In the past, private investigators and attorneys spent a great deal of their investigative time in the field. Traditional methods of gathering evidence involve interviewing witnesses, friends, family members and acquaintances, examining crime scenes, taking photographs, conducting undercover surveillance and visiting libraries and dingy storage rooms to hunt down dusty records.
While there is certainly no substitute for hiring a professional to spend time gathering physical evidence in the field, today an important part of an investigation can be preliminarily accomplished with nothing more than a telephone, reliable laptop and an Internet connection. Conducting thorough and successful preliminary online investigations can generate substantial value before ever setting foot in the field.
Here are some tips for conducting an effective preliminary online private investigation to gather background information about a subject:
- Take detailed notes. Don’t rely on your memory to keep track of the thousands of pieces of data that you will encounter. Write down all the searches you have run and catalogue all the relevant results.
- Start with the major search engines. Google, Yahoo, Bing and other free Internet search engines are always the best place to begin gathering leads for your preliminary investigation. However, remember to try using a variety of search strings to broaden or narrow your search. For example, searching for “John Smith” is going to be too broad, but searching for “John Albert Smith, owner of a Brooklyn construction company” may be too narrow. By constantly applying a variety of flexible search terms, you will ensure that you don’t accidentally exclude potentially valuable results. Also, if you locate a target’s e-mail address, make sure to search for it in quotes. Such a search may reveal blog comments or other relevant information.
- Maps: GoogleMaps and Mapquest offer satellite and street views of relevant address locations. Getting directions to and from relevant locations may also suggest frequent routes of travel worth exploring.
- Social Media sites: Today, many people will openly reveal a treasure trove of information about themselves on social networking sites without even realizing it. Even a basic profile on Facebook or LinkedIn can contain valuable information about where the person you are searching for is currently working and where they went to high school or college. Once you have identified a target’s profile on a social media site, expand your search efforts to catalogue their family, friends, contacts and those who they are associated with in photographs.
- Property records: Once you have located a physical street address of interest, you will want to find out who owns it. Many local governments offer free building and property search records online, and third-party sites Zillow.com and BlockShopper.com freely offer a tremendous amount of data including photographs, estimated property values, square footage, property taxes paid, as well as neighbor’s names.
- Websites/Domain Names: If you are investigating a target that may own a domain name or website, there is a rich amount of data that can be gathered from analyzing the history of those sites. For example, “Whois” information, IP addresses and source code can reveal a great deal about who is actually operating a website or domain name. Additional information about a company can be attained by conducting a domain search on a website like DomainTools.com. DomainTools provides detailed registration information for a website, a related mailing address, information about past versions of a website, and other related contact information.
- Online telephone directories: A reverse phone lookup can be used to find name and address information about a phone number. Intelius-powered public records searches can return useful information about a person. For example, a search of a name will give you information about the person’s age as well as names of potential relatives. For more detailed information, one can buy a specialized report from Intelius for a fee.
- Pick up the telephone: Various telephonic methods exist for finding the owner of a business or other related information. Such methods could be as simple as placing a telephone call to the business itself, contacting its licensing or regulatory agency, or searching various other online sources.
- Obituaries: Often a target’s name will appear in obituaries about a deceased relative. Obituaries usually list a variety of information about the decedent including dates of birth and death, last known address, identities of their next of kin, as well as educational and employment history.
- Criminal Records and Lawsuits: There are several paid services online where you can find out details of a target’s criminal records and civil lawsuits. Keep in mind that in most cases, so-called “free” sites are simply marketing tricks to get you to pay for the information you need. However, sites such as PeopleFinders.com offer some limited information for free. Justia.com offers a service to look for records of recent civil litigations.
By investing time and effort conducting a thorough preliminary online investigation, you can focus your efforts on the right target.