While the methods vary depending on the complexity of the search, there’s one proven method of finding almost anyone: persistence.
Locating people is one of the tasks private investigators are often called upon to do, but the difficulty of finding someone varies quite a bit depending on whom that “someone” is.
This fact is especially true for people on both extremes of the socio-economic spectrum: People who have the resources and the technological know-how to virtually disappear, and transients and homeless people who live off the grid altogether, are usually quite difficult to find.
This article is about the outliers, the hard-to-find specters who elude our databases.
Any investigator can plug a name into an investigative database and read the results, but only the best investigators can successfully recruit informants or use custom applications to monitor a subject’s Facebook usage and track his I.P address to a particular location. In other words, investigators use different methods for finding a multi-millionaire on the lam in Buenos Aires than for finding a man sleeping under a bridge in Detroit.
Databases Work Great for People with Credit, Debt, or Bank Accounts…
For most of the U.S. population, a simple database query is all it takes. According to the FDIC’s December 2009 “National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households,” only 7.7 percent of the U.S. population is unbanked, meaning they don’t have bank accounts. Although this issue was not addressed by the FDIC’s survey, it’s safe to assume that unbanked people are also the most likely not to have any credit. That’s significant, because the investigative databases we use rely primarily on data from credit applications.
Since most of us have some level of debt, most people show up in our databases. Therefore, when an investigator like me searches for your name, I can usually find your last known address in about three or four clicks of the mouse. Other searches can determine if you own your house, have any criminal or civil records, and whether you have any liens or judgments against you.
But Finding Ghosts Means Leaving Your Office
It’s much trickier to find that 7.7 percent of the population that does not have any debt. These are the folks on the margin, usually working for cash under the table. They are homeless people. They are new immigrants. And, sometimes, they are just people who have learned how not to be found, by taking on new identities or keeping their money tucked away in their mattresses.
As I mentioned, people who do not have any debt generally do not show up in investigative databases. Luckily for us, however, there tends to be a reverse correlation between the extent that people show up in databases and their criminal history. In other words, homeless people and people who don’t want to be found typically have more contact with law enforcement, which makes it more likely that they’ll have arrest records that may indicate their whereabouts. However, this is less true for recent immigrants.
I used to think that I could find anyone anywhere if I was given enough resources, but then I considered James (“Whitey”) Bulger, who has been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for decades. He has a $2 million bounty on his head, and he still hasn’t been found. Osama bin Laden, who was recently found and killed at a compound with no phone or Internet service, didn’t have anything on Whitey. It took all of the U.S. government’s resources nearly ten years to catch up to bin Laden—but at least they finally did catch up with him.
Whitey is a ghost. (No pun intended). In fact, he is the king of the specters. Surely, if the FBI can’t catch Whitey, then there are plenty of other phantoms out there who would be a real challenge to find.
Ghosts are people who are apparently alive and walking among us but who fail to show up in any significant way on anything that is connected to a computer. Ghosts live paycheck to paycheck, if they even get a paycheck. They eschew contact with the police. Any money they have is spent immediately in the form of cash or it is hidden in a mattress. They generally don’t drive, relying on public transportation or the kindness of cohorts to get them around. They exist in a purgatory between the legitimate world that we know and the netherworld.
The only reliable way to find these apparitions is to get out of your office and knock on doors, or to use informants. The problem with ghosts, though, is that you need to know where to look for them. Consider the following example, based upon a hypothetical non-ghost named James Smith, which is reportedly the most common name in the United States.
A Hypothetical Case Study
Assume that we have no other information about the James Smith we are looking for. In fact, let’s pretend that we don’t even know which city he lives in—and that we don’t have access to an investigative database. James may just as easily live somewhere in the tundra of Alaska as in the urban jungle of New York City. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are around 130 million households in the United States, making our chance of locating the correct person about one in 130 million, if we pick a house randomly somewhere in the country, knock on the door, and ask for James.
Now, in theory, if we had the time and resources to knock on all of those 130 million doors, we would eventually find James—assuming, of course, that he is not homeless and that everyone we talk to is honest.
Let’s assume now that we do have access to a database that will help us narrow down those households, but that we still don’t know exactly where James lives. According to Terry Kilburn, the CEO of Tracers Information Specialists, there are around 46,000 people named James Smith in the United States. Naturally, if we visit any one of those addresses randomly, our chances of locating the correct James (again, assuming he’s not among the 17 million unbanked) are about one in 46,000. Although these odds are still not great, it is clear that the ability to use an investigative database offers a clear advantage.
Also, the more information we know about James, the better our odds of finding him. For example, if we know that James lives in Washington, DC, where there are about 92 or so people with that name (again, according to Kilburn), a random visit would yield a one in 92 chance of success. If we know that James’ middle initial is A, then our odds jump to one in about a dozen. This is obviously a much more manageable number.
But what if James is a ghost? When we are searching for the Whiteys of the world, the statistics become innumerable, because there are a nearly infinite number of variables at play. For example, what if James is using a pseudonym? Since he could be any of the 150 million or so men living in the United States, we are back to looking for a needle in a haystack. And what if he is outside of the United States? There are close to 7 billion people in the world!
But let’s assume that we have an idea of where James is living—we’ve tracked his I.P. address to a general neighborhood—and we know some of his associates. We could ask his friends about his whereabouts, and they will either lie to us or tell us the truth. For example, let’s say that you knock on a door, and a woman inside tells you she’s never heard of James. She may be telling you the truth, or James could be standing behind the door, just beyond your view.
If we believe the lie, then we will cross the address off our list of possibilities and actually decrease our odds of finding James. If we assume she is lying—but she is really telling us the truth (that she has never heard of James)—then we face the same dilemma, because we will likely spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out if James is in that house or not. Since we can’t completely trust anyone, we have to carefully scrutinize each new piece of information.
A Real Case Debriefing
I recently spent nearly six months tracking down a transient witness for a capital murder case. After the fact, we sat around the courthouse for eight hours, while he was under subpoena and waiting to testify, talking about his life and why he was so difficult to find. I was astounded by all of the misinformation I had received along the trail—and also how close I had been to him at various times without realizing it.
What I learned most from this post-investigation debriefing session is that there is no correlation between the price you pay for information and its veracity. Offering a $2 million bounty doesn’t make the information you receive any more reliable.
The primary difference between finding a ghost and anyone else is that, with regular folks, the denominator representing the number of possibilities is finite. There may be about 92 people named James Smith in the District of Columbia, but that’s at least a known quantity.
For ghosts, the denominator is only limited by your ability to differentiate reliable leads from the superfluous noise that comes with not knowing who you can trust. At the end of the day, however, it is still a math equation that becomes more soluble with each new piece of reliable information you uncover.
The only question is, on how many doors are you willing to knock?
About the author:
Philip A. Becnel is the managing partner of Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group LLC and is the author of Private Investigator Entry Level (02E), an introductory textbook on conducting private investigations. Philip is a licensed private investigator in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.
His book may be found at Amazon, among other venues.