How to Trace Someone, Part 1: Initiating a Trace

Initiating a Trace

Tracing assignments are the bread-and-butter for many private investigation companies. Intertel’s first case, over 23 years ago, was a tracing case. Client one, a firm of attorneys in Pinetown, KwaZulu-Natal, were desperate to locate a debtor who had evaded all attempts by other tracing agencies to pin-point his whereabouts. We found him, but between you and I, we got lucky. I should know, because I worked on the case (case one, file number 93/01/0001). In the early nineties there was no Google, no Facebook, no world wide web as we know it, and tracing assignments required old-fashioned detective work, boots-on-the-ground leg-work, a lot of telephone calls and fair amount of luck. Nowadays, 8 out of 10 tracing cases are solved within an hour, and require no field work, no interviews, no telephone calls and (I’m probably going to pick up flack for this…) no specialized skills at all. The cost to trace a person has come down significantly, and what we charge for tracing a person these days is far less than we charged over 2 decades ago.

STEP Initiation

Here is where a trace begins. Generally, someone requires the current location (usually a confirmed physical address such as a place of residence or business) and perhaps current contact information for some other person whose whereabouts are unknown at the time. The “someone” might be a customer, it might be an employer, it might even be yourself. For the remainder of this article we’ll assume that you’re a private investigator or tracing agent and that you will be tracing a person on behalf of a customer. The “other person”, the one being traced, we’ll refer to as the target person.

Initiating a Trace: Motivation and Situation

Knowing why your customer wants to trace the target is important for a few reasons. Never undertake a trace without first debriefing your customer so that you have a thorough understanding of why they want to trace this person, what they intend to do with the information once they have it, what action (if any) they intend taking against the person as well as any constraints, such as a deadline or budget, that you would be working with.
  • First, for your own protection, you need to be certain that the customer is not violating the law, a Court Order or terms of an agreement that prohibit him or her from making contact with (or knowing the current whereabouts of) the person you’re tracing. You also need to be certain that the customer will not harm, harass or otherwise violate the rights of the target. In any situation in which a crime is being committed, you could potentially be prosecuted as an accomplice and would also open yourself up to liability in a civil case.
  • Second, the circumstances (with regard to the relationship or dealings between the target and your customer) leading up to this trace will provide a good indication of the type of tracing assignment that lies ahead. If your customer is trying to reconnect with old classmate then its likely to be an easier trace than if the customer is trying to locate a person that is wanted by the police. Apart from estimating the probable degree of difficulty (which can assist you to estimate a suitable fee) this information will also guide you in formulating an appropriate tracing plan. You wouldn’t trace a teenage runaway in the same way you would trace a childhood sweetheart.
  • Third, the customer’s requirements will also provide you with the tracing parameters – particularly, any boundaries in which your trace must be confined. For example, there might be non-negotiable time constraints if your customer needs to trace a witness whose testimony is required for an upcoming court date, or an old family friend is being traced so that they can attend a relative’s funeral on a certain date. You get the picture. Budget is also a very important consideration. Obviously the larger the budget the more options one might have available when considering a tracing plan. A larger budget also enables one to employ more effective (but often more costly) methods like cell phone tracking.
  • Wanted Person
  • Fugitive
  • Escaped Convict
  • Organized Criminal
  • High-Value Target
  • Cyberstalker
  • Harassing Caller
  • Online Scammer
  • Opportunistic Criminal
  • A Witness
  • Teenage Runaway
  • Eloping Couple
  • Absconder / Bilker
  • Payment Defaulter
  • Professional Debtor
  • Classmate
  • Distant Relative
  • Old Neighbour
  • Military Buddy
  • Childhood Sweetheart

Initiating a Trace: Information

Arguably one of the most critical components of a successful trace is having enough usable information available at the outset. Having a pile of information is not what you’ll be looking for here. What you’re after is usable information, in other words, information that is correct, relevant, current and complete. Many customers have an unrealistic idea of the capabilities of a tracing agent.  What they know about tracing is usually what they’ve seen on television and in the movies.  Someone is being sought and all it takes to find them is typing their name into some system an voila they’re located in real-time (with streaming aerial surveillance footage too).

In the real-world, even for our spy agencies, it isn’t always that simple.  Sometimes it is.  On many occasions we’ve traced a person simply by looking their surname and initials up in the phone book.  Not much work at all. On the other hand, it took the United States almost 10 years and over a trillion Dollars to hunt down Osama Bin Laden.  In the case of tracing Bin Laden, it was the general lack of usable information that prolonged the outcome. 

Its highly unlikely you’ll be tasked to find someone as difficult to pin down as Bin Laden, but you’ll probably have your fair share of challenging tracing assignments.  When you do, you’ll need usable information more than ever.

A customer is usually in possession of key information that becomes your point of departure.  Information such as the target’s full names, identity number, date of birth, last known address, previous employer and past contact information. Depending on the situation, this information might come from an application form, invoice, lease agreement, personnel file etc.  Some of that information may be outdated., for instance, the last known addresses of a target person, but it doesn’t mean that the information is not usable.  Visiting past addresses and canvassing the neighbourhood could turn up incredibly useful leads.  A neighbour may well know where the target has moved to or where their kids are currently at school. 

For now, don’t concern yourself with the quality of the information, try and extract as much factual (or apparently factual) information as possible.  You’ll begin evaluating that information shortly.

By this point you should have a clear understanding of…

  • The circumstances or events that gave rise to the tracing assignment,
  • The nature of the relationship between the customer and the target (if any),
  • What actions the customer intends to take once the target has been successfully traced,
  • The customer’s specific information requirements, expectations and time/budgetary constraints.

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