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View Full Version : What would a private investigator do in this case?



KCT
03-15-2016, 04:37 PM
Let me outline the scenario to give you some frame of reference. The male MC in my story hopes to locate a girlfriend he had as youth while as a freshman in high school, but she moved away soon after he'd met her and he has lost all contact with her as a result.

Twelve years elapse.

Now the MC is an adult and he contacts a P.I. to see if he can locate the young woman's current address or her phone number. The MC has very little information to give to the P.I. He provides him with her first and last name, her current age, and her physical description, along with her old address. He also provides the name and physical description of the girl's stepmother and the make and model of the car that she owned at the time. He claims his friend and her stepmother moved to the state of Nevada twelve years previously. In other words, the P.I. does not have much information to go on at that point.

I'm guessing a P.I. would have access to various records, files, and computer data bases that are not open to the general public as a rule. The P.I. might say that he could peruse the available databases to see what he can find, but warns that it would likely be a hopeless endeavor due to the limited info that he has available to him. To add to the problem, the MC doesn't have much money to spend on the investigation, but he wants the P.I. to do what he can based upon his limited financial resources. There is the rub.

We'll assume the P.I. takes the MC's financial situation into consideration. I'd like to know what a P.I. might charge to do a precursory and limited search through the various computer databases based upon this situation. In other words, is there a typical price structure or fee that would cover something like this, and if so, what might it be? I realize variables could influence the cost, but I hoped to get a general idea about what might be a typical fee a P.I. would charge to do a minimal database search for information in this case.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Maryn
03-15-2016, 04:58 PM
I'm no PI (although I do rock a fedora and trenchcoat), but I would think a PI whose routine includes finding people would be paying the annual membership at any of the half dozen or so Find-Anyone-In-The-US sites. He would also use the free sites like ZabaSearch which compile public records like voter registration, property taxes, and phone books. Searching free sites and sites at which he's already a paid member won't add much cost to his daily or hourly fee.

Say your PI allots an hour for such a search. That's generous if he's on members-only sites already. What would a professional charge be for an hour? It'll be different in Chicago or New York than in Spokane or Tucson. I'd guess a range of $20-$25 for that hour--outside major urban areas. But if he's sympathetic to the client's financial situation, maybe he'd charge $15/hr. Or charge his regular hourly rate but pro-rate it for how much of the hour it actually took. There's not going to be a single way all the private eyes discount their fees, if they even do that.

It's surprisingly easy for someone like me, not especially good with computers or anything, to find people in the US without even paying the membership sites. The main exceptions are children, people who have no online presence (often older adults), and people who are trying not to be find-able. So make sure your client exhausts his own capabilities first. (Seriously, pick someone you knew 20 years ago who's probably still alive but you are not in touch with. Give yourself an hour. I bet you can narrow it down to three or four addresses.)

Curlz
03-15-2016, 06:25 PM
In other words, is there a typical price structure or fee that would cover something like this, and if so, what might it be? I realize variables could influence the cost,
Have you tried to Google this? I did and there are lots of precise results :tongue Your character could save money likewise. Lots of the same records that a PI would access are also available to the general public for a fee, or even for free.

Strictly, the PI charges do vary, starting from $20 for a simple data check, and $50+ per hour for longer work. Which will total up to something like a $1000 altogether for a simplest of cases with a complicated case going up to $5000-10 000. Fees per mileage also apply if they travel. There might be an upfront fee of around $100-1000 (which will then be deducted from the total payment).

cornflake
03-15-2016, 07:54 PM
No, a PI doesn't have access to stuff like I think you're imagining. They may pay for access to databases that the general public can also access for a fee, and may have friends who are cops or whatever who would maybe search a police- or dmv- or whatever db if there's one the public can't (some states have open DMV records, some don't, some are in the middle). In general, the license doesn't give you anything like access to police records, which I think is what you meant.

As for price, Maryn's price seems impossibly low to me, but I'm guessing that's because we're in different zip codes, heh. Call a couple of private investigators in the area you're setting it in and ask.

Also, honestly, do you read a lot of mysteries? Unless someone is trying to disappear, it's hard to, and what you described is NOT a little bit of info. People think it's harder to locate someone than it is, generally, but PIs don't.

jclarkdawe
03-15-2016, 08:24 PM
What does your story need?

