You Wouldn’t Believe What’s Out There…

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It has been stated  repeatedly that information is the new currency. Mystery and thriller authors and readers have known that for decades. What is a clue, if not a piece of information? What is new is the ability of anyone — and I mean anyone — with internet access and a bit of deductive reasoning to discover quite a bit about someone else, without paying a private investigator to do so or getting down and dirty themselves and going through someone’s garbage the night before the scheduled pickup. I’m not talking about one of those pricey subscription services, either. I’m talking about what you can get from the comfort of your home with a smartphone or a tablet. Those of us of a certain age are familiar with the gumshoe — Mike Hammer comes to mind —who had a contact at the courthouse, or the phone company, who is an inside source of inside knowledge. These days it just takes a few keystrokes.

If you are writing contemporary detective fiction your protagonist can use these sources quite easily. So can you, for that matter, for your own benevolent reasons. The following are the most widely and readily available:

Google Search: This may seem obvious, but it’s just a starting point. It doesn’t contain everything, by any means, and may also give you too much information. If I can’t find precisely what I am looking within the first two or three pages of search results I look elsewhere, such as

Facebook: It may seem trite but Facebook can be a wealth of information. I have seen couples who I know play out their domestic problems in Facebook posts. Ouch. On another occasion, I was considering an extended period service contract with a gentleman — payment up front — until I read some of his wife’s posts, in which she repeatedly described the financial problems her husband’s business was experiencing. It did not instill confidence, nor did her demonstration of her inability to operate the governor between her thoughts and her fingers. I went elsewhere.

While we are talking about Facebook: it’s a criminal’s dream (so is Twitter), particularly with respect to those folks who can’t travel more than five miles from home, eat anywhere besides McDonald’s, or use the commode without telling the Universe where they are, like, RIGHT NOW, and what they are doing. Some unsolicited advice: wait until you get home to spread the news about how interesting you are. Otherwise, you are advertising that your home is empty and waiting to be burglarized while you are busily telling the world that you are engaging in conspicuous consumption.  Ask your local police department (or better yet, your insurance agent) if you think that I am kidding. Much of what is available online is put there by government agencies, and you can’t opt out. It’s there. Keep in mind that what you voluntarily put on Facebook can be viewed by anyone, be it your spouse or significant other (or both!), and a prospective or current employer, customer, or client.

County auditor/assessor office websites: this would be the office that collects your real property tax. While I have come across a couple who charge a fee for access — particularly in California — the overwhelming majority of the ones that I have accessed are free. It is a great way to get an up-to-date address for someone. If someone owns several pieces of property in a county, check to see where the tax bill is sent. That is almost certainly where they actually live.

City, county, and probate clerk of courts websites: Do a name search on these sites to see if your person of interest is sued or being sued, has had criminal charges brought against them, has a lead foot when driving, has a history of divorce, has taken out a marriage license, or has warrants or civil judgements outstanding against them. You don’t need to be an attorney to search most of these sites, and most are free. Some jurisdictions do charge a fee and/or limit access to attorneys — again, California — and some don’t have online access at all but that number is dwindling.

Cell phone records: Not everyone is aware of it, but you can access your own cell phone records — or the records of family members who are on your family plan — online once you setup your account. This ability is not without benefits. Several years ago my younger son had his cell phone stolen by a customer from the restaurant where he was working (long story). He called and told me fifteen minutes after it happened. I logged on and discovered that the perp was already calling people. I started calling the same numbers, telling them to call their friend back and tell him that he had thirty minutes to return the phone or I would hunt him down like a dog (yes, I could have called the thief directly but doing it this way seemed more sinister). The phone was returned within a few minutes. Now, of course, one had an app for such things but not everyone loads it or knows how to do so.

As for what is NOT out there: I have yet to find a good online directory for cell phone numbers in general or reverse directories. I recently attempted to find a friend that I had been out of touch with for over forty years. He didn’t have much of an internet presence so I wound up checking the real property tax records in the county where he had lived when I knew him. He was still there. I tried to get phone numbers for him online and got four — four — all of which were outdated or no longer valid. I wound up mailing him a letter and heard back from him. Sometimes, I combination of old and new works best, as Loren Estleman demonstrates on an annual basis in his immortal Amos Walker series.

