This post contains materials from a CLE (Find it Fast and Free on the Web) which I wrote and presented at King of Prussia in December of 2015.
LOCATING PERSONS AND FINDING BACKGROUND INFORMATION
When you are involved in general practice there are going to be a variety of reason why you are going to want to find information about people. You need to know where you can serve them. You may want to know if they have any assets that you can go after. Too often, clients will move without telling you, so you may need to get in contact to forward them materials from the court. Sometimes you need to know if they have done or said anything stupid (this includes your own clients).
The easiest way to get information on a person is to hire an investigator. Usually the investigators will go to the courthouse and get property and judgment information. If you need more information on potential assets, they will go through the trash and find bank envelopes and other clues. However, investigators are expensive. They also take time to complete their research.
Another option is to pay one of the hundreds of sites that aggregate information on the web. These can be helpful is you just want as much information as quickly as possible; but in the end you are just paying for a website to gather public information; and there is no guarantee that it is timely or accurate.
Your final option is to find the information yourself. You have to be prepared that this is likely to take some time. There is no real silver bullet to finding people. It is more of putting together a puzzle – you take what you know and slowly build from there until you have a complete picture.
Phone Numbers and Addresses of Missing People
This is where the speed and ease of sites like Google will help you. You will want to take the information you have and search based off of that. Then you can add what information you find and possible leads and look into those. Soon, you may be able to piece together where the person has lived and where they live now.
The first thing you need to do is to find an identifier. This is your foothold to get started. This is similar to starting a puzzle by gathering all the straight edges and forming the border. Anything can be your identifier, and, the more identifiers you have the better your search will be. You want to use identifiers to both narrow your search and eliminate people that may turn up. To find your identifier, start with why you are looking for them: if it is a lawsuit, look at contracts, invoices or any other bases for the suit; ask your client if they know of a middle name, maiden name, suffix (jr., sr., etc.); maybe you have a phone number or an old address; spouses, children and family members can also be used as identifiers. Use these items in your search. For this section, we are going to describe a search for a person named Michael Wilson – it is a completely made up name and one that turns up over 16,000 people in a quick search, with over 400 in Pennsylvania.
Your next step is to build off of the identifiers. As you search, you will find paid sites that offer part of a phone number with the offer to get the “complete” file if you pay. For example you may find a site that offers a phone number of (610) 670-9***, for a Michael J. Wilson and former addresses in and around the area where you know that he lived. So now, you have added a middle initial and a partial phone number to your identifiers. Take the partial information that the site is offering and put it into Google with the name of the target (Search “Michael J. Wilson, (610) 670-9***”). You are likely to find reverse phone number look up sites that will offer you the full number but only the first name and last initial of the target (Who called you from (610) 670-9000? Michael W. – click to buy the full report). Now, through the searches, you have found a reasonable guess as to his phone number. The same kind of information can lead you to current and past addresses.
Depending on how much information you need, continue to build. You have found the name, middle initial and a good guess as to his phone number – so run a search with all of that information. Maybe family members will turn up. Maybe you will find towns where he has lived. If you get towns, use that information to search the dockets, recorder of deeds and tax offices for that county. If you are suing the guy, someone else probably has too. He probably wasn’t hiding from the first person to sue him, so maybe you can find his address there.
The recorder of deeds and tax offices may be able to tell who owns the property addresses that you find associated with him. Run a quick Google search for those people; you may find information to show that they are family of the person you are looking for. Michael Wilson may know people are looking for him and may have set his social media to private, but his mother may not have. If you find a Facebook page for the property owner, check her friends for your guy. If you can establish that one of his former addresses is that of a family member, you may be able to convince a judge to allow you to complete service by using that address. Or, you may see on her social media that he has a vehicle or other property that you can levy on.
Depending on what information you are finding, you can keep building using the tools we discussed in Section V. Is this person a professional, or licensed? Is he in the military? It can also be useful to establish where they were last registered to vote – this will narrow down the location of the person you are looking for. You can go to the Pennsylvania Voter Registration site: in New Jersey:
These are some sites that offer some of these building blocks to help your search, though I believe that it is easier to use Google, you can start your search here. Most of these will offer some amount of free information, so just use what they give you to build your puzzle.
- Peek you – http://www.peekyou.com/
- Persopo – https://persopo.com/
- Spokeo – http://www.spokeo.com/
- Zabasearch – http://www.zabasearch.com/
Social Security Numbers
A social security number is useful if you are going to use a paid professional, but isn’t much help if you are trying to track someone down for free, because most public databases do not list social security numbers.
If the person is deceased, (to find out: Social Security Death Index, https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1202535), you might be able to locate their Social Security number in the following places: personal papers; death certificate; funeral home records; financial papers; voter registration rolls or former employers. If you have the date of birth and those sources don’t produce the Social Security Number, you may request a “records search” with the Social Security Administration. To find out the information available, the costs and to request the information, use the SSA’s website: https://www.ssa.gov/foia/request.html#&a0=-1.
Whether an individual or company has filed for bankruptcy can be extremely important to know. It can tell you whether there are any assets left to pay your client, whether the claim has been discharged or whether your client is entitled to payment through a plan. We have discussed using PACER to search the dockets; however there is a fee charged if you go over $15.00 worth of charges per quarter. You can also call the Voice Case Information System, which is a part of PACER and get limited bankruptcy information over the phone. The phone number is (866) 222-8029; for ED PA cases, dial 47 at the prompt; Middle District of PA – 48; and for New Jersey cases, dial 88. You can also use Inforuptcy which provides some free search capabilities and will link to PACER information.
Neighbors, Relatives and Associates
The information we discussed at the first part of this section will be how you can find neighbors, relatives and associates. If you find an old address, find out who owns it now. If you know of the target’s job, check LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/) for possible associates. If the person has a business, check Yelp or other review sites to confirm an associate as people often have friends give them positive reviews to help build business. Check social media sites like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for friends and other leads. You are going to stumble on these people as you build your puzzle, so make note of them and then follow up with searches on them.
Mailing List Postings, Blogs, Etc.
It is possible that your target has a blog where they provide information on themselves and perhaps provide a way to reach them. Icerocket (http://www.icerocket.com/) is a search engine that focuses on blogs. However, the reality is that searching for blogs is probably not going to be a great use of your time. Most people have carried over the things that they did on blogs in the early part of the 2000s and now do those things on social media like Facebook or Twitter.
Attorneys, Judges and Experts
If you are looking for a particular attorney, the easiest place to look is with a Google search. You may have to add an identifier (i.e. “attorney” or “lawyer”) in order to find the correct person. Most attorneys have at least a token web presence at this point, so you should be able to find contact information. If that doesn’t work, you can contact the local bar association to see if they can give you the contact information. Finally, there are lawyer search services which may be able to provide you information (though it is not always completely up to date): www.martindale.com or www.avvo.com provide links to attorney resumes while also trying to sell legal services.
Judges’ information can be found by accessing the website for the county or court in which they preside. While the phone number to their chambers is not always available, you can call Court Administration for any court and they will usually transfer your call to the Judge’s chambers. If you want some more information on the Judge’s background, you can check the Court’s website – it will often contain a brief biography of each judge. You can also use Judgepedia (http://ballotpedia.org/Judgepedia) which is a website that offers election information on when judges were elected, when their terms expire and sometimes some background on education and previous employment.
You can find experts at the meta-sites we have discussed several times during this program, like Justia or FindLaw. It would also be helpful to check the website or other publications from your local bar association. Finally, ask around. There are likely other attorneys who have a go-to expert for a particular field.