Simple approach that is likely to work is contact the high school alumni association. Probably better than a 50% success rate. Or it can range all the way up to impossible. So what does your story need?

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

NateSean
03-15-2016, 08:27 PM
A private detective on a paranormal romance series based in Canada charged five hundred dollars per day plus expenses. That's fiction. But the price seems to be about right.

Max Spade in Maltese Falcon charged somewhere in the range of 1,000 dollars for expenses alone and that movie takes place well before the Internet.

I'm throwing out fictional examples of course, but then I assume at least some of the fictions out there are researched. Even the ones that take creative liberties with reality.

RKarina
03-15-2016, 08:36 PM
Like Maryn, I'm no PI... I have done research into finding people, and hiding people (for fiction)... and I've been found by old friends, and found old friends...

As pointed out - there are tons of free and pay-as-you-go sites where it's possible to put in someone's basic info (like their name and where they used to live) and get hits back. It's not too hard to play the elimination game to narrow down the choices. It can be tougher with women, if they've married and changed their names.

Most high schools have an alumni site - for planning things like reunions - and there are the generic sites like Classmates. If the girl is the type to keep in touch with her HS pals, she might be registered on one of them (and they're pretty public). At 12 years past Freshman year, if they went to college - you're looking at someone who has likely finished college, and is either just beginning their career, or is a couple of years in (depending on the degree/s they pursued).

A PI is not going to have magical access that the public does not have. What they could have is experience tracking people, memberships to various people-finder sites, and contacts in various police departments who would be willing to help them. If finding people is their gig, they'd be familiar with public records searches, and might have existing relationships with people in those departments who can help them. But they would not have a database where they can just sit at a computer and get info fed back to them.

Now, here's the fun part...

Is this modern day?

People have Facebook accounts. They use Twitter. And other social media accounts, often under their real name. If their name is common, it makes it harder. If their name is at all unusual, easier.

And yeah, I'd make a few calls to PIs - find out if they do people finding, and how much they charge.

Maryn
03-15-2016, 09:34 PM
As for price, Maryn's price seems impossibly low to me, but I'm guessing that's because we're in different zip codes, heh. Call a couple of private investigators in the area you're setting it in and ask.(I based it on the first hit I got on the average annual income for private detectives, $47K, which is $21 and change per hour if they work a forty-hour week on the average. No, I didn't vet the site at all. Could be complete hogwash. But if you reach my zipcode, let's go out to lunch, okay?)

Siri Kirpal
03-15-2016, 11:11 PM
Sat Nam! (Literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

Just throwing this into the ring:

Women who have married and changed their names can be very hard to find...says someone who's tried locating old friends that way. I haven't found several...including one who was an actress and ought to be on databases.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal

cmhbob
03-15-2016, 11:44 PM
One of the things we miss a lot in questions like this is teh most important part: What do you need to have happen? Is there a particular way you want this to go?

Maryn
03-16-2016, 12:33 AM
Always a valid point. Sometimes the best approach is to start with what the result needs to be, then work backward to the most plausible way to achieve it.

KCT
03-16-2016, 04:51 AM
One of the things we miss a lot in questions like this is teh most important part: What do you need to have happen? Is there a particular way you want this to go?

Sorry, I should've stated that my intention for the story is that the P.I. is surprised to find zero information about the two women he is tasked to help locate. It's as if they vanished off the face of the earth - so to speak - after they moved away. What the MC doesn't know at that point is the stepmother had the resources/contacts to go completely underground, hence the lack of new info about their whereabouts, etc.

I figured the MC would have already checked out the various public sites/venues that all of you have so thoughtfully provided. The idea was that the MC would then contact a P.I. to see what he might find. I wasn't sure if a typical P.I. would have access to other sources/records that the MC would not have in this case. I know that various police departments these days have been granted access to some of the databases compiled by the NSA and other security state venues, which would potentially expose more info.

I wanted to portray what a P.I. might do in this case, and what he might charge for his services with a reasonable degree of accuracy, since the MC has limited financial resources. All of the above comments and suggestions have given me a better framework to work the story, and I wish to thank you all for your valuable feedback.

Rachel77
03-17-2016, 09:14 PM
What does your story need?

Simple approach that is likely to work is contact the high school alumni association. Probably better than a 50% success rate. Or it can range all the way up to impossible. So what does your story need?