Does anyone else have other websites they know of, that detectives, fictional or otherwise, can use? And, better yet, does anyone have interesting stories resulting from their use of such websites?

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21 thoughts on “You Wouldn’t Believe What’s Out There…

  1. Zabasearch is certainly not 100 per cent reliable for phone numbers and addresses. And sometimes your Joe Smith search in New York State may have dozens and dozens of returns. (Zabasearch does not use middle initials.)

    But I have found old friends and relatives on Zabasearch. At least it has given me addresses where I can write.

    • Jim, I have had similar experiences with Zabasearch. It’s not much on phone numbers but better on addresses (though still not close to 100%). BTW, Zabasearch does now permit the use of middle initials and the advanced search (also free) lets you use middle names (though I’m not sure how much of a benefit that might be). Happy hunting and thanks for dropping by on this Easter weekend.

  2. You’ve about covered it, Joe. I’ve never been able to find cell numbers, either. Or email addresses. I wonder if there are email directories somewhere.

  3. I’ve never been able to find an email directory either, Sue, though sometimes I’ve tried googling the person’s name as one word followed by gmail.com just to see if that works. It does, on occasion. I’m find of surprised that no one has compiled an online directory that people could opt into or out of for purposes of listing their email address, cell phone number, etc. Thanks for stopping by, and Happy Easter!

  4. Good morning, Joe.

    Loved your post. “Benevolent reasons” – wonderful.

    I couldn’t stop laughing when I read your story about your son’s cell phone.

    Anybody who screens people for rentals (my wife) will learn from this post.

    Sorry, I don’t have any good stories to contribute. On the other side (the nefarious side), with the recent large hack of the IRS, many of us are vulnerable to identity theft. I just finished dealing with that ordeal. Probably a good time for people to check their credit reports to look for any suspicious activity.

    Thanks, Joe. I always look forward to Saturday mornings to read your posts!

    • Good afternoon, Steve, and Happy Easter to you and yours. I’m glad you liked that story…my son couldn’t believe it when the guy returned the phone. Please understand, I’m giving you a very sanitized version of what occurred :-).

      I’m sorry to hear that you were one of the ones victimized by that hack. I hope it’s resolved soon. Thanks for the good advice and as always for stopping by. You always bring a smile with you.

  5. Great post, Joe. The whole nature of detective fiction has changed: no more hunting for a pay phone, much less knowing some one is trying to call you. Fingerprinting with a smart phone app. The detective now has a hacker friend who can access any database. Harder and harder to write the gumshoe. We’re all mini spy agencies. A simpler, slower pace before pagers even. Thanks.

  6. Thanks so much for your kind words Lance, and for mentioning pagers! I had forgotten about those. Pagers and answering machines seemed like the future. And I can still remember where I was the first time I saw someone using a “bag phone,” which is what (for you young people) we called “car phones” which we could actually take out of the car and talk with. And now…I understand that cell phones are about to become obsolete in favor of other devices, such as wrist phones which are part of the Apple watch. And those were initially conceived in the Dick Tracy comic strips by Chester Gould back in the 1960s as “two-way wrist radios.” Wonder what’s next. Thanks again.

    • Augustina…wow. I forgot about that website which for me is a time bandit, as it permits me to visit a couple of sites that are no longer in existence. Thank you. I’m not sure how good it is for locating people presently, but certainly one could use it and work forward. Thanks so much for the reminder about this.

  7. PeopleFinders.com works for locating folks, but only if you sign up for a membership. The free part gives you only names but no info. I know skip tracers use this. But given the security concerns these days, it’s really hard to find info on anyone. Used to be a lot easier, as did stealing identities via assuming those of dead people and getting new birth certificates. (called “Ghosting.”)

    I learned a lot about this when researching my book “She’s Not There” about a woman on the run who is trying to disappear. It’s hard to do this now because after 9-11, security got tighter and frankly, you can’t do much of anything anymore without a credit card. Interesting stuff though…

    • Some skip tracers now also use Bloomberg and Lexis/Nexis, Kris, though they are fairly expensive. I’m glad you mentioned “ghosting,” as that has taken on another meaning. It means suddenly cutting off all contact with a friend/lover by ignoring their texts, emails, phone calls, etc. without notice or warning. Ouch! Thanks for the reminder about the other meaning.

