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Archive for the ‘Be Your Own Investigator’ Category

Answering Writer’s Question: Finding Someone’s New, Bogus Online ID

Posted by Writing PIs on July 30, 2015

A writer asked, “I’m trying to figure out how a PI would discover the identity of someone who has intentionally (but not through legal channels) ditched a previous identity and assumed a new one. This person claims to be an immigrant from IT but is American.”

It appears this writer would like a PI character to detect the new identity based on the old one. We have a few ideas. But first, a few caveats:

We’re limiting this search to a possible new online ID.  After all, assuming a new ID in a broader context — new home address, new driver’s license, and so on — is a large topic, one entire books have been written about. We’re not recommending any of the following books, just noting they exist: How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trials, and Vanish Without a Trace by Frank Ahern; How to Be Invisible: Protect Your Home, Your Children, Your Assets, and Your Life by J.J. Luna.

As to the individual claiming he’s an immigrant from IT: We’ll assume for this post that IT = Italy. While a PI is conducting his/her search on the new ID, they would keep an eye out for any Italian references, names and so forth in the results. Of course, based on the writer’s scenario, the guy isn’t really from Italy, but if he’s pretending he is, such a reference might pop up.

We’re providing these ideas for the sake of a story. However, in real life we’d recommend a person retain the services of a professional PI who specializes in locating people (AKA skip tracers). To find a skip tracer, contact your local state professional private investigator association: Private Investigator Associations by State (PINow). For example, a PI can run a person’s SSN in a proprietary database and learn a lot about the individual no matter what online IDs this person is juggling.

Now let’s look at three free online ways a fictional PI (or even a non-PI) might try to discover the identity of someone’s new online ID based on their old (ditched) one. For our example, we’ll call the old ID “Joe Smithy.”

1. What phone number did Joe Smithy use?

We once had a case where a man had been operating as multiple IDs on different dating sites, often ditching one ID and creating another to fit his needs. Except he kept the same phone numbers! Which we discovered when we ran a single reverse on a number he had provided our client (before he “disappeared” online) — and we discovered he was still using that old number.

modern cell phone

Yes, from a single reverse phone number search on Google, we got a listing of his interactions & IDs on different dating sites. Our poor client was devastated — she had never heard of a reverse phone number search before…but after learning how easy it is to run one, she saw for herself how busy this guy had been elsewhere. For more info on reverse number searches: How to Reverse Search Phone Numbers.

2. Did Joe Smithy have a photo?You can run a reverse photo search on Google

Google has a comprehensive reverse photo search option where anyone can plug in the photo and run a search on it…it’s possible Joe Smithy’s photo is appearing under his new ID. To learn more about running a reverse image search on Google: Fast and Easy Google Search Tips (scroll to Trick #2: Use images to search for photographs, illustrations and other graphics). Another free reverse photo search engine is TinEye.

3. Know Smithy’s hobbies, nicknames, etc.?

Run them in a social media search engine and see what pops up. For example if Joe Smithy was an avid online poker player, run “Joe Smithy poker” and see if a new ID is popping up on sites where Joe’s used to. We wrote about these search engines here: Free Social Media Search Engines.

Related Articles

“When Your Lover Is a Liar” by Philip A. Becnel (Pursuit Magazine). Excellent article by a private investigator on relationship fraud and bogus IDs.

Made in China: Fake IDs (New York Times). According to this 2015 article, the number of U.S. counterfeit IDs from China is on the rise.

Have a great week, Writing PIs

(As the Writing PIs are currently working other cases, as well as completing writing projects, we are unable to accept any new questions at this time. Thank you for your understanding.)

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins and/or Shaun Kaufman) requires specific, written authority. 

Posted in Be Your Own Investigator, Creating False IDs, Handy Resources for Private Investigators, Nonfiction Books on Private Investigations, Reverse Number Searches | Tagged: , , , , , | Comments Off on Answering Writer’s Question: Finding Someone’s New, Bogus Online ID

A Story of a Botched Background Check

Posted by Writing PIs on August 17, 2012


A fellow PI posted an article about mass shootings in the US, and how the majority of the killers had legally purchased their guns and/or passed background checks due to errors and lack of follow-through (US mass shooters exploited gaps, errors in background checks).