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe


Seconding the alumni association. I've moved halfway across the country since graduating university, have changed addresses several times since then, have no social media presence (well, outside of AW and Ravelry, but I don't use my own name on either site), made no effort at all to keep in touch with the university...and twenty years later, the university's alumni association called me on my cell phone.

WeaselFire
03-17-2016, 09:21 PM
Simple approach that is likely to work is contact the high school alumni association. Probably better than a 50% success rate. Or it can range all the way up to impossible. So what does your story need?

This. Skip tracing is a common PI tactic (bounty hunters and law enforcement too, as well as all the CIA, NSA and other three letter agencies...) and it's hard to drop off the radar entirely. Credit and background checks using old addresses, names and general locations are common and fairly easy to do. Most PI work is actually what you or I could do if we knew where to look and had the time to do it. Most TV PI work is fiction. :)

By the way, I moved through 21 different addresses, two states, 19 cities, 16 phone numbers, 17 jobs, three colleges, eight bank accounts and six girlfriends and the post card for my 20th high school reunion showed up two days after it was mailed 1,700 miles away. My best friend had the same address, same phone number and same job as he did in high school and they couldn't find him. :)

Jeff

jclarkdawe
03-17-2016, 11:29 PM
How much is your character willing to spend?

For about $200 - $500, you'd probably get a check of credit sources, public records, motor vehicle, and NCIC if the guy is talented. The big one is the credit reports. Big question is whether there is any activity and when was the last time there was activity. It's hard dropping out of the credit network.

Here's where it gets fun. Let's say the credit history stops five years ago. This means that the person no longer has bank accounts and is paying cash. Or is dead. Or has changed name and identity. Dead can be found, the other two probably not. But any search now needs to move to the location listed as the last in the credit history. You need to start working the ground, talking to neighbors, viewing local sources, and things like that. Impossible to tell how it's going to go. Costs are probably going to be $500 - $2000 a day. You can easily spend a couple of weeks and come up with nothing. You could spend a day and come up with a winner.

Unfortunately, the two best sources for finding someone, income taxes and Social Security, are virtually impossible to search, even by the alphabet agencies.

But there is always a point where people drop off the system. The longer back that point is, the harder it is to find them. Good PI can usually figure on the likelihood of success and will tell the customer.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

brswain
03-20-2016, 08:00 AM
Let me outline the scenario to give you some frame of reference. The male MC in my story hopes to locate a girlfriend he had as youth while as a freshman in high school, but she moved away soon after he'd met her and he has lost all contact with her as a result.

Twelve years elapse.

Now the MC is an adult and he contacts a P.I. to see if he can locate the young woman's current address or her phone number. The MC has very little information to give to the P.I. He provides him with her first and last name, her current age, and her physical description, along with her old address. He also provides the name and physical description of the girl's stepmother and the make and model of the car that she owned at the time. He claims his friend and her stepmother moved to the state of Nevada twelve years previously. In other words, the P.I. does not have much information to go on at that point.

I'm guessing a P.I. would have access to various records, files, and computer data bases that are not open to the general public as a rule. The P.I. might say that he could peruse the available databases to see what he can find, but warns that it would likely be a hopeless endeavor due to the limited info that he has available to him. To add to the problem, the MC doesn't have much money to spend on the investigation, but he wants the P.I. to do what he can based upon his limited financial resources. There is the rub.

We'll assume the P.I. takes the MC's financial situation into consideration. I'd like to know what a P.I. might charge to do a precursory and limited search through the various computer databases based upon this situation. In other words, is there a typical price structure or fee that would cover something like this, and if so, what might it be? I realize variables could influence the cost, but I hoped to get a general idea about what might be a typical fee a P.I. would charge to do a minimal database search for information in this case.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I'm not a PI, but I've been doing research to make my book more realistic. One thing I did was buy a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigating (http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Idiots-Private-Investigating-Guides/dp/1615642501) and read it front to back.

A few things the book talks about...

- Property Records
- Tracking down friends and family
- Criminal records (there are many publicly available)
- Subscription database for licensed PIs & skip tracers; they do exist, but they don't contain "secret" information so much as an amalgamation of resources (example: http://www.irbsearch.com/)
- SSA Master Death Record

There are legal issues using things like credit searches and so on.

I've found this book to be very useful in figuring out how my guys is going to do (or fail to do properly...) what he needs to get done.