No one is born knowing how to find a missing person.
But by using your talents, reaching out for help, and with G-d’s help, there is a lot you can do.
This article will aim to give you everything you need to know to get started looking for, and hopefully find, your missing person.
IMPORTANT TIP: Save the link to this article so that you can come back to it for reference. And share it with others who are also helping in the search.
Searching for a Missing Person – What to Know
Follow along as I explain to you what to do in order to find your missing person ASAP, and how to pool your resources to increase your chance of success.
The 3 main things you can do to find a missing person — which will be explained in detail below — are:
Of course, each situation is unique, and some tools will be more effective in certain situations than other. Therefore, I will make an effort to explain below which tools will be best for which situations.
How to Reach out for Help
You need to reach out to the people who can help, and you need to delegate the best-fitting assignment to each person, and you have to do so without delay.
Because — although this missing person situation could just be a result of a simple misunderstanding — it could also be for real. And the sooner you and your support network respond, the better the chances you have of finding your missing person.
Here are 4 suggested ways to reach out and get the help you need to find your missing person.
- Alert the authorities
- Leverage your social network
- Use web forums for advice
- Hire a private investigator
1. Alert the Authorities
File a Missing Person’s Report
When alerting the authorities it’s best to have as much relevant information to give them as possible upfront. Try to put together as much of the story as you can, without wasting any time, so that you can give it over to them as smoothly as possible.
Here is some good advice from LifeHacker about filing a missing persons report.
Keep in mind that police officers are often busy with a number of important and urgent cases, some similar to yours, and they don’t necessarily have time to give each one their full attention. That’s why it’s especially important to make it possible for them to connect with your story and start working on your case.
Do your best. Show that you are willing to help however you can. And take notes about what they say and if they want any information or help from you.
Hopefully your experience with the authorities will be positive.
Follow Up With The Authorities
As mentioned, police and other agencies are very busy. They can make mistakes. That means that you need to keep them on their game.
According to active WebSleuth member Lilibet, this older article by David Van Norman is a good motivator, which according to Lilibet, “makes it clear that you can’t expect LE [law enforcement] to do it all.” The information is specifically about California procedure, but it is a gem for understanding how to deal with law enforcement agencies.
When dealing with the authorities, keep this in mind. The people who join the law enforcement community usually do so because they want to help. So most of them really do care, even if some have been jaded and burned from dealing with difficult situations. Treating them respectfully and following up with them should have, at least minimally, good results.
However, if you feel that a police officer is not taking your case seriously enough, you can apply a little pressure by requesting their name and badge number as well as the case number of your case. They will understand that that means you understand the system and know how to file a complaint against them, which should make them take you more seriously. Only do this as a last resort though. You want to keep a good relationship with them as much as possible.
2. Ask Friends to Help
Often, people want to help, but they don’t know what needs to be done or who to talk to.
Reach out to them.
Tell them how they can help out.
You might be surprised at how much support you’ll get.
When reaching out to friends of the missing person you should first explain what you are doing. Then, interview them for information relevant to your searching for the missing person. And finally, tell them what else needs to be done and ask if there is something they can help with. Make sure to tell them that you are counting on them, and you appreciate their help.
When collecting information, try to find out:
- Where the person was last seen
- Where they were going
- What they were wearing
- Who they were with
- Whether anything strange, or out of the ordinary, happened with the missing person
- Any information about their habits
- Anything else that could be relevant to the search
Try to get your interviewee to chat about the missing person. And pay close attention to what they say. Sometimes it’s the offhand remarks that are most important.
3. Use Web Forums for Advice
Believe it or not, there are lots of people out there in Internet Land who will be very happy to give you free advice and possibly even volunteer to help you. They congregate in the WebSleuths internet forum and they have solved cases before.
4. Hire a Private Investigator
The advantage of hiring a good private investigator (PI) is that they have the knowledge and wherewithal to solve cases. The disadvantage is that they cost money.
If you can afford it, go for it, but be sure to still put in your own efforts (without getting in the PI’s way).
How to Investigate a Missing Person
When conducting your own ameture investigation, remember these rules:
- Don’t break the law
- Stay safe
- Don’t get in the way of the professionals — rather, try to help them
Here are 6 ways to go about conducting your own ameture investigation to find your missing person:
- Check Leads
- Conduct a Ground Search
- Track Their Phone
- Investigate Social Media
- Check Hospitals
- Check Jails and Homeless Shelters (If Relevant)
1. Check Leads
Checking leads means being in touch with everyone who might know any information about where your missing person might be, or was last seen, or might have been, or who they were with, or could have been with, or who else might know something important, anything. Then, following up and checking the leads out.
Keeping track of everything can get difficult, so try to keep your notes and documentation as organized as possible from the get go. If you find yourself documenting a lot of information try using spreadsheets, or even a project management system.
2. Conduct a Ground Search
If you have reason to believe that your missing person is in a particular local area, and you want to try and intercept them fast, consider conducting a ground search.
