GettyImages_lzm005.jpgInvestigators are often asked to track people down—for instance, we are sometimes asked to find former employees of a company who might be witnesses in litigation.  In some cases, we don’t know who we’re looking for exactly, but we know where they worked, or we have an old address.  These assignments can be time-consuming, but clients are often sympathetic because they realize the challenges involved in tracking down a person whose name remains unknown. 

But even having a person’s name does not guarantee smooth sailing.  For instance, tracking down a man with a common name like Bob Smith is far from easy. Sure, it helps if we know more information—like that Mr. Smith lived in Atlanta between 2005-2007, and that he worked as an auto mechanic. But that still requires a bit of effort to find just the right person and not someone else who, coincidentally, has the same name and the same personal details. The world is really far smaller than we often realize.

A good investigation begins with the information the client has provided, but it certainly does not end there. In cases where an investigation fails to yield any viable results, among the first steps is to challenge the information given.  After all, as we said in our article for InsideCounsel, “5 Tips When Searching for Assets,” you don’t know what you don’t know. 

For a person search, this might mean questioning the name provided.  There are enough variations in names to allow for numerous other search terms that might be more fruitful. Sure, Mr. Smith may be known as Bob to his friends, but what if he appears as Robert M. Smith in database records? What if his last name is actually spelled Smyth? What if Bob is short for his middle name, and his legal name is actually Thomas Roberto Smith?

Below are a few suggestions for alternative search terms when investigating an individual by name:

  •  First name:
    • Is it a nickname? What is the formal name?
    • Is the first name spelled properly? Are there alternative spellings? Is it a name that is frequently misspelled or mistaken for another?
    • Could the name used as a first name actually be a middle name?
  • Middle name:
    • Is there one? Is it used as a first name?
    • Was the full name searched with and without middle initial?
  • Last name:
    • Is it spelled properly? Search variations of the spelling, including phonetic spellings.
    • Sometimes database entries inverse names, especially if the last name is also sometimes used as a first name (so Thomas Connor could be entered as Connor Thomas). This is especially true for Asian names. In those cases, search with the first name last and the last name first.  
    • For married men and women, search using their maiden name and their spouse’s last name as well, whether it was legally changed after marriage or not. Don’t assume this is only relevant for women—we recently had a client with a federal lien against him but he hadn’t been properly notified because the documents were under his estranged wife’s maiden name and he was erroneously believed to have the same last name as her.
    • If the last name is hyphenated or if there are two last names, run searches with each name separately, and with both names together.  Also, searches with the names inverted and with and without hyphens. 

Some of these searches might seem redundant, but remember that databases are quirky: A slight tweak can make the difference between the hit you need or no hit at all. 

If there are still no hits, you can start combining some of these variations for the different names with each other and see if that helps.

  • For example, for Bob Smith, search for Robert Smyth, or for Bob Smyth.  If he has a middle initial M, run a search for Bob M. Smith and Bob M. Smyth, as well as Robert M. Smith, and Robert M. Smyth. Also consider searching for Robby Smith/Smyth and Roberto Smith/Smyth with and with the M. middle initial.