Last updated: September 28, 2020
Snooping 101: 14 Ways to Become Your Own Private Detective
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Despite advances in technology, modern life is often as full of mystery as it was for our offline ancestors. Whatever happened to that old college buddy? Is that cute guy or gal flirting with you on Facebook really who they say they are? Why would a Nigerian prince need your help to move a small fortune?
Fortunately, thanks to a globe-spanning network of instantly searchable information and a near-total erosion of privacy in the online realm, solving life's little (and big) mysteries is easier than ever. Whether you're trying to track down an old friend, verify the trustworthiness of a business, or even catch out a sneaky spouse, you've got access to a wide variety of tools and tricks to help you pick up the virtual breadcrumbs almost everyone leaves in their electronic wake.
While it might seem logical to take immediate advantage of a premium public search service such as Spokeo or PeopleSearch.com, you can find a surprising amount of information about companies and individuals alike without forking over any of your hard-earned cash. What do social media sites and the government have in common? They both love to collect data about John and Jane Q. Public, and with a little judicious searching, you can discover a person's age, hometown, relationship status and known associates (that's "friends list" in Facebook-speak), along with an overview of their criminal record, DMV records, marriages, divorces and more. Throw in a search of LinkedIn, WordPress or even a phone number related to your search, and you can uncover hidden contact information and job histories. And depending on which government records you search and compare, you can also find out voter registrations, real estate records, and tax information. Not bad for a few hours hunched over the old keyboard.
Of course, it's not just social media sites and government institutions that contain a wealth of potentially useful data. If the target of your inquiry is one you know well, a quick review of the Internet history on their laptop, tablet, or phone can be rather...revealing. Obviously, this method requires bending (if not breaking) a few interpersonal boundaries, so you might want to think long and hard before grabbing that mouse or swiping that screen in the name of personal edification.
Snooping 101: 14 Ways to Become Your Own Private Detective
Whether you're trying to track down hard-to-find contact information or catch a cheating spouse, by leveraging technical advances and some good old fashioned detective work, you can be your own private investigator to uncover any suspicious activity or put that sneaking suspicion to rest.
Please note that we do not condone or recommend these activities.The information is intended to be used to protect yourself, not harm others.
Search Social Media
This may be an obvious first step, but it's a good place to start.
It's amazing how many people don't set their privacy settings.
- In a 2012 study of 1.4 million Facebook users, only 33% claimed to have kept their personal information (age, network, relationship, hometown, etc.) private.
- 55% of women and 49% of men surveyed restricted their personal information.
- 53% of users kept their friend list private in 2012.
Check the "About" page of a Facebook profile or business page for contact information.
Scroll through their timeline for location check-in information, photos, and clues.
LinkedIn is a great place to find links to personal websites, blogs, Twitter accounts, and even email addresses.
Search WordPress.com for the user - often an email address will be attached to the user profile.
Browse Internet Databases
Many websites allow you to search for a person's address, phone number, and even family members, such as:
Spokeo.com organizes white-pages listings, public records, and social network information to help you learn about people. You can search by name, email, phone, username, or address.
Conduct a Public Records Search
If you're looking for specific and detailed information, searching public records will be helpful in digging up:
- Tax records
- Real estate transactions
- Records of births and deaths
- Court records
- Voter registrations
- Business licenses
- Vital statistics records
- DMV records
To access public records, visit your local government agency website or USA.gov for a national search.
Search a Phone Number
If you have a phone number, there are websites that will give you the caller's name and address:
Look for a Criminal Background
Do a record check on the person or the owner of the business you're researching using sites like RecordsFerret.com or dmv.org/criminal-records.
Examine Phone and Credit Card Bills
If you're suspicious of a spouse or someone you live with, review phone logs, credit card bills, and bank statements for unusual charges and suspicious activity.
Review Internet History
If someone is up to no good, they've likely done some research regarding their suspicious activity using the Internet.
Even if they're being careful, they may not have remembered to delete their activity every day.
Install Surveillance Equipment
There's nothing quite as effective as physical evidence of wrongdoing.
Install a "nanny cam" to track what people are doing in your home, or a surveillance camera outside to track suspicious activity on your property.
You can even go as far as installing a bug or wiretap in your home to pick up audio.
You can view a step-by-step video showing how to "bug" a room on YouTube, and a simple Google search will provide countless links to purchase spyware.
But note, there can be legal ramifications on both the state and federal levels for recording a person without their consent.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Stored Communications Act make it illegal to intercept or gain unauthorized access to certain types of information such as oral or electronic information (i.e. email).
Conduct a WHOIS Search
If you're tracking down a webmaster or know that the person you're trying to find owns a website, use WHOIS data via a site like WHOIS.net to search for their name and contact information.
If their information has been anonymized, look for clues like nicknames or handles in the "name" field.
Or use WhoRush.com to uncover any hidden projects or analyze whois and related data.
- WhoRush analyzes IP addresses, domain names, Google AdSense IDs, Google Analytics IDs, name server records, mail exchange records, and other site "fingerprints" for more than 130 million of websites.
Check the IP Address
Use MyIPNeighbors.com to see what websites share an IP address with you.
You can use the websites found to unearth contact information or other clues.
Explore the Website Source Code
By right clicking on almost any website and selecting "view source code," you can examine the site's HTML code for clues such as usernames.
For example, if the site has a Google AdSense account, AdSense IDs can be matched across sites. Look for the "google_ad_client" string in the code.
Use a tool like Meanpath.com to search for specific snippets in a website's source code or uncover websites using a specific snippet of code from Meanpath's database of more than 220 million sites.
Search for the website on Archive.org to see if cached pages have contact details or clues.
Archive.org can also show a change of ownership. Old owners may be willing to help by providing contact information if they have it.
Track Them Down Via Their Newsletter
Although it's not always live, newsletters always have a reply-to address.
Even [email protected] works if a catch-all email is enabled.
CAN-SPAM compliant emails require a postal address to be included in the email.
Search Better Business Bureau
If it's contact information for a business you're looking for, try a search on bbb.org/us/Find-Business-Reviews/.