Knowing my PI-partner and myself sometimes teach classes about private investigations to writers, Alice invited us to share a course on researching the Internet here at Defrosting Cold Cases. Keep in mind that this class was geared to fiction writers, although there’s useful information for researchers, too. The content pertains to U.S. investigations, although at the end we provide a case example involving England and the Bahamas.
First a quick bio: we’re Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman, who co-own Highlands Investigations & Legal Services, Inc. in Denver, Colorado. Shaun is also a lawyer (shaunkaufmanlaw.com). Colleen is also a multi-published novelist (colleencollins.net) who just published her second non-fiction ebook How Do Private Eyes Do That? available on Kindle and Nook.
Although this class highlights some investigative techniques, the information is not at a level that is detrimental to either the private investigation profession or to you, the reader. Now let’s jump into the world of PIs and how they surf the ‘net for data!
Free Internet Searches
Below are a sampling of searches on the Internet that cost nothing.
- Google is still the most comprehensive, free public search engine available. A really simple Google search is to simply enter the person’s name and see what information displays about him/her. Google also offers a free online guide called “Google Guide” that offers tutorials on Google’s search features and capabilities:
- Online blog search engines (for example, Technorati.com, Icerocket.com, Blogsearch.google.com).
- Social networking search engines (for example, Yoname.com, Spokeo.com, Socialmention.com).
- Deep web search engines: Pipl.com, 123people.com.
For a wide variety of free research links a PI might use, check out Black Book Online for investigators (Edited by Robert Scott, P.I., and author, The Investigator’s Little Black Book 3. This website offers such lookups as federal public records, maps and satellite photos, crime maps, voter registrations, inmates and military.
Almost-Free General Internet Searches
After running free Internet searches, if we haven’t found what we’re looking for we’ll next run searches in the “almost-free” databases that pull public records. By almost-free we mean search engines that can be purchased for a set rate (for example, $29.95 for a year or a one-time license). Some of these are available to the public, while others require the user be a PI, law enforcement officer, collections professional and so on.
One free-to-the-public, multiple-telephone directories search engine is Argali. It also has a fee-based pro version that is ad-free, which we use.
Another search engine we purchased is Cyber Detective, which has proven to be a useful resource for current addresses for many years.
http://www.searchsystems.net is a fee-based portal to hundreds of searches, many of which are free. It also provides searches for countries outside of the U.S. (such as Canada and Mexico).
Pay-per-use Proprietary Databases
We have several proprietary databases that are available only to PIs, law enforcement officers, consumer-credit professionals and so forth. These databases are run by organizations that conduct background checks on all applicants, and they monitor the usage carefully. Each search costs us money (prices vary depending on the type of search).
One of our most-used proprietary databases is irbsearch. We gave you the link so you can see their login page and how it advertises its services. IRB also publishes an online magazine (Pursuit Magazine) that is both a trade journal and community for private investigators, legal professionals and the protective services industries. It’s a great resource for reading about current trends, techniques and other topics in the private investigations field.
Reading Between the Lines
Using proprietary databases invariably requires additional reading between the lines as well as a healthy dose of thinking sideways. It’s not always the case that a PI just runs a report and calls it a day (and those who do are doing their clients a big disservice because the data needs to be verified, and often updated, through additional research — for example, checking an assessor’s website to verify property ownership, or running a individual’s name at the DMV for updated vehicle registration).
Case Example: The “Missing” Twin
Once a client-attorney asked Colleen to skip trace a suspect who lived in either England or the Bahamas (the attorney had been informed from the suspect’s relative it was one or the other). Here’s how she used databases, and other means, to conduct the skip trace:
Colleen: This suspect (I’ll call him Alfie) was the brother of a man who lived in our state (I’ll call him Bobby). I started out by running free and almost-free searches. In doing so, I read a lot about Bobby, but found next to nothing on his brother Alfie. In fact, I ran Alfie’s name in all the free online phone books I could access for England and the Bahamas, but his name never once came up.
I began running some proprietary database searches and sifting through reams of information. I discovered Bobby’s middle name was Alfie. What mother gives one son a middle name that’s also the first name of another son? That one fact alone made me dig deeper. To make a long story short, I eventually found evidence that Bobby had been successfully committing crimes as his fictional brother Alfie. Bobby had a “documented” bogus ID that had thrown off both law enforcement and attorneys. My client-attorney thought Alfie lived halfway around the world when “Alfie” (Bobby) had been living a mere 30 minutes away all the time.
All rights reserved 2011. The information and advice offered in this course should in no way be taken or construed as counsel or advice for persons requiring investigation assistance.
If you would like to copy, forward, or distribute in any electronic or print means, please contact the authors at writingprivateinvestigators-at-gmail-dot-com.