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Private Investigators Powering Searches with Social Media

  • June 09, 2010
  • by PInow Staff

John Dillinger might not have been such a successful bank robber if he had kept a Facebook page. These days, more and more private investigators, process servers and law enforcement agencies are using social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to locate hard-to-find people and discover information. With a quick Google search and a little creativity, it is now possible to find out everything you need to know about your subject without leaving the office.


Social networking has become an especially useful tool for private investigators who need fresh clues to warm up a cold case. Some people will leave town and remove nearly all physical evidence of their whereabouts, yet they faithfully update their Facebook page and give away details that lead straight to them. In New York, for example, one man who had been on the run from the law for months listed detailed information about himself on Facebook and MySpace including the town he lived in, the name of the tattoo parlor where he worked and even his work hours. Many times even the most careful person will let his or her guard down when using social media, which is why you should include it in your investigations.

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Social Networking Use in Legal Industries Slowly Gaining Momentum

Even though social networking sites are home to many criminals and fugitives, their pursuers have been slow to follow. Vic Pichette, president of Genesis Investigations in Rhode Island, began using social networking during investigations about two years ago. It has since become the first step of any attempt to gather background information or locate people. Pichette has seen a gradual increase in the number of people conducting investigations via social networking, but he said there is still a long way to go.

"It bums me out that people don't understand not only how they can use it to locate somebody and get background information, but use it as your own tool to make money and promote yourself and brand yourself as a professional," Pichette said.

Pichette uses sites such as Facebook, Slideshow, MySpace and even to gather background information and to do corporate research. During his information-gathering expeditions, Pichette said he comes across things that surprise even him.

"You're looking for someone you're expecting to be an executive-type individual and they put stupid things on the Internet," Pichette said. "The things you expect people not to do, they do. It can also be detrimental to them. I wish there was a way to tell them that if you're going to be a serious business person, you shouldn't be putting that stuff out there."

Phil Johnson, owner of JJ Associates International in the U.K., uses social media to locate people and information on a worldwide basis. He explained that social media has become "addictive" to users, which means the amount of data they share with the world continues to grow exponentially. Johnson shared his company's history of relying on social media as a treasure trove of information.

"Without naming names, we have located many U.K. citizens [using social media] and others who are trying to escape to the U.S. and other parts of the world," Johnson said. "When we have located them, we usually do asset searches where possible and/or serve process."

When performing skip tracing or service of process, Johnson said he and his colleagues regularly scour social media sites to find information regarding the subject's relatives, interests and locations the subject may frequent.

Assuming a New Online Identity

A more controversial aspect of investigations using social media involves creating a false online persona in order to establish contact with a secretive subject. Some people are divided on the legality and ethics of this practice, but it can turn up information that would be otherwise nearly impossible to find. David Stuckman, from Manhattan, Kansas, discussed how he brings people out of hiding with a few social media tricks.

Stuckman said Facebook is his site of choice for finding people who have skipped town. His company is located near both Kansas State University and Fort Riley, a military base, so the majority of the people he searches for are college students or GIs between 18 and 25 who have committed "minor" offenses such as DUI. In order to locate some of these kids, Stuckman said he has to trick them into talking to him on Facebook. One of his favorite techniques is for him, his son or his daughter to create a dummy account on Facebook so the subject thinks he or she is being contacted by another college student. After establishing dialogue with the subject, they send a message asking where he is, or telling him they are holding onto a check that came in the mail for him and that he should come pick it up.

Once Stuckman and his associates have gained the trust of the subject on Facebook, they begin gently probing for information that they can use to locate him. Stuckman asks questions such as what kind of bars the subject frequents, which tells him a lot because there are only a certain number of sports bars, Western bars and reggae bars in Manhattan. If the subject says he attends KSU football games, Stuckman might strike up a conversation by saying, "I think I saw you the other night at the KSU game." Another trick Stuckman employs is to befriend the subject's friends online and ask if they've seen the subject because he owes him $50.

How to use social networking to your advantage

If you are interested in using social networking to find people or gather background information, here are six tips to get you started:

1. Create accounts for social networking sites you want to use for searches

Joining social networking sites is usually free and easy, and it allows you more access to subjects' profiles than if you are not a member. Popular sites include:

2. Start your investigation with search terms

Start by entering search terms related to your subject into search engines such as Yahoo!, Google and Bing. These terms include names, addresses and telephone numbers. Phil Johnson recommends searching for relatives, interests and information about places the subject frequents because this data is useful for skip tracing and process serving.

3. Search on specific sites

Search for the person using sites such as Pipl and Social Mention, which may turn up information that the big search engines miss.

4. Try searching popular social media sites

If your broad searches are not proving fruitful, try searching for the person on specific social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

5. Set up Google alerts

Vic Pichette recommends setting up Google Alerts or using sites like Social Mention to set social media alerts. These alerts notify you whenever news or information related to your subject pops up online.

6. Become the anonymous friend

Some investigators are more comfortable pretending to be someone else on social networking sites to gain the confidence of a subject, so whether you choose to use that tactic is up to you. You should check the rules in your state to make sure there are no laws against creating a fake profile for investigative purposes. If you choose to do it, customize each effort to the person you are tracking. Create a profile that looks like it could be someone the subject knows, use what you know about the subject to tailor the profile, and adopt a convincing persona when contacting the subject.

7. Get social media investigation software

Social media investigation software will allow you to search for specific terms and key words across many websites, and set up alerts for new posts, photos, accounts, etc. This will also allow you to pull any necessary data needed if you are working on a court case.

Protecting Your Own Privacy

Flow of online information is a two-way superhighway, meaning you might be just as guilty of sharing too much information as the people you're trying to find. Be very selective about the information you share online when using social networking sites for personal use. Johnson offered some advice for protecting yourself.

"Just put on what you would be willing to share with your friends," Johnson said. "If you do not want your phone number, e-mail or personal address, do not put it there."


The Internet has made the world a much smaller place, and with a quick search you might find who you're looking for right in your own backyard. Using social networking can be a trial-and-error process because it's still a relatively new investigative technique, but the results are often well worth the effort. And if you need a little assistance, why not enlist the help of your nearest neighborhood teenager?

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