US mass shooters exploited gaps, errors in background checks

We’ve written about different facets of conducting background checks here on Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes.  One thing we stress is that to retrieve a true criminal history on someone, the background professional (sometimes, it’s a PI) must go the courthouse in the county where the individual worked, lived or attended school.  Why?  The most current and complete criminal histories are maintained by county courts.

That bears repeating: The most current and complete criminal histories are maintained by county courts.

(Note: federal courts also house federal criminal histories, but for this post, we’ll keep the discussion to county courts)

Imagine being told you have to prove you’re not a criminal who has your same name!

So imagine our surprise this past week when a family member who’s been job hunting was turned down by a company because they “discovered” that the family member had a felony conviction in another state.  The family member came to us and said, “Yes, I lived in that state, but I’ve never been charged with a crime, must less convicted!  And I’m being denied a job because they think I’m some felon who has the same name as me!”

He contacted the company and said their background check was wrong–they said if he could prove it was wrong, they’d keep the job open for him.  Imagine: You apply for a job, they conduct a background check that says you’re a convicted felon and you must prove your innocence in order to get the job.

We knew right away what the “background professional” who conducted this check did: They ran our family member’s name in some online database that promises national criminal histories for $19.95.  As we’ve warned numerous times in this blog: Don’t purchase criminal histories/records from any online sites that advertise “national criminal histories” because there is no such thing as a national repository of criminal records.

So we did what should have been done for our family member–we made arrangement for his criminal history to be pulled from the

We made arrangements for court files to be pulled from the courthouse where the person lived.

courthouse in the county where he had lived.  Because this is in another state, we contacted a professional private investigator in that state and asked for him to 1-Pull any criminal history for our family member, and 2-Pull the criminal history for the individual with the same name who has the felony conviction.  The PI did, and we received the documentation from the courthouse that 1-Our family member has no criminal history in that county, and 2-The guy with the same name who has the felony conviction has a different middle name, is ten years older than our family member, is 5 inches shorter than our family member, and other differentiating facts.

We then forwarded this documentation to our family member, who presented it to the company.  They hired him.

Great.  But the work we did (retrieving the criminal history from the court) should have been done by whoever conducted the background check to begin with.  “Must have been someone in the office who doesn’t really know how to conduct a background check,” we guessed.  No.  That incorrect information was provided by a professional background check company who specializes in employment background checks.

Unfortunately, that “professional” background check company is still in business conducting screenings for other companies!

So there you have a basic, important lesson about obtaining criminal histories: Go to the source (the courthouse).

Below are links to other articles we’ve written about background checks.

Have a great weekend, Writing PIs

Employment Background Checks: Know What’s on Yours BEFORE the Interview by Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes

How to Order Criminal Records by Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes

Related articles

Posted in Employment Background Checks, PI Topics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Did Google Maps Steer You Wrong? Try a Crowdsourced Map!

Posted by Writing PIs on March 26, 2012

Have you ever followed instructions from Google Maps or another electronic map service that tells you to turn right on the next street…but there’s no street to turn down?

Some map services, like Waze, have incorporated people’s feedback (“Hey, just wanted you to know there’s no road where the map told me to turn”) to correct and add mapping in their utilities. The result? Crowdsourced maps! A huge benefit of these services is that these traffic and mapping services are more consistently reflecting the real-time landscape.

Check out these crowd-sourced mapping services, all of which are free:

Waze: This community-based map and traffic service began as Freemap in Tel Aviv in 2006. It now claims more than 14 million drivers worldwide. Waze claims that 45,000 of its users are dedicated map editors and 5,000 are regional managers who ensure maps’ accuracy. Download to your iPhone, Android, Blackberry or Nokia. Site shows latest user reports that show traffic jams, accidents, even where law enforcement has set up speed traps.

OpenStreetMap: This service more closely follows the Wikipedia model, and in fact calls itself the “free Wiki world map.” Anyone can use the maps, and anyone can create and edit the maps.