3. Track Their Phone
If you want to know how to find a missing person with a cell phone there are a few possible ways. But, please be careful using any of these methods, and don’t take the law into your own hands. People have literally been killed playing detective on their own.
So naturally, the best case scenario is for the police to use their legal magical hacker-power to track down the phone on their own. But that doesn’t always happen, so…
Here are some more ways to find a missing person through his/her phone for iPhone and Android.
- iPhone – Track an iPhone (2 ways)
- Andriod – Track an Android (2 ways)
- 3rd-Party App – Track a Phone with a 3rd-Party App
iPhone – How to Track an iPhone (2 Ways)
2 ways to track a missing person who is carrying an iPhone:
1. Track an iPhone Using “Find My iPhone”
If your missing person is carrying an iPhone and they have “Find my iPhone” set up, you can locate them through iCloud if you, or someone you know, has their Apple login information. For more details see the tutorial here.
2. Track an iPhone Using “Find My Friends”
Alternatively, if they have the “Find My Friends” app activated and they have given you, or someone you know, permissions to see their location, you can find out where their phone is (and hopefully where they are) using this tutorial.
Android – Track an Android (2 Ways)
Track an Android User Using “Find My Device” App
Google offers a handy little app that allows the owner to always track their phone. It has 50 million downloads, so it’s more than likely that your missing person’s phone has it.
In order to track the phone, go to Google’s Find Android page and log in to the Google account associated with that phone. I’m not suggesting you hack into someone else’s Google account illegally, but if it’s your own child’s account that you set up, or an account that you share with your spouse or something of the sort, this can be a possible way to find them.
3rd-Party Apps – Track a Phone with a 3rd-Party App
Some apps, such as parental control apps, allow you to always track a person’s phone. If your missing person has one of these apps set up, they should be trackable.
Some examples include ESET Parental Control for Android, Family Locator with GPS Tracker, and Find my Phone.
4. Investigate Social Media
Here are 2 ways to search for a missing person using social media:
Investigate the Missing Person’s Social Media Posts
This is how to find a missing person online using their latest social media posts:
- Find out all of your missing person’s social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram, etc. Note that sometimes people have accounts that they don’t put their real name on, so be sure to ask friends about every single account that they have to be checked.
- Check through the missing person’s most recent social media posts for any clues as to where they might have gone and who they might be with, and who you might reach out to that might know something.
- Ask the missing person’s friends for explanations if there is anything that you don’t understand that they can explain.
- View tagged Facebook photos of your missing person.
When investigating your missing person’s social media accounts, pay attention to all clues. For example, if they posted pictures, can you tell where the pictures were taken?
Most social media platforms allow the uploader to display the location from which they are posting from. This is how location sharing of an image looks on Instagram, for example.
That’s an important clue.
In addition, it is often possible to figure out where someone posted from simply by the context of the post.
Instagram Images by Location
How to find a missing person using Instagram:
If your missing person was last seen in an a public location, you should make checking Instagram images by location a priority. By searching the location(s) that the missing person was last known, or believed, to have been you can see if maybe they were somehow seen on camera. If you can do so, then you can try to track down other people who were at that location (starting with whoever posted the picture on Instagram and whoever they tagged) who might have valuable information.
At least one mystery was solved using this method (warning: this particular example didn’t have a happy ending).
5. Check Hospitals
These last 2 examples of places to check are difficult since you most likely won’t be able to just go and ask for the missing person by name.
To check for your missing person at local hospitals, you might need to ask nurses if there is someone who is yet unidentified that fits the description of your missing person. Although they might not legally be able to tell you, using local police as a liaison, you can probably work something out.
Also, if you already have connections with people in the healthcare system, they might be able to expedite the process.
For more information on checking hospitals, see our complete tutorial on how to find out if someone is in the hospital.
6. Check Jails and Homeless Shelters (If Applicable)
If you are searching for someone with a mental illness or someone who you suspect might be living on the street for any number of other reasons, try checking out the relevant homeless shelters. Another way to go about finding a missing homeless person is to simply ask the homeless people in the area if they know anyone who fits your missing person’s description (if the tell you to follow them, use your best judgment and be carefull). To get more into the loop, you could also try volunteering at local soup kitchens and schmoozing with the people coming in.
Also, if your missing person might have gotten themselves in trouble, try checking local jails too.
How to Generate Publicity About a Missing Person
Now it is time to turn our attention to getting the word out to the masses. Here are 6 proven tactics:
- Create a Poster & Hang it Everywhere
- Post on Message Boards Like Craigslist
- Use Social Media to Publicize a Missing Person
- Blog About It
- Get Media Publicity
- Contact NamUs
1. Create a Poster & Hang it Everywhere
Having a good poster will help get the message out and communicate efficiently. Make sure to include all of the information that you think will be relevant to people who will help you be on the lookout. Here are some suggestions:
- Recent photo(s)
- Date last seen
- Missing from area: school (if applicable), city, state
- Physical features: height, weight, piercings, tattoos
- Last seen wearing
- Contact information
- Social media page(s)
- Hashtag (such as #BringJohnDoeHome)
- NamUs case number
- Reward money (if applicable)
- Any other relevant information about the person or situation
Make sure to have someone proofread if for you before printing it.
