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How to Find a Missing Person

by Sarah Datta, Pursuit Magazine

HTML clipboard When someone hires you to search for a missing person, hear them out respectfully. Internally, be skeptical. “There’s always two sides to the story,” says Mike Spencer, owner of Spencer Legal Investigations. “Why are they estranged from the family? Why did they disappear? The client might be giving you one story, but maybe something else is going on.”

Gather information that will help you get inside the missing person’s head: what are their habits, who are their friends, and how financially secure are they? Then think beyond the information your client shares with you. Most likely, there are details they don’t know—or have chosen not to disclose.

Start your investigation by determining the level of threat to the missing person’s safety. “The baseline for each person is personal,” explains Spencer. For the most vulnerable subjects, such as children, the elderly, and people with mental incapacities, it’s important to contact the police immediately. “If you have a juvenile who goes missing, that’s something you have got to jump on right away,” he says. “Because that’s not normal; they should be under your roof.”

The question is more complicated when an adult disappears. “It just depends on the person,” says Spencer. Have they gone missing before, or is this extremely out of character? If there’s reason to believe they left of their own volition, reach out to their network of friends and family. “So, for example, if I haven’t heard from my brother or a family member in two or three months,” Spencer says, “I’ll contact another family member and say, ‘Hey, have you been in touch with so and so?”

“We all have our right to privacy,” he adds. “So, it’s really the circumstances that determine whether or not to contact the police.”

If you believe that someone—even an adult—is at immediate risk, don’t hesitate to contact law enforcement. But keep in mind that in America, it’s not a crime to go “missing” voluntarily. So, if an adult of sound mind doesn’t want to be contacted, police will respect their privacy—and will simply disclose that they’ve been found and are safe. Sometimes there’s not much police can do beyond a welfare check (a visit to someone’s home to see if they’re OK). For instance, if the missing person isn’t involved in any crime, is not in immediate danger, and the circumstances of the disappearance are not deemed suspicious, the police might not proactively investigate. This is where a PI might come in—to do surveillance work on known associates, canvass the neighborhood, or visit shelters. But the PI must also respect the privacy of the missing person during the investigation.

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Be honest with your client from the start about what results they can reasonably expect—and what your search will cost. As a PI, you’re bound by the client’s budget. No matter how much you may sympathize, you still have a business to run and employees to pay. “Get a good-sized retainer up front, because that money is going to free you up to use all your tools and resources,” Spencer suggests. “Canvassing is very time-consuming. If you want to go knock on doors, go to homeless shelters, put up flyers, that just takes a ton of time, and that’s expensive.”

Use a wide variety of methods. “We’ll check through license plate readers and look for traffic tickets. We’ll call the jails, the hospitals. We’ll check court records,” Spencer says. Think about the types of activity that leave a trail for you to follow. “You need money to go some place; you need a car to go someplace,” Spencer points out. “The Holy Grail is the phone and the bank activity. And as private investigators, we legally can’t access that. But, having car and vehicle information helps a lot.”

Forging relationships with other professionals can also help your cases. For example, law enforcement can obtain certain information that PIs can’t legally access. But police don’t have to help you, so be diplomatic. “Get off on a good foot and be respectful and trade information,” Spencer recommends. “The police—if they take an interest—are always doing you the favor.”

Spencer, a former journalist, adds that having connections to local newspaper, radio, and TV reporters can help your search reach a wider audience: “You can hand out flyers. But if that story hits the news or that person’s on the news, it just creates a lot more awareness.”

Take meticulous notes. Spencer’s favorite evidence collection tool is the “almighty legal pad.” This serves not only to document your findings, but also to justify your billing. “Always keep a good diary of your efforts,” Spencer says. “These all come down to money. That’s just the brutal reality.”

Mike Spencer admits that missing persons cases can take a psychological toll. “There’s always an emotional component to it,” he says. “You want to do a good job, and you just know that a family is having a hard time at things.” For some cases though, you’ll reach dead ends, where the money or the information dries up, and the case goes unsolved. “It’s not from lack of effort,” he says. “But it’s hard. Can’t win them all.”

Reprinted with permission from Pursuit Magazine (https://pursuitmag.com).

About the Author
Sarah Datta is a writer from San Diego, California. As editorial intern at Pursuit Magazine in 2022, she interviewed and profiled a wide range of subjects, including a war crimes investigator, an FBI hostage negotiator, an arson investigator, and an Innocence Project attorney. She now studies statistics at Boston University and writes for the student newspaper, The Daily Free Press.

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Working PI
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1 comment
  • My name is Jim Born (www.tristatedetectives.org). I enjoyed reading your article on locating missing persons, and would like to incorporate some additional thoughts that I think need to be added for our readers to contemplate before taking on these types of jobs. As for my experience, I have ten years as a law enforcement officer (former Sheriff’s Captain-Chief of Detectives), and another 46 years as a licensed private investigator. I am licensed in California (7195) and in Nevada (457). In that combined 56 years of experience, I have, in my opinion, conducted every type of investigation possible; from each investigation I have learned what technique was successful, and what didn’t work, in solving the case. In the case of a missing person inquiry, I would like to add that this is a common investigative function, and is one of the most dangerous to undertake. I licensed in 1978, four years later in 1982, actress Theresa Seldana was murdered by a stalker named Arthur R. Jackson. Mr. Jackson was provided Theresa’s home address by a private investigator. The next year July 18, 1989; actress Rebecca Schaeffer, star on the CBS sitcom “My sister Sam”, was shot and killed in her doorway by Robert John Bardo, a stalker. It was later learned that he watched another movie in which Rebecca was staring in, and that a scene of her in the bed with another man brought him into a rage and he wanted to teach her a lesson. Mr. Bardo then employed the services of a private investigator, paid him $300.00 for the job, and then found her at the address the investigator provided him. When she opened the front door, he shot her dead. As a result of these incidents and others; private investigators have been restricted in most states from receiving address information from the Department of Motor Vehicles; and other restrictions have come into play because of this. I recommend that private investigators vet all of their clients. I do this by obtaining information about my client, to include their full name, telephone number, date of birth, home address and the last four digits of their social security number (which I incorporate into their assigned case number). I then run a civil, criminal and basic records search on the client. When I call them back I will have vetted them and their reason for wanting to find the missing person. I don’t want to end up being sued for millions of dollars and losing my license and reputation like the two investigators mentioned; of whom each didn’t vet their client. If your client does not want to disclose their information then don’t take the case. Should you decide to take a missing person case and are successful in locating the person, don’t be in a hurry to call your client and disclose any information. Here again, vet your locate and ascertain the circumstances of their disappearance. If you smell that something’s not right, don’t be afraid to contact your local police detective division and run by them your subjects and your thoughts. They may have information that could give you a better insight such as reports of death threats, attempting to kidnap their child who the court took away because they were a bad actor, and many other possible conducts. Often I have spouses looking for other spouses. This is the most dangerous of all. I have turned down many clients that didn’t pass the smell test. I hope this helps, since my licensing in Las Vegas in 1988, I have had four clients murdered. I hope this helps and saves some lives. Good hunting.

Written by Working PI

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