INRIX: Another service whose ad claims it puts “the power of the world’s largest driving community into the palm of your hand with real-time alerts, traffic forecasting, information about accidents, police and other events.”

Have a great week, Writing PIs

Posted in Free Lookups & Services | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Did Google Maps Steer You Wrong? Try a Crowdsourced Map!

Researching Your Family History? Check Out These Genealogical Websites

Posted by Writing PIs on November 17, 2011

Genealogy is the exploration and tracing of family lineages and chronicles. If you’re researching a family history, the following websites specialize in genealogical research (most offer fact-finding tips and other resources, too): Although this is a subscription service, you can sign up for a free 14-day trial. Genealogical records include census records, immigration records, history records and U.S. vital records. There’s also a link to a 1-800 number that connects you to a family history consultant. This is a service provided by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it’s free (including research courses and discussion forums). This subscription services provides access to online materials such as modern obituaries, historical newspapers, military documents and government papers. Another subscription service that lets users browse online newspapers by locations in the U.S., regional maps, dates, countries and titles.

Happy researching, Writing PIs

Posted in Be Your Own Investigator | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Couple of Private Eyes Are Guests This Week at Tyrus Books & Defrosting Cold Cases

Posted by Writing PIs on October 18, 2011

The authors of Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes are guests this week at two of their favorite sites: Tyrus Books and Defrosting Cold Cases. Click on links below to read the posts:

Tyrus Books The Guest House: Colleen talks about some of her favorite Tyrus Books’ authors and books, how she became a PI, and chats about her newest nonfiction eBook How Do Private Eyes Do That?

Defrosting Cold Cases: Colleen & Shaun offer a condensed version of one of their online classes about various tools and techniques private investigators use to research the Internet.

Have a great week, Writing PIs

Posted in Be Your Own Investigator | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Writing PIs on October 15, 2011

Never Sleep with Anyone Whose Troubles Are Worse than Your Own

-Lew Archer in Black Money by Ross Macdonald (attributed to Nelson Algrin)

Originally published in NINK, newsletter for Novelists, Inc. April 2011

A common misconception is that a PI’s work mostly involves surveilling cheating spouses. Actually, there are dozens of investigative specialties that PIs practice, from accident reconstruction to insurance investigations to pet detection. Infidelity investigations, aka chasing cheaters, is one of those specialized fields.

Infidelity Investigations: An Investigative Specialty

Chuck Chambers, PI and author of The Private Investigator’s Handbook, specializes in infidelity investigations. He offers this interesting statistic: 98 percent of his female clients who suspect their husbands of cheating are correct, and 50 percent of his male clients who suspect their wives are correct.

At our agency, we specialize in legal investigations (trial preparation/investigations), but occasionally we get the “I think my husband/wife is cheating” call. We’re hesitant to take these cases because they’re fraught with emotion, from tears to homicidal rage. Tears we don’t mind, but that latter passion makes the work potentially dangerous. Remember the woman in Texas who ran over her philandering husband three times in the motel parking lot? Know how she learned her husband’s location? The PI she’d hired to follow her husband called her, explained her husband had just entered a hotel with another woman, and gave her the motel name and address. That PI’s firm was later sued for gross negligence and will ultimately pay the children of the deceased philander millions of dollars.

Chasing Cheaters: Adding Danger (or Humor) to a Story

Infidelity investigations being fraught with danger might be undesirable in reality, but it’s great for fiction. Maybe your sleuth/PI takes a cheating-spouse case thinking it’ll be an easy way to make a few bucks, but before the sleuth has time to focus her camera, she becomes a witness to a murder. The Texas PI mentioned earlier actually filmed the murder as it took place and then provided testimony to convict the spurned client. What if the infidelity case was just a ruse, and actually the betrayed-wife pretext lures the PI into solving another crime (think Chinatown).

Chasing cheaters can also add humor to a story.  We know a PI who ended up marrying his client’s divorce attorney. And – true story – we once followed a suspected philandering husband who the wife said also “appeared to be involved in some kind of new business.”  We learned what that new business was…a brothel.

What steps might a PI follow in a cheating-spouse case?

