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5 Tips for Investigating a Person with a Common Name

Editor's note: This article was written after consultation with two experienced investigators. The information provided below may not be applicable to every investigation in every state, and other methods of investigating individuals with common names may exist.



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There’s no getting around it. There are more than 45,000 people with the name John Smith in the U.S., and somebody wants a background check on one of them. It’s certainly possible to find one in 45,000, but it’s going to take a bit of research. Due to the commonality of this quandary, each investigator has a few tricks of the trade to locate a subject with a common name. However, each case is different; and we wanted to give some experienced investigators a chance to collaborate and share some ways they have located a subject with a common name.

We invited Detectives Pamela Hay and Brian Willingham to discuss how to combat a common name. “I think this is an area where you can separate a good investigator from everybody else,” Willingham says. He began his response by detailing the amount of articles and blog posts he has written on how to conduct a background check on a common name -- calling it one of the most difficult challenges within the profession. Willingham has been a private investigator for 11 years, conducting thousands of background checks throughout his career. His investigations company, Diligentia Group, specializes in background investigations. Hay is president of Broad Range Investigations, specializing in criminal and civil investigations. She also has top secret clearance with the government to conduct their background checks, and teaches a Professional Investigations course at Boston University.

Here are Hay and Willingham’s tips on locating a subject with a common name:

1. Identify all the factual information that you can on the subject.

When beginning an investigation, the sky’s the limit. Willingham stressed the importance of continuously thinking out of the box when drafting up the first profile, there’s always a chance that there is more information out there, and it could ultimately make the job a lot easier. Willingham starts with a comprehensive list of everything he can gather about the individual. Here’s a few examples of the facts he will begin looking for:

  • Address history
  • Work history
  • Spouses names
  • Ex spouses names
  • Children’s names
  • What schools do the children attend
  • What organizations the subject has been involved in.
  • Possible investments the subject is involved in.

By having an array of data on the subject, that spans years across different territories, the investigator can conduct more thorough research confirming that he or she has the correct person -- which introduces the next tip . . .

2. Conduct combination searches.

A combination search is one of the most comprehensive ways to determine that the investigator is researching the correct subject. Willingham explains that if the investigator knows that the subject worked for a certain company or organization, he or she can search within those records with the subject’s name and minimize the data that is being reviewed. These searches may lead to a middle initial that will then help specify the investigation even more. When it’s known that one piece of data is true, combination searches can help eliminate false information, and lead the investigator to factual data that will further his or her search. 

3. Go to the courthouses in the areas they have lived to conduct on-site searches.

Criminal records tend to have a specific identification number such as a social security or a drivers license number. Determining an identification number will highlight the John being investigated from all of the other Johns out there. In addition, obtaining the physical criminal record is a much more reliable strategy than an online search. Online document information is entered manually which leaves room for error. It only takes one error to prohibit a useful document  from coming up in an online search. Also, if online sites such as PACER yield no results, this does not necessarily mean that the subject doesn’t have a criminal record. Not all states report to online databases. Going to the courthouse and searching records is surely the most fail safe way to review a subject’s criminal history, and to be sure that the correct John is being investigated. 

4. Continue speaking with the client as a source of information.

When following the protocol, the client will provide the initial information for the investigator to begin the background check -- Hay advises a constant flow of communication throughout the entire investigation. The investigator should be sure that he or she knows everything that the client knows about the subject. This may involve asking clients detailed questions and scheduling multiple meetings to be sure that both the investigator and the client are on the same page.  It’s not uncommon for information or memories to arise after the initial meeting to discuss the investigation.

Hay gave an example of a background check she completed on a subject with a common name. Her first attempt at finding the subject yielded no results. She spoke with her client to hopefully get some more information, and it turned out the client knew that the subject had a mail-order bride. With this new information, Hay was able to locate the wife via social security records; because she received her social security number in her 20s, this narrowed her search significantly. Once she had located the wife, she was able to find her subject via marriage records. It’s not uncommon for this amount of leg work to be necessary to locate a subject -- but without continuing the conversation with her client, Hay would not have been able to complete the background investigation.

5. Go out into the field for surveillance activity.

With all of the capabilities of today’s internet, it’s easy to get carried away with online databases. Although they can make the job a lot easier, don’t rule out surveillance activity when investigating a subject. Hay suggests to figure out where a person frequents, this may be through interviewing sources and, or discussing with your client, in order to follow through and further your investigation.

Background investigations are one of the more common reasons for a client to hire an investigator: for hiring a new employee, a nanny, agreeing to a business deal, and more. Eventually, one of those people is going to be named John Smith, and not every investigator can locate one out of 45,000.  As Willingham mentioned, this in opportunity to rise to the top of the investigation field. Incorporating these strategies in your practice should alleviate some difficulty in locating the subject, and allow you to continue to grow and excel within your business.

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About the Participants

Brian Willingham is a New York Private Investigator and the President of Diligentia Group. He is also #2 on the PInow list of Top Private Investigator Blogs.

Pamela Hay is a criminal defense investigator and president of Broad Range Investigations. She also teaches investigative research at Boston University.


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