Locating long-lost friends and family used to be a challenge even for experienced private investigators. These days anyone can track people down in just minutes with the help of the Internet—but you need to know where to look online and some tricks for how best to use various websites. In fact, some of these same online resources can be useful if your goal is not to find someone you’ve lost track of but to check the background of someone you’ve met, such as a prospective tenant or employee…your child’s new boyfriend or girlfriend…or your own new beau. 

You probably can guess where to start these searches. Enter the name into popular social-media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter…and into search engines such as Google and Yahoo. There’s a good chance you’ll find the person you’re looking for. Enclose his/her name in quotation marks when using search ­engines, as in “Harold Greene.” Try nicknames if searching the proper name fails, such as “Harry Greene.” 

If these initial searches come up empty, here are some lesser known websites worth trying…

People-Search Websites 

Enter a name into AnyWho.com­Intelius.com…and/or WhitePages.com, and these sites will provide lists of potential matches from across the US. Often many people share the same name, so these sites also supply details to help identify the right individual, perhaps including age…prior hometowns…names of relatives…colleges attended…and/or employers.

While these sites are free to use at a basic level, they charge for providing certain details. Contact information such as phone numbers and e-mail addresses usually are among the facts hidden behind the paywall. Exception: WhitePages sometimes provides home phone numbers for free.

Their prices vary dramatically based on the site and the amount of info provided—anywhere from $1 for a few details to $40 or more for a monthly subscription that allows you to conduct criminal background checks.

If all you want is someone’s contact info, there’s usually no need to pay—the free information supplied by these sites often is sufficient to track someone down with just a little more online ­digging. Each of these people-search sites provides slightly different information for free, but they sometimes supply out-of-date or inaccurate info, so it’s worth using all three. 

Here’s how to put their free information to use…

  • All three sites typically list the person’s hometown and some prior hometowns for free. What to do: Enter the person’s name (in quotation marks) and this hometown together into a search engine. This search might turn up a phone number, e-mail address and/or physical address. Example: Enter “John Doe” Phoenix into Google.
  • AnyWho and Intelius often provide partial phone numbers for free, with the final four digits Xed out. What to do: Enter the name plus this partial phone number (in quotation marks) into a search engine. The full phone number might appear among the results. ­Example: Enter “Jane Doe” “212-555” into Google. 
  • Intelius and WhitePages often list the names of relatives for free. (Be aware that these lists are not 100% accurate and might contain the names of some unrelated people, too.) What to do: Search these relatives’ names on social-media sites, on Google and with the other search tools listed here. If you can reach a relative, he/she might be able to put you in contact with the person you are looking for. 
  • AnyWho and WhitePages often provide a complete physical address for free. What to do: If you can’t track down a phone number or e-mail address for your friend, you could use this to mail a letter.

Using Extra Info in Your Search

Don’t give up on search engines such as Google.com or Yahoo.com if just entering a name doesn’t work. Try combining this name (in quotation marks) with other details you have about this individual. That could be information gleaned from people-search sites, as explained above, or it could be this person’s hometown/high school…profession…his/her spouse’s name…his college…or an activity that he was passionate about, such as “marathon” or “quilt.” Example: Searching “Jane Doe” and “stained glass” might turn up workshops that your old friend Jane taught about making stained glass…or a website where she displays or sells examples of her stained glass. 

Niche People-Finding Sites

These sites can be useful if you have a few specific details about the person you’re looking for…

The alumni site Classmates.com can be helpful if you know where the person went to high school. This site has contact info only for people who have registered with it—but even if your friend hasn’t registered, it could provide contact info for another classmate who ­remains in touch with your friend. 

Although you can register with ­Classmates.com for free, a “Classmates+” membership is required for certain searches and if you want to send e-mails through the site to other members. The introductory price of Classmates+ is $9 for three months. 

Similar: If you and your friend attended the same college or you know which college he/she attended, look for an alumni directory on that school’s website or enter the name of that college and the phrase “alumni directory” into a search engine. You might be able to access your friend’s contact info by completing an online registration. Or try calling or e-­mailing the alumni-relations department and ask it to pass on your contact info to your friend. Some high schools have alumni associations, too.

Databases that list members of a particular profession are a good resource if you know what the person does for a living. Enter the profession and “association” into a search engine to locate relevant databases. 

If the profession is one that requires a license and you know or suspect which state this person might live in, also search the name of the profession together with the state. Look in the results for a webpage with a “.gov” ending…then look on that page for a licensee search tool.

Example: Searching the terms ­“barber,” “license” and “Maine” turns up the State of Maine Barbering and Cosmetology Licensing page, which has the option “Find a licensee or a list of licensees” in its menu. 

County public records are worth searching if you know or suspect which county the person might live in. If he owns property, the deed and mortgage should be in that county’s public records and likely will include a mailing address. Many counties now make these records available for free online. Enter the county, state and phrase “public records” into a search engine to find these. 

Obituary databases such as ­Tributes.com and Legacy.com’s newspaper obituary search tool (Legacy.com/ns/about/newspapers) are worth searching if you can recall the names and hometowns of your friend’s parents or siblings, especially if these relatives would be old enough that there’s a good chance they have died. Entering the names of family members along with their hometowns and the word “obituary” into a search engine also might steer you directly to the obit. If you can find the obituary of a family member, it often list the names and current hometowns of surviving relatives. 

Helpful: If you locate a death listing for your friend’s parent or sibling but it doesn’t include details about surviving relatives, make note of the date of death. Check the obituary section of local newspapers for the days following that date in search of a more detailed obituary. 

Common-Name Challenges

Two situations when online people searches are especially likely to fail… 

  • When the person has such a common name that it’s difficult to locate him/her among all the other people who share that name…and when the person has changed his/her name. This most often occurs when a woman weds and takes her husband’s name…or she divorces and reverts to her maiden name. 
  • What to do: Use the websites listed in this article again, this time searching the name of a relative or close friend of the person you’re trying to find—ideally one with an uncommon name. This person likely will be easier to find, and he/she might be able to put you in touch with the individual you hope to reach. If this friend or relative is hesitant to give out your friend’s contact info, provide your contact info and ask if it could be forwarded to your friend.