Catching the Cheater

When we accept an infidelity case, we request:

  • Information about the suspected cheater’s habits, work schedule, days off, etc.
  • Photographs of the suspected cheater (and the suspected girlfriend/boyfriend, if available)
  • Addresses and phone numbers (suspected cheater’s home, businesses, etc. as well as addresses/phone for suspected girlfriend/boyfriend)
  • Any known routes suspected cheater takes on way to work, home, to exercise gym, etc.
  • Vehicle descriptions, license plate numbers for suspected cheater (and suspected girlfriend/boyfriend)

What About Attaching a GPS Device to the Suspected Cheater’s Vehicle?

Unless the spouse’s name is registered on the suspected spouse’s vehicle (and it’s surprising how many spouses think their names are, but they aren’t), this is a big no-no. We’re talking felony. Not counting the possibility of extraordinarily bad publicity.

But again, what’s bad in reality can be great for fiction. What if your PI knows he’s courting a felony, but attaches the GPS device anyway, gets caught, and ends up in jail. We know a PI who this happened to. He knew his client’s name wasn’t on the spouse’s vehicle registration, but attached the GPS anyway. A woman in an adjacent parking lot saw him crawl underneath the vehicle with an object, then reappear empty-handed. She called the police and said, “I think a guy just attached a bomb to a car.”

Next thing the PI knew, police, fire trucks, and bomb squads arrived, and he was in handcuffs. Nearby schools, homes, and businesses were evacuated. News stations picked up on the story, reported the bomb threat. It took him nearly two years and $8,000 in legal fees to salvage his investigations business.

Think about how to use infidelity investigations with your fictional PI As in the story above, it could be an expensive, comic subplot. Or maybe a seemingly distraught client hires a PI to watch his/her spouse, when the real reason for the investigation is something much darker.


How Do Private Eyes Do That? is a compilation of articles about private investigations written by Colleen Collins, a professional private investigator (and one of the Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes blog authors). Its topics are geared to readers interested in the world of PIs, including fiction writers, researchers, investigators and those simply curious about the profession.

“If you’re looking for the lowdown on private investigations, this is it. Packed with details and insights. A must-have for anybody writing private-eye fiction and for anybody who’s curious about what being a private-eye is really like.”
– Bill Crider, author of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series and many other novels in multiple genres

“A must have for any writer serious about crafting authentic private eyes. Collins knows her stuff.”
– Lori Wilde, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author

How Do Private Eyes Do That? on Kindle: Click here

Posted in Be Your Own Investigator, Nonfiction book: HOW DO PRIVATE EYES DO THAT?, Writing About PIs | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Excerpt from HOW DO PRIVATE EYES DO THAT?

How to Find Someone: Free Online Research Tips

Posted by Writing PIs on May 7, 2011

Updated April 4, 2012

There are various free online resources that specialize in people searches. Some resources offer comprehensive searches in dozens of online sources, including blogs, news archives, personal profiles, photographs, videos and publications. Other resources offer deep web searches, which means their web crawlers find indexes and links to databases that more traditional web crawlers miss. There are also business databases and search engines that offer business information associated to a person’s name.

Research the name using This online people search engine lets you search globally as well as country-specific (currently, its services include 12 counties and 10 languages). Some search results take you directly to a paid-for service (read the Pipl entry at the bottom of this page about paying for such services…in a word, don’t). But other results are free and potentially useful, such as Bing search results, blog links, website links, microblogs, tag links and more.

Look up the name in This people search engine looks up the name worldwide, and provides links to online sources that include that name, such as business or network profiles, education, interests, personal websites and obituary listings. The “Advanced Search” option lets you fine tune your search via keywords, name, location and company.

Conduct a deep-web name search by adding the words “database” or “search” (without the quotation marks) to your browser query. According to Marcus P. Zillman, executive director of the Virtual Private Library, in 2006, the deep web consisted of 900 billion pages of information that more traditional search engines either could not find or had difficulty accessing.

Use a social media search engine. According to, there are currently almost 4.5 billion active social networking and other online accounts. Therefore, it’s beneficial to conduct a name search in a social media search engine, such as Socialmention, that concurrently checks dozens of social networking sites.

