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Locating Missing Persons – An Investigator’s Perspective

Clients of private investigation firms seek to locate persons for a broad range of purposes. Some common reasons include: recovering a debt, getting in touch with a long-lost family member or sweetheart, locating a witness in a civil matter or a criminal trial and finding a beneficiary in a will. There are in fact all sorts of unusual situations in which finding people is necessary.

For private investigators, locating persons has traditionally been a difficult task. The way that Western liberal democracies are structured enables citizens and residents to exercise a lot of freedom with respect to their movements and living arrangements. Consequently, data registries that record the places of residence of persons in a country such as Australia, while often useful, are not comprehensive. Civil libertarians would see an attempt to formulate a comprehensive registry of this type as dangerous and despotic – for example, see the failed Australia Card.

Not only are registries of personal information not comprehensive, they are not perfectly accurate. Even purportedly accurate databases, such as land titles records, do not contain 100% accurate information – I know this from having seen errors myself on land titles and within databases used to access land title information.

Fortunately, with the development of technology and the advancement of public record databases, there are now more resources available to private investigators than ever before. Public record databases, especially those operated by private entities, are increasingly helpful and prolific. They can contain quite up-to-date information and can usually be accessed online reasonably quickly. Since I personally became involved in the private investigations industry in 2009 the amount of information available just on Google alone has expanded greatly.

What all of this means is that locating persons should not be considered to be an exact science and it should be crystal clear that some people simply cannot be found. It’s important to note however that a professional and experienced investigator is seeing his or her success rate increase owing to the relative wealth of information that is now accessible. That has certainly been the case at Lyonswood Investigations & Forensics, the firm I operate, over the last 10 years or so.

The Nuts and Bolts

The objective in an investigation into the whereabouts of a person is to determine where a person resides. Ok, but how does one prove definitively where a subject person resides? Unless the person admits to residing at a particular address, it is necessary to carry out multiple days of surveillance at the address of the person to show the subject coming and / or going from the address. This is the evidence accepted in court for legal purposes to show where a person actually resides if there is any contention about that fact. How do we know that? Because we have conducted surveillance in those circumstances and submitted reports to lawyers for this purpose for many years.

So, taking that into account, when a client contacts an investigator seeking an estimate for locating a person, are we proposing to carry out multiple days of surveillance? No. We are proposing to conduct searches on public record databases under the name and details of the subject person and make associated inquiries, as required. We first need to endeavour to locate the person. If it is necessary to prove definitively the subject person is resident at a particular address or if it is necessary to make some other form of inquiry, those options can be considered subsequent to the initial searches we are discussing here.

After having conducted the search into the whereabouts of a person, the following outcomes are possible:

  • We strongly believe we have ascertained the subject person’s place of residence.
  • We have a probable place of residence for the subject or a number of probable places of residence for the subject.
  • We have a possible place of residence for the subject or a number of possible places of residence for the subject.
  • We are uncertain where the subject resides and/or we have not found any recent records relating to the subject.

In approximately 75% – 85% of cases, outcome 1 or 2 above is able to be achieved. In cases where outcome 1, 2 or 3 has been achieved, it is often the case that through further inquiries, the address will be able to be confirmed as the subject’s place of residence.


Finding a person in the digital age is easy isn’t it? Well, the answer to that question is usually a very clear yes or a very clear no. If you run the name you are looking for and the desired results (like a Facebook and/or LinkedIn account) aren’t apparent on the first few pages of Google, it’s probably going to be a lot of work. You can be just about guaranteed it’s going to be a lot of work if any of the following factors are in play:

  • the subject is a debtor
  • the subject has a common name
  • there are various spellings of the subject’s name
  • the subject is not a citizen (especially if the subject is a citizen of New Zealand)
  • the subject moves regularly or has moved recently
  • the subject is endeavouring to live off the grid
  • the known details for the subject are dated or limited or both

By the time a search comes to us, it is almost guaranteed to be challenging in some way. Even in the rare instances where a search is not challenging, we treat it as a challenging search and try to confirm through multiple sources that the subject is resident at the address in question.

The investigative search method is far too complex to explain in detail here. Essentially, the best way to describe the search process is that it is conducted by employing inductive reasoning. This means that one has to ultimately rely on one’s intuition to form a conclusion about the relevance of data extracted painstakingly from databases. Because clients inevitably provide incomplete or incorrect information, because the databases are not comprehensive and contain incorrect information, because some information is dated and because of many other considerations, extensive searching and cross-referencing is required in every investigation. Sometimes pretext or subterfuge inquiries are also necessary.

