people.

One thing that seldom changes is a person's hobbies. If they are a photographer in Australia, they are probably still a photographer in Bolivia.

"She's looking for someone in a foreign country with nothing but an address to start and no idea if they are alive (the letter will have been from over 20 years earlier)."

1 - Locate the American Embassy or consulate that is closest to that address and ask them to check if that person is still there. Or ask the foreign country's embassy if they can help you trace the person, or at least check the phone book for you. (this happens fairly often in embassies)

2 - Send a letter to OCCUPANT at that address and ask them if the person is still there.

05-30-2009, 06:53 PM
Here are some of the ways we used to do it when looking for someone who didn't particularly want to be found:

Post office change of address cards
property tax records at city hall or county hall
the phone book - if our guy wasn't in there, we'd call anyone with the last name, asking for him, many times we'd get lucky and they'd say "No, that's my nephew. He lives at 123 Mayberry Street"
Employer and former employer
Friends at former place of employment

I tracked down a guy's girlfriend and went to her neighborhood with the intention of asking the neighbors if they'd ever seen my guy around her house. I was about to ring the bell at the first house I went to, when I read the name under the bell. It was my guy. I couldn't believe my eyes. I went to the apartment building across the street, where the girlfriend lived and knocked on the door of an apartment on the floor below the girl's apartment.
I asked if that girl knew the guy across the street. She said "Sure, his girlfriend is right here having coffee with me. Do you want to talk to her?"
Obviously I didn't, but with some quick thinking, I told the girl that I was selling life insurance and wanted to talk to her boyfriend about a policy.
She told me he was at work, where he worked, and what time he'd be home.
A very productive day.

05-31-2009, 07:10 AM
You didn't say why she's hunting this person, but in case she needs to justify her snooping, 'genealogy' is always a safe bet. People might be more willing to open up to an American lady looking for a 'long-lost cousin', than, for instance, tracking a man who 'done her wrong'.

06-02-2009, 09:42 PM
In the Scandinavian countries all this is public information. It's super-easy to find someone.

06-03-2009, 04:07 AM
A part of my WIP is going to require finding people, addresses, tracking their history, etc... but it's set before the Google age (1980s), and partially outside of the US in major South American and European countries.

As I've spent most of my adult life online I'm having troubles coming up with ideas. My obvious first step is going to people - - following last address on a letter and tracking the person through people who knew that person, where they went, etc.

Any other ideas?

Thanks in advance! ;)

At the risk of being too obvious, there's also information or, in the UK, directory enquiries. I.e. if you think you know what city the person is in, or you suspect they might be in X city, you can call directory enquiries (UK) or information (US), or whatever the local equivalent is, to ask for their number. Note, however, that in the UK numbers are listed by first initial and last name, so if you're looking for someone named, say, Jezebel Murphy, you will find approximately 100 million (slight exaggeration) other "J. Murphies."

Also, if France is one of the countries, you can use Minitel. Google it to see what I mean.

06-03-2009, 04:17 AM
If the foreign address is in Costa Rica, ask the new homeowners or the next-door neighbors (or their guards, depending on the neighbirhood). I swear they know everything about everybody.

I gave a dude on a boat trip at the beach the wrong phone number on purpose and he still showed up at our gate back home the next day!

06-03-2009, 09:56 AM
Hmm, let me see. Well, there are phone books of course, but those are regional so a bit tricky if you don't know what region to look in. And then there's something called Befolkningsregistret in Sweden or Väestörekisterikeskus in Finland (don't know what the equivalents would be called in Denmark/Norway). These are the population registers. And yes, EVERYONE is registered, except maybe illegal immigrants or have a protected identity for some reason. When I studied journalism in Sweden we had a course in public records and it is almost shocking what you can get through just a few phone calls - for instance where a person went to school, their college grades, their taxes, where they live, if they have any debt that is being collected etc. The tax office is one of the places that supplies information.

And here's a tip - not all officials at all the registers or offices are aware of the fact that all this is public knowledge. So they might at first be reluctant to give it up. One has to know one's rights and be persistent. Just a tip to give your story authenticity.

06-04-2009, 02:38 AM
I still do this: I send a letter to the last known address. It comes back with the post office sticker telling me the new address. This usually has to be done w/in 6 months of them moving and they have had to have left a forwarding address.