Check out Biznar. This was previously advertised as a deep web business search engine; however, it now appears to be a more general, yet comprehensive, deep web people search engine. One thing we like about it is the immediacy of the results. Awesome advanced search options, too — you can select search categories such as blogs and social networks, advertising and marketing, finance and economics, government and more.

Search for a name in a business database. Linkedin lists more than 100 million professionals and their contact information.

Searches that were omitted from this list since it was first published:

Pipl. Once upon a time, this people search engine researched the deep web, with results including such online sources as public records, personal profiles, professional and business sites, publications, news articles, blog posts and more. We once found someone who’d seemingly fallen off the earth through a Pipl search.

Unfortunately, Pipl isn’t what it used to be. It still claims to “dive into the deep web” but our recent searches show it pulls up a lot of  links to “sponsored” paid-for search engines, such as, where — if you want more data on the person — you must pay $$. The problem with online people search services is that there’s no guarantee how relevant or current the information is, and there’s no live source to interpret the results. If you’re tempted to pay money to one of these online services, you’re better off hiring a professional private investigator.

Surchur. This used to be a real-time social media search engine, but now it’s an aggregate of articles about celebrities, including a disparate listing of items for sale whose only unifying thread is the word “celebrity.” Odd. We’re sorry Surchur bit the search dust.

Have a great week, Writing PIs

Posted in Be Your Own Investigator, Do-It-Yourself Private Investigation Articles, PI Topics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on How to Find Someone: Free Online Research Tips

Free Online Resources for Backgrounds, Phone Numbers, Professional Licensure and Real-Time Social Media

Posted by Writing PIs on April 24, 2011

Updated June 16, 2012

Here’s a few, free online look-ups for background information, reverse phone number look-ups, professional licensure and real-time social media.

Find online information about a person. Because currently the most comprehensive, public search engine is Google, use it to find online information about an individual. Type the person’s name and any other identifying information, such as “Sally Smith watercolor artist”, in the Google browser, press the “Search” button and view the results, which show blogs, websites and other online sources in which that name and information displays.

Conduct a reverse phone number search. If an unknown phone number shows up on your caller ID, it’s easy to run a free reverse phone number search using Google. Enter the phone number in the format 123-456-5555 in the Google browser, and press the “Search” button. Google displays all online sources that contain that phone number, such as in blogs, websites, online resumes and online ads.

Verify someone’s professional license. BRB Publications offers a free online database to verify professional licenses by state. Go to, select a state, select the agency and follow the instructions.

Conduct a real-time social media search. Socialmention is a real-time search engine that examines online social media such as blogs, events, images, news, video and social networking sites. Conduct a search with any identifier, such as a name, phone number, email address, username.

Have a great weekend, Writing PIs

Posted in Be Your Own Investigator, Do-It-Yourself Private Investigation Articles | Tagged: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Free Online Resources for Backgrounds, Phone Numbers, Professional Licensure and Real-Time Social Media

Four Do-It-Yourself Private Investigation Articles

Posted by Writing PIs on April 16, 2011

Updated May 17 2012

With some ingenuity, perseverance, and know-how, there’s some investigative tasks you can do on your own, such as learning upfront what information might show up on you employment background check and protecting your personal information from appearing on the Internet. Below are a few articles with some sleuthing tips–just click on the article title to read it.

“How to Know Ahead of Time What’s On an Employment Background Check”

“How to Protect Your Home Address So Others Don’t Find It”

“How to Find a Cell Phone Number from an Email Address”

“How to Find Someone: Free Online Research Tips”

Have a great day, Writing PIs

Posted in Be Your Own Investigator, Do-It-Yourself Private Investigation Articles | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Do-It-Yourself Private Investigation Articles

Employment Background Checks: Will They Reveal Every Job in My Past?

Posted by Writing PIs on March 26, 2011

This article is now available in How Do Private Eyes Do That? available on Kindle and Nook.

Posted in Employment Background Checks, Past Employment Verification | Tagged: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Employment Background Checks: Will They Reveal Every Job in My Past?

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