    • Thank you for bookmarking me, Patricia! That’s high praise. As far as a decent free site for landlines goes…I start with zabasearch, though that is highly variable as far as reliability is concerned. For but one example…it lists me at an address and number that I haven’t used in over sixteen years, but lists my wife correctly for our address and landline. The free section of WP is pretty much worthless from my experience, unfortunately. Sometimes you can go at it directly — by doing a general search for a phone number using the name and city of the person whose number you are trying to reach. Good luck, and if you find a decent search engine for that please let us know.

  8. Great post, Joe, as usual. Hope you’re having a great Easter weekend. Last year I was able to use Facebook to solve a 47 year old mystery. While I was in the Air Force in December of 1968, as I was preparing to leave Biloxi, MS, my then fiancé broke off our engagement over the phone. With no explanation. I was devastated.

    Last year something reminded me of that event, and on a whim, I searched for her name on Facebook. Amazingly, I found her, and contacted her.

    Mind you, now, I’m happily married and had no dishonorable intentions, just curiosity. We exchanged a few messages, caught up with each other’s lives, and I mentioned that I never understood why she ended our engagement. Her answer broke my heart. Her family, her sisters, and my mother, had convinced her that I was too good of man to marry someone like her. (She had a child “out of wedlock” before I met her and gave it up for adoption. In those days it was much more socially degrading than now.) So she did the only honorable thing, in her mind, and set me free.

    It made me angry, sad, and wonder what my life would have been with her. After a few more messages, we decided to end our communication.

    Some things are better left alone.

  9. Dave, thanks for stopping by and your kind comments, it’s always good to hear from you. And what a story. I felt the floor drop out from under me on that one. And your mom was in on it too? Ouch. It’s probably best all around that you ended the communication, particularly at this point in your life. I wonder how many stories there are that are similar. Better not to know. Thanks for sharing…and Happy Easter!

  10. I live in Australia and set my stories here and have found that we have much stricter privacy laws. You cannot legally find out if someone has a criminal record through any website. Your only chance is if it was reported in a newspaper. You can, however, have your own criminal history checked by applying directly to the police for a fee, which is required for some jobs like armed security. Even then, they don’t reveal any details, they just notify your potential employer as to whether you are suitable or unsuitable for the job. Tasmania and the Northern Territory have laws against discrimination because of a criminal record, but even in other states you can still file for work place discrimination.

    • That’s very interesting, Mara, and I appreciate you sharing that, particularly if one of our readers/authors sets a story in whole or in part in Australia. We’ll be sure to get that part right. Thanks for the information and for stopping by,.

  11. Facebook is surprisingly useful for finding lost people: my FB contacts in a certain geographical area helped a friend find the long lost father of her eldest child so he could meet his grand kids.
    There’s people uncovering historical mysteries all the time which could benefit from novels being written about them. EG Gavin Menzies and his friends are using modern DNA testing and other scientific and historical and circumstantial evidence to prove that the inhabitants of the Mediterranean thousands of years ago were digging up copper in Michigan. http://www.gavinmenzies.net/
    In other news old UFO files are being released by various agencies which provide plenty of mysteries for the investigator …
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3422014/The-truth-really-CIA-releases-thousands-declassified-X-files-aliens-flying-saucers-unexplained-phenomena.html
    http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2015/01/19/air-force-ufo-files/21985651/
    and… did you check out http://www.newsoftheweird.com/archive/
    News of the Weird has more info than you can shake a stick at about real life craziness that a PI would be kept busy investigating for a long time.
    PS I like historical romances and I write some now and then too.

    • Thank you for those sources, Christine. I love strange news. There is a book titled WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, by Michael Lesy and Charles Van Schaik, which combines newspaper clippings and photographs originating between 1890 and 1910 which is full of unusual crimes, occurrences, deaths, and the like. I’ve never read anything else quite like it.

      As far as Facebook goes…indeed, you can find long-lost people on it. You can also find out more about people you know that you ever wanted to know. Oh, The Humanity. I use it primarily to wish friends Happy Birthday and occasionally find someone. It can sure narrow the field. Thanks for the reminder and for stopping by.

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