A Primer on Finding Even the Most Difficult Subjects

By David C. Childe, CFA

Note: This article was adapted from a presentation made at the Litigation Section’s annual CLE event


Locates serve as a critical gateway in a comprehensive legal investigation: If the defendant can’t be found, the case is grounded; if key witnesses can’t be found, justice is thwarted. And in many other areas – process service, fugitive recovery, missing persons, missing heirs, debtors – locates represent the entire investigation.


The creativity, ingenuity, and moxie required for a difficult locate are often in short supply in today’s database-centric investigative world. As a result, true “go-to” investigators for locates are in short supply And, legal niceties aside, attorneys are rightfully uncomfortable with anything falling short of in-hand delivery of service of process.


There are four general truism about locating people:


    1. Unless the subject is in a cave in Pakistan, he can almost always be found. In my two years as a bounty hunter and three years as a legal investigator, there was only one person I couldn’t find. It just so happened that this person was dead. After that, I learned to check the Social Security Administration’s death files – first!.


    1. Creativity and/or theatrics may be necessary. Disguises, empty pizza boxes, delivery uniforms, flowers, press passes etc. all have their place in a difficult locate. I dressed as a homeless person once to find a particularly difficult street level subject in midtown who was constantly on the move doing his thing. To really be authentic, I even asked people for spare change. I made about seven dollars in one hour, plus I found the guy. Made me feel better about the charitable side of Memphis.


  1. Find someone who really dislikes the person. Studies show that 20% of all people who know you dislike you. That number can be appreciably higher for lawyers and private investigators. Particularly fertile investigative grounds are earlier baby mommas if there is a succession of them, ex-spouses, and landlords. These people have extra reason to dislike the subject. Plus, they usually know where he is.
  2. Momma always knows. Yet she probably won’t tell. Even when people go through their darkest periods, they do call their mommas. If for no other reason than to ask for money. And, no matter how despicable the individual, momma is loathe to tell where they are. Yet a good investigator knows how to coax it out of momma.


What follows is a sampling of specific techniques an ethical, competent investigator will employ:


The classic “do not forward” letter

This is the oldest trick in the book and still works a reasonably high percentage of the time. Send a blank letter to the subject with “do not forward” written near the last known address and “return service requested” written near the return address. Within a week, the postal service will provide you with the new address if indeed a change of address form were filled out.



Paid databases rarely lead directly to a difficult subject. Either the subject doesn’t leave a trace from the credit headers, phone company information, and marketing data normally employed by the database – or the information is typically stale by a few months. If someone is moving around a lot, the few months lapse is critical.


Yet, indirectly, databases provide valuable leads in two ways: Old addresses can be reversed to see who lived with the subject at one time; the various “possible family members” or “possible associates”-type features offered by the databases give you the relative/associate information directly. These methods oftentimes generate independent results.


Existing contact information

Fugitive recovery and deadbeat locates are aided by the wealth of contact information already filed away by a conscientious bondsman or creditor. Examples include old addresses and landlords, personal references, credit references, and employers. And when any type of legal action is involved, the law firm and/or the party represented in the case will invariably possess at least some useful contact information on the subject.


The subject’s place of employment can be more stable than his actual residence history. This is particularly true of people in tenured jobs such as a school teacher or government bureaucrat.


Calling the leads

Contacting the leads garnered from the foregoing methods can serve as a simple and non-labor intensive first step in a difficult locate investigation. It has been my experience that the databases will unearth landline phone numbers (pub and non-pub) for 60-70% of those leads. They can then be called straight up or under a legal ruse.


By the way, there is no such thing as a real non-pub number. They are all easily obtainable, even by non-investigators.


I get excellent results by merely calling up the contacts and asking for the subject directly. (Fugitives aren’t so easy, as they oftentimes have a gauntlet of people covering for them). A typical responder will say that the subject doesn’t live there yet provide his information with no prompting. Others will require a little charm . . . or a ruse. Something as simple as the following will usually do the trick: “I mistakenly received a package for ‘so-and-so’, and this was the phone number associated with it; do you know where I can find him?”


Permit me a little dicta now about using these ruses, also known as pretexts:


First, anything the investigator does gets imputed back to the lawyer, both from an ethical and liability standpoint


Second, it is a violation of federal law to use a pretext to get financial, medical, and cellular records.