The best way to describe how most searches work is to provide an example. The following case study showcases the kind of intuitive thinking that is required and is unfortunately not evident in many of the investigation reports we receive from clients who have unsuccessfully engaged other firms:

“The subject of the investigation was deliberately avoiding detection as she knew people were seeking to locate her. She made sure her name did not come up on any databases. We examined historical records in the hope they would give us clues.

We noticed that a male appeared on a database at an address where the female subject was formerly known to be resident. He may have been co-resident with the subject or perhaps they lived there at different times. We decided to look at this male more closely. Other searches revealed the male had previously lived over the road from the subject at another address miles away.

We drew the inference that the subject and the male had becomes friends or, more likely, partners at the older location when they lived near one another. It would have been too great a coincidence had they separately decided to move into the same residence one after the other.

We then conducted searches to endeavour to locate the male and uncovered a listing for him in another state. Field work at the address enabled us to confirm the subject female resided there and our client was able to pursue the matter further through the courts.”


When an investigator quotes for a search, he or she should quote to endeavour to achieve a successful outcome. We are strongly of the opinion that it is unprofessional for an investigator to offer a fixed quote for a search without being in possession of the full known actual details for the subject person. If the subject of the investigation is a John Smith or a Van Nguyen (or someone with a common name) and/or if we have limited details with which to work or if we are endeavouring to locate a female who changed her name through marriage years ago, the person simply will not be located within a budget of a few hundred dollars. Therefore, if an investigator offers a fixed quote without being cognisant of the details for the subject, we argue that he or she is simply quoting to take on work and is not quoting to endeavour to conduct a search successfully.

Having done this work every day for 36 years, including for many law firms, government agencies, local government councils, multinational corporations, individuals and others, the Lyonswood team have a very clear understanding of the parameters of a search and the potential difficulties that may arise. The quote we provide is based on the expected expenditure of time by specialist investigators, the cost of the database searches in your case and our overheads. We always include a written report detailing the outcome of our searches. We are open to negotiation regarding price however keep in mind that the fee specified is what we believe is appropriate in the circumstances, taking into account the expected complexities of the case.

We are the search team of last resort in Australia meaning that when clients have engaged other firms who offer more rudimentary searches (typically skip-tracing firms, process serving firms and investigators who do not specialise in this area) and have not obtained a result, they come to us. Unfortunately, our clients end up paying more because they effectively tried to take a shortcut in the first instance and then need to add our costs to their total expenditure. As you are beginning to appreciate, there are no shortcuts in investigations.

In Summary

After confidentiality, the most important thing in an investigation is having an investigator who knows what he or she is doing. This is especially the case for searches into a person’s whereabouts because this is a very niche skill and far fewer investigators attempt this work in Australia than, for example, surveillance. The vast majority of investigators working today specialise in or predominantly conduct insurance work, not private work for private clients, like you, who have unique needs and objectives.

In some ways, conducting a search into a person’s whereabouts is harder than representing a client as a lawyer. Why is that and why am I qualified to say that? Well, as a law graduate I understand that being a lawyer involves following a large set of guidelines as to your conduct and the conduct of your case. There’s already an answer for nearly every question. This is far from the case in investigations and is definitely not the case when it comes to locating a person.

There is no guide book to locating persons. You either get the chance to learn from an expert (as I did) and practice the craft for years, developing your skills as databases develop or you don’t. My team and I are lucky that we had the opportunity to learn from the founder of Lyonswood Investigations, Warren Mallard, who accrued 44 years of investigative experience before he passed away. We have continued to learn and adapt our processes as technology has changed the way investigators do their work.

So, I will end with some tips for those who are considering engaging an investigator. When discussing your case with an investigator, don’t request or accept a quote until you have provided details for the subject person to the investigator. Understand that the level of information available in Australia might differ from your expectations (for example, if you are based in the US where personal information is more readily accessible) and for that reason it’s important for you to provide clear and correct details for the subject to maximise the likelihood of success. Ensure your investigator is contractually obligated to provide a report setting out the outcome of the investigation. Finally, and most importantly, do some research on the firm you intend to engage because selecting the right investigator will make all the difference. It’s impossible to learn how to conduct database searches without months or years of practice and training so, whatever the cost of the investigation, if you are engaging a serious investigator then you’re getting value for money.

Along with cyberbullying matters, “locates” are my favourite type of investigations to conduct. I love the challenge and the chase and the thrill of catching a lead after a lot of intensive searching. Should the need arise, we hope you would trust Lyonswood with your investigation.

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