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How do Private Investigators Locate People? (AKA Skip Tracing)

If you watch CSI, Criminal Minds, or countless other crime shows you might think every detective has a nerdy yet sheik IT girl or guy that can locate a subject in a matter of minutes by cross-referencing a name (or picture) against the DMV master databases, phone records,

property records, utilities, Netflix subscriptions and all traffic cams in the US. Sadly, it doesn't work that way. Not even for the FBI. Especially without a judge ordering a subpoenas for each set of records first.

That's not to say it 's impossible. It just takes a bit more legwork and usually a combination of techniques. Private detectives employ a variety of methods to locate individuals, drawing on a mix of traditional detective work and modern technology. Here are some methods commonly used:

Public Records Searches:

Investigators access a wide range of public records, that are considered public records because anyone can access them if they know how. This list includes:

Address and Property Records:

Many jurisdictions have public records that reveal property ownership, real estate transactions, and values. This can include current and past addresses.

Birth, Marriage, and Death Records:

Birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates are often recorded in public records, though some details might be restricted to protect privacy.

Court and Criminal Records:

Information about an individual's criminal history, including arrests, convictions, court cases, and sex offender registries, is often public. Civil court records can reveal divorces, bankruptcies, lawsuits, and judgments.

Voting Records:

Voter registrations and voting history (not who they voted for, but in which elections they participated) are typically public.

Business Affiliations and Professional Licenses:

Business ownership, partnerships, and roles in corporations can be traced through public records. Similarly, licenses for professions such as medicine, law, and contracting are usually publicly accessible.

Campaign Contributions:

Political donations are often a matter of public record, including the amount donated and to whom.

Social Media Content:

Many people share a considerable amount of personal information on social media platforms. Depending on a person's privacy settings, this information can include location check-ins, personal photographs, employment history, and relationship details.

Proprietary Database Searches:

Not all databases are public. Private investigators use specialized databases that aggregate personal data from various sources, including data from the credit bureaus. Actual credit reports and credit scores are far more private but other data from credit reports such as addresses, utility companies, vehicles owner, and various other related data is considered semi-private. Accessible by those with proper licensing or law enforcement. These databases will often be marketed to investigators with different specialties. One database may have hundreds of millions of archived and real-time criminal record data to be used for locating criminal records and sex offender records. Another database could be specifically set up to cross reference names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.

Interviewing and Canvasing:

Databases can take a locate investigation a long way. Very often to the end. But in situations where the data just seems to end with an old address or no recent information, investigators will often pick up on foot where the data left off. Speaking with known associates, relatives, coworker and past neighbors found in the database. Investigators use these interviews to gather leads or verify information. Interviews can lead to new data such as a name change, or an obscure location such as shelter or halfway house.


Only used in 'high end"locates due to the hourly expense , surveillance is used to verify a location through physically monitoring a subject's suspected hangouts in order to tail them to their actual residence. Surveillance can be performed on foot, in a vehicle, or through static cameras set up to monitor an area. Investigators look for patterns or direct evidence of the person's whereabouts.

Forensic Methods:

In criminal and missing person investigations, forensic analysis of personal items, computer hard drives, or cell phones left behind by the subject can be implemented. Investigators with proper training can uncover digital footprints, deleted files, or geolocation data that might indicate a person's whereabouts.

In conclusion, there are a number of ways for the "armchair detective" to locate an individual as many tools and techniques are accessible to the general public. These methods requires a blend of creativity and practice to be used to their maximum potential. There are limits however and sometimes a professional investigator's expertise and access to specialized resources often make the search more efficient and legally compliant. Individuals and private investigators must operate within the bounds of the law and respect privacy rights while conducting their searches.

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