Third, it is definitely not wise to use a pretext to get any written records whatsoever


Fourth, it is very possible that investigators getting financial, employment, and detailed cell phone records are doing something illegal or unethical. ASK THEM HOW THEY ARE OBTAINING THESE RECORDS


Fifth, because misrepresentations are violations of an attorney’s code of ethics, even pretexts for reasons other than getting records are increasingly viewed as off limits by Bar Association ethical rulings. And this means friending to get facebook, myspace, and other social sites private profiles. Frankly, there is often enough juicy stuff on the public portions to sate most lawyers and investigators appetites for information


Sixth: there are two general exceptions to the pretext rule. Pre-litigation investigation; locating people for serving process..


Prior landlords

If the investigator remains stymied even after making the above calls, then the next step would be to contact the subject’s most recent landlord. Difficult subjects and poor landlord relationships often go hand-in-glove, so cooperation is relatively assured. No matter whether they are apartment complex leasing personnel or individual homeowners renting out their places, landlords tend to know a lot about their tenants. In the case of a homeowner, the landlord’s name can be easily found at the either the county registrar’s or tax assessor’s website or office.

Traffic tickets/misdemeanor affidavits

When being cited for a traffic violation, people will oftentimes give their correct addresses to the officer even if it isn’t the same as the out-of-date one on their driver’s license.


You may ask, well isn’t the correct address one and the same with the one on the drivers license? I’ll bet at least 20% of this audience has an incorrect address on the license. The figure is far higher for those who move around more. The average person moves every three years


So another investigative tactic involves doing an online search of the subject’s traffic tickets. Many counties (including ours, thankfully) make this available for free. If not, then a trip to the courthouse or DMV office will be in order.


In Tennessee, those with an authorized purpose can pay roughly seventy-five dollars ($75.00) to set up a yearly account with DMV plus about four dollars ($4.00) per search to get statewide traffic ticket information directly. Yet, strictly within Shelby county, this information is available for free on a local system.


Misdemeanor affidavits are another way to gain location information. In Shelby county, they are easily accessible on the internet – with the caveat that your subject was actually arrested for a misdemeanor. Yet the percentage of subjects who have been arrested is surprisingly high – or perhaps not so surprising given that there is oftentimes much overlap between people who attorneys want to find and people who have been accused of crimes.


Utilities search

By and large, the Tennessee Open Records Act is quite favorable to researchers. Since MLG&W is a government entity, according to this law, it must divulge the hook-up information of its customers. One does not even need an authorized purpose to do this. Technically, the records are open to anyone. In practice, that may not be the case. It probably depends on to whom one talks at MLG&W and on how charming the caller may or may not be. As a licensed investigator with an authorized legal purpose, I have never had a problem getting hook-up information.


The key to this search is knowing whose name the utilities were in at the subject’s last known address. First run the information by that address – and then run it by the name of the individual the utilities were in. If that person is not your subject, also run your subject just in case he has decided to strike out on his own and opted to all-of-a-sudden get the utilities in his name.


Skiptrace the girlfriend

Find the girlfriend . . . find the subject. Many people who are hard to locate don’t have anything tangible in their names. This might be for nefarious reasons or it may not be. Either way, someone close to them will have the lease, utilities, magazine subscriptions etc. in their names, thereby allowing the subject to live a reasonably normal life while maintaining a degree of privacy. The enabling person will usually be the girlfriend or wife, but could also be a parent or adult child.


Do a thorough “neighborhood.”

This is a preferred tactic of FBI agents, apparently relying on the premise that neighbors really are nosy. I have found canvassing neighbors at the last-known address to be a reliable source of location information on a subject who has moved; however, this tactic should be reserved as a last-ditch measure because oftentimes it will result in the subject finding out that you are looking for him.


Two tricks to get the highest-quality information: Look for the house with the best manicured lawn(those people tend to be the nosiest); talk to kids about 10-12 years old (they are not old enough to be overly cynical, adult-haters yet still old enough to make reasonable observations).


Local store owners, delivery men, beat cops, postal carriers, kids playing, and pizza delivery people can also be queried as part of a thorough canvass.


Last but not least . . . mother ALWAYS knows!


David Childe is a licensed private investigator and principal of Legal Research & Investigation, a wide-ranging investigation company based in Memphis, Tennessee. Email: And his mother always knew where he was!