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Introduction to Searching for People

Richard A. Lawhern, Ph.D.
Last Updated: July 1999


For several months in 1997, I was allowed to work as an un-paid volunteer moderator for a forum called "the Internet Village Elders" that operates on The Internet Sleuth . The charter for the elders' forum was to offer an opportunity for seasoned information miners and other volunteers to post biographies and correspond with one another, concerning the process of searching the Internet for information.

Each of the "elders" made an effort to spend time answering inquiries in a related Forum called "Finding Information". There is still a service on the Sleuth that provides personal assistance to people who are learning how to find information -- or who need a specific reference and don't quite know how to go about locating what they need. The format is a bulletin board. The style is very informal. The reviewers try to provide polite answers for any question from anyone about finding anything in the Net. They also respond to private email inquiries. It's a challenging charter. Some good people have participated.

Of the questions that come up in the Research Forums at the Sleuth, the most common has concerned finding people on the Internet or off line: "How do I search for somebody using a Social Security number?" This article responds to such inquiries and provides resources.

To the best of my knowledge, the answer to the often asked question about finding people is:

"On the Net, you can't do a social security number search directly or for free. However, there are other free ways to locate many people. You can also gain access to relatively low cost search services through the Net."

This article is intended to tell you how to find people without going broke. As you read, please keep three disclaimers in mind:

  1. I am not a lawyer. I cannot give you legal advice. You're probably not a lawyer either. If there is money involved in your problem, or if performing a personal search might be interpreted by other people as harrassing, then I urge you to consult with a lawyer, a Private Investigator, or both.

  3. Any errors in this article are mine. I do not "represent" the Sleuth, I've never been an employee there, and I am no longer closely affiliated with the operation. Though the site owner was kind enough to let me assist folks who post questions there,  they weren't responsible for what I write and aren't now. Neither are their sponsors. The same is true of any other site that may choose to post this article. Note: as a copyrighted work, such posting requires permission of the author.

  5. Some sources referenced in this article charge for their services. I found them by searching the Net and talking with information miners who know more than I do about this work. I have used some fee-based services myself, but I do not recommend one over another.

As I researched ways to find people, I was impressed by a serious issue concerning personal privacy. You and I no longer have privacy in the real world -- either on line or off line. We can agonize or complain, but this is simply a fact. Unless you want to live like a hermit, a great deal of information about you can be assembled rapidly without your knowledge, by any professional who understands search methods and sources.

There are good reasons to find another person, but sometimes it's not a good idea to indulge your curiosity. The balance between "my" individual right to personal privacy and "your" right as an injured party to locate a wrong doer is not always obvious. A lot depends on which end of the stick you're holding. The same is true if you want to find somebody you care about. Sometimes they don't want to be found. We must recognize that the compelling desire to find a person can be taken to extremes that become obsessional or dangerous. My purpose here is not to promote stalking. If you think you are being stalked, I'll do my darndest to help you put the offender in jail.

From such concerns, I find that I cannot simply "give you the answers" for becoming your own Private Investigator. I must also suggest that you examine your motivations as a reader. This process will require some of your valuable time. I urge you to think carefully about your objectives before you invade the privacy of another person. This isn't something you should do casually. Finding somebody can get you into legal trouble if you go about it wrong. It can cause you emotional trouble as well.

Go to "How Easy is it to Find Someone?"

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