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Free and Low Cost Resources On the Net

Richard A. Lawhern, Ph.D.
Last Updated: February, 2010

A lot has been said in newspapers about how easy it is to find people on the Internet. A number of Net resources are available, but the job still isn't easy. There is no one place you can go for a single answer. Not everybody is on the Net, and many of those who work and play here are not highly visible. If you want to locate John Smith somewhere in the western 15 states, you're going to spend a lot of time and probably end up frustrated.

Still, there are places to start. Several sites now provide "White Pages" or "Yellow Pages" for both the Net and US and Overseas telephone systems. You can search for an email address using as little as a last name. To narrow the search, you'll need a first name, state and city. You can now locate several million people in such sources. If your favorite person has a listed telephone, then the number rises to over 150 million people in the US. If you're looking for a business, the numbers are also in the millions.

The most useful starting point which I have found for locating the most people is national telephone directories. Several sites provide national telephone directory search. One of the best collections of gateways to such sites is The Ultimate White Pages. This site provides submission gateways and links to other locations which do the search. Two of those other locations are Who - Where and The Switchboard.

There are multiple ways to find anything or anyone on the Internet.  Increasingly, the major search engines and Internet Directories have recognized that there is intense interest about finding people.  As an example, go to Google and enter "finding people" in the search window.  You will receive over 800,000 "hits" on the term, ranked by relevance. Almost any of the links that come up on the first ten pages will get you started.

Email search sites use data compiled from a variety of sources. Some of the most important in one way or another make use of traffic in USENET newsgroups. Several Internet sites search recent news as well as the Web. One place I have found to be particularly helpful is focussed on only the USENET: Google Groups  derived from the earlier Deja News (now defunct).  

At Google Groups, you can find your target name in a large database of USENET postings. By probing the sources in which your target name appears, you can also build a profile of interests that shows a lot about the involvements of the poster, confirming that you have found the individual you are looking for.

Because many people on the Internet seem to be trying to find somebody, a number of sites address specifically this need, in a relatively wide context. Some of them claim to be able to assist you to "be your own Private Eye." However, I advise you to exercise caution in "being your own" PI. One reason to pay somebody to do such work is that it takes time and effort to learn the tricks. Another is that large commercial firms are doing their level best to dry up the open sources so you and I will be forced to pay them for their "services.  Much more important, however, is that finding someone who doesn't want to be found can sometimes be dangerous. This is particularly true of deadbeat Dads and people who attempt to skip out on legitimate debts. So go with caution here.

If you're looking for someone for a special reason, then special resources can help. For instance, several groups in the "" hierarchy of USENET offer mutual or self-help for people in special categories. These include abuse survivors, adoptees, and folks suffering from rare disease or chronic pain. You can use Google Groups to find an appropriate USENET group.  Yahoo Groups may also be helpful.

To find a "place" on the Net which serves the special purpose of your search, you may want to correspond with other people who share your concern. A lot of discussion groups are not in the USENET. They are called "LISTSERVs" and they are reached by direct email. To locate a LISTSERV, Google Groups is one place to start.  Several other are listed at the Wesleyan University Library.  If you don't find a group at Google or Yahoo, you may need look up a subject guide to resources. There are many more such guides on the Net than was the case in the late 1990s when this article was originally written.  Just two of the many may be found at The University of California Berkeley Library and Yahoo .You'll find many more by going to any Internet search engine and entering "Internet Guide" +[Subject title in quotes].

A lot of folks want to know how to search for somebody by Social Security number. While you cannot do that for free, and US Privacy Act regulations have significantly narrowed the data available on line in recent years.  One site will at least let you check to see in what state and approximately when an SS Number was probably issued. The site advertises fee services which may lead to the name and address of the holder, if you are willing to pay a (small) fee. Try Informus .

Many states or counties maintain vital records (births, deaths, marriages, drivers license records, many others) which are gradually being brought on line. To find out what records you may be able to access in a given state, you might wish to review the state "home page." Many of these pages have Site locators with the following form:
where xx is the two-letter lower-case abbreviation for the state's name.

Although it can be time consuming and imprecise, one way to locate someone whose circumstances you know about is to search vital records (births, deaths, marriages, name changes etc.).  Much of this sort of data is recorded at sites which specialize in genealogy resources, one of which is USA People Search. 

A few years ago, a PI referred me to one site which I don't know quite how to categorize. The place provided links to documents concerning social security search and related topics. The tone of the site materials was more than a little bit "off the wall." There are more recent articles on the Net which summarize efforts to close down this site, in spite of its frequent relocations and several "free speech" legal actions.  If you believe that you have been or may become a victim to stalking, there are many resources on the net that may aid you.  One of these is a long article by Danny Woodward,  at the UTA Magazine Online.

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