How to Trace Someone, Part 2: Identification

Identification Phase

The terms identity, identify and identification are related, but they mean different things. Since tracing involves all three, perhaps its best to pin down a simple, but accurate definition of each to avoid any confusion

The Oxford Dictionary defines identification as a means of proving a person’s identity; or as the action or process of identifying someone or something; or the fact of being identified. but it can be further simplified:

IDENTIFY verify the identity of

IDENTIFICATION the evidence of identity

The objective of this phase of a trace is to positively identify the target. If that is not yet possible, because insufficient usable information is available (or even exists) then a target profile should be compiled. The profile should only contain verified, accurate, up-to-date information that would be unique or sufficiently specific to aid in an identification. In other words, any information that describes or identifies any aspect of the target’s physical person, biographic and biometric data, background, familial and social relationships, assets, income and expenses, business activities, travel, education, and more. An incomplete profile is still very useful. It can be utilized in much the same way as a partial fingerprint – for comparison with an exemplar from a known suspect. The more comprehensive the profile, the more complete that partial fingerprint, and the easier it will be to make a positive match. As new information becomes available it should ideally corroborate the existing information or fill information gaps in that profile. When a likely suspect is identified then the target’s profile and the suspect’s profile can be examined and all points of similarity and uniqueness can be mapped. For now lets start at the first sentence: the objective…is to positively identify the target.

Imagine you need to be at a particular place on or before a designated date. Now, say you need to make that journey on a limited budget and must depart before knowing the exact location of the rendezvous point. You’ll have no street map, no directions, no navigation device or GPS coordinates. All you’ll have initially is a limited amount of seemingly incomplete, ambiguous, outdated or inaccurate information that may or may not become relevant or useful as the journey progresses. This is where we are in our tracing case at this point in time. It would be foolhardy to jump into our vehicle and head off in an arbitrary direction hoping to stumble upon clues along the way. We need to know as much about the destination as possible so that there can be no mistaking that destination for another. If we were to ask a passerby for directions, we’d need to describe the destination in enough detail for there to be as little doubt as possible that we’re both thinking of the same place. Landmarks, street names or the unique geography of the area would be vital clues. The same goes for our trace, except street names might be the names of family or friends, landmarks might be specific identifiers like a date of birth or identity number, and the unique geography could be a physical description of the target.

more importantly make sure that there is sufficient biographic or personally identifiable information to enable you to positively identify the person you’re about to trace. What I mean by “positively identify” the target is to be able to distinguish him or her (without any uncertainty) from other people with the same names and possibly even the same dates of birth. Why is this important? You don’t want to go to all the trouble of tracing “John Smith” only to discover that you’ve traced the wrong Mr Smith. The more unique a person’s names, and the more names a person has, the less likely it becomes that you’ll mistake them for someone else.

Real Names

A person’s real name (or legal name) is registered at birth. Unless it is changed, that same name will appear in one’s ID book, passport, drivers license and other official documents. Changing one’s name, in South Africa at least, requires an application to the Department of Home Affairs for the registration of the new name and the publication of the name change in the Government Gazette. Most people will be addressed by different names. I’m pretty sure you’ve been called something other than your full legal name (as printed on your birth certificate). Perhaps your mom calls you Angie instead of Angela. Maybe your friends call you Doug and not Douglas. I know a guy who is Rick to his guy friends, Ricky to the ladies, Dick to his best mate, Tricky-Dicky to his folks and he’s only ever Richard when he’s filling in an application form. My dad’s name is William, but he’s known as Billy to family and close friends, Bill to everyone else, and he’s only ever called William by my mom, and only when he’s in trouble. Be careful with the spelling of names. Make sure that your customer not only provides you with the information you need, but that they are open and honest about the quality of that information. For instance, if your customer has a copy of the target’s driver’s license then there’d be little question as to the accuracy of his or her name. If however the name was given telephonically by the target as Johann Pieter Van Wyk, you might actually need to be looking at all persons named:

  • Johann Pieter Van Wyk
  • Johan Pieter Van Wyk
  • Johann Peter Van Wyk
  • Johan Peter Van Wyk
  • Johann Pieter Van Wijk
  • Johan Pieter Van Wijk
  • Johann Peter Van Wijk
  • Johan Peter Van Wijk

If the target was using abbreviated or derived forms of his actual names then you can extend the search to include: Johannes, Johanne, Johannah, Johannes-Jacobus, Johannes-Petrus, Johannes-Willem, and countless other hyphenated name for the first name

Common Names

Let’s stick with the name John Smith for a moment. This is a very common name in the English speaking parts of the world. In South Africa there are only 2,590 John Smiths, but even so, unless you have some way of narrowing your search, you could spend the rest of your life tracing John Smiths and never net your target. The US Census Bureau has identified 46,555 people named John Smith in the United States – tracing one John Smith a day, it would take you over 100 years to trace them all (actually, about 127.5 years). There are approximately 76,600 people with the name John Smith on Facebook (Source: Facebook’s People Directory). Some estimates put the the total number of John Smiths at over 150,000 worldwide. Even so, John Smith isn’t the most common name in the world – not by a long shot. If you were in Qinghai Province, China, you’d be unlikely to find even a handful of John Smiths. If your target was Wang Fang, Zhang Wei, Wang Wei, Li Wei or Wang Xiu Ying then you’d be in a pickle. Each of those names is shared by over 250,000 people.

  • Petrus
  • Secondary Names

    Back to John Smith. Lets set the trace in South Africa. As I mentioned there are 2,590 people named John Smith, so we desperately need to narrow that down. If your target only has a first and last name then you’ll need additional information to filter out the incorrect John Smiths. With any luck, though, your John Smith has a second (or even better, a second and third) name. In many cases, just the second name would be enough to positively identify a person, but not always. To make this interesting I’m going to randomly choose a second name (I’m using the random name generator from our tools section). And the winner is… ROBERT. Great, we’re now down to 270 possible identities. Let’s see what happens if we throw in a third name… KOBUS. I thought that we would need to choose a different name since “Kobus” is an Afrikaans (or Dutch/Germanic) name that might not be found as John Robert Smith’s third name. I was wrong. Not only is there a John Robert Kobus Smith, but there are three. Since these are actual people, I won’t publish any specific information about them, but a quick scan of the biographic information for each JRK Smith has ruled one out (deceased) and has given us another way to verify which is the correct Smith… their age. One is in his sixties and the other in his thirties. If we know that our customer wanting to trace an old school mate from the class of 1975 then we’d be able to rule the 30-something out.


    Lets say that John Smith only had a second name, and that name (Peter) only narrowed the search down to 143 people. If we knew his approximate to within 10 years then we could narrow the field to 8. If we knew John’s wife’s first name then we’d be able to identify him as each of those 8 are married to someone with a unique name. Obviously having John’s date of birth would identify him (as long as he wasn’t born on 25 September or 5 December as those dates are shared by others with the same name). Even so, we’d be down to two John Peter Smiths, which, in the absence of any further identification information isn’t an unacceptable starting point.

    Identification Numbers

    In South Africa, having a person’s identity number would enable you to positively identify that person (as long as their identity hasn’t been compromised or stolen by identity thieves :( ). Similar identification numbers are used in most countries as a reliable way of positively identifying a person (see National Identification Numbers on Wikipedia for more information). There are many other ways too, in fact, too many to list all of them here. Certain combinations of information may do the trick:

    • Last name, initials, date of birth
    • Full name, approximate age, email address
    • Last name, first name, spouse’s name
    • You get the point…

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