Next, you could go to a professional graphic designer, or you could just whip up something extra fast. If you are in a rush, try a free online graphic design app that offers templates of Missing Person Posters, such as Canva.
To get the poster printed fast you can either print it on a home printer, or better-yet take it to a local print shop that can get it printed immediately. Tell them the situation and ask them to expedite the process — they probably will be happy to.
Once your poster is ready you can hang it all over the place — on and off the internet.
2. Post on Message Boards Like Craigslist
Craigslist is a massive website that allows you to create free online classified ads. Make one about your missing person including all information that you think will help find them.
Also, leverage any other message boards related to your local area.
3. Use Social Media to Publicize a Missing Person
If you’re not sure whether social media can really help locate people, check out this list of 15 Times Social Media Saved Missing Children.
Here are a few steps to take to use social effectively to locate a missing person:
Create a Hashtag
A hashtag is a social media link with a pound (#) sign in front of it, such as #BringJohnDoeHome. A hashtag allows you to have a conversation all over social media that you can keep track of.
When you begin using a hashtag to “#FindJohnDoe” other people who post about the subject will follow suit. Then, by clicking on the hashtag you can see all of the posts/tweets about it.
HASHTAG TIP: Before using a hashtag, check to be sure it’s not being used by another conversation already. That way your discussion won’t get diluted within someone else’s discussion — it’s also more considerate of you not to interrupt their discussion.
Create a Facebook Page
Below is a well-done video about how to create a Facebook page to search for your missing person.
Create a Buzz
Start by writing the best post you can for each of your chosen social media sites. Then post it and ask everyone to pass it on. Also, make sure to ask all of your volunteers to help create a buzz themselves. Ask them to comment, share, and like one another’s posts, because that way the social media network will automatically publicize them more.
Also, you’re going to want to share this to Facebook groups related to your local area. As long as you don’t flood them with posts, they will likely be eager to help.
Boost Social Media Posts
From experience, I can tell you that boosting a Facebook post about a missing person search can have amazing results. (Note: “boosting” means paying for Facebook to display your post similar to the way you’d pay for an ad.)
Why is boosting on Facebook so effective for missing person searches?
Missing person posts that are pretty decent get a lot of shares naturally – because people generally care. Boosting one gets it in front some new people who will share it with their friends who share with their friends etc.
The big benefit of Facebook ads is that you only pay for the times they display as a boosted post. When people share the post with others who also share, you don’t get charged. The residual sharing is free. So think about it as a catalyst.
With Facebook, you can “boost” your posts in the areas that you choose. This allows you a lot of freedom to get your message out there.
For example, if you suspect that your missing person might be in a hospital without ID, you can set up your Facebook ads to display only in the vicinity of hospitals. Or, alternatively, you could set them to display specifically to medical professionals.
Here is a more in-depth tutorial by Hackernoon about using Facebook ads to search for a missing person.
4. Blog About It
Starting a blog will help you establish an online presence for your missing person’s story. Also, it shows them that you have been looking for them.
This tactic works in cases of abduction (aka “custody kidnapping” etc.) where the abductee will probably research their own story on the internet some day.
This is one way that abducted kids are able to find their way back when they are older.
5. Get Media Publicity
The most important thing you will need, in order to get media attention, is a good story. Now, you might be thinking, why should I need to make this into a ‘good story?’ a person I love is lost, shouldn’t that be a good enough reason to get the word out?
The answer, unfortunately, is no.
For news agencies to stay in business they need to tell good stories. Therefore, give them what they need, and they’ll give you what you need — publicity.
There are a few ways to go about this.
Social Media Nudge*
A social media post with a lot of likes, shares, and comments, speaks for itself. All you have to do is get it in front of a journalist’s face.
You can often get in touch with journalists directly through their social media accounts. Twitter is particularly good for this. Try tagging them, by including their Twitter @ handle in your tweet. Then, make sure to get everyone you know to like and share that Tweet too.
PRO TIP: You can get in touch with more than one journalist this way, but don’t be spammy.
Officiate a Public Outcry
Media editors love stories that make people passionate. If you show them that people are already passionate about the story of your missing person, they will take notice.
First, figure out how to send tips to a media outlet. Most media outlets tell you on their website how they prefer to be contacted.
To find out how, just search in Google for “tips” and then “site:” and the name of the website. So, for example, to deliver a tip to the Washington Post, enter this search query into Google:
Clicking the link takes you to a page with a number of options for getting in touch with a journalist. If at first they don’t respond, ask a few of your friends to send their own ‘random’ tips.
The classic way to get publicity is with a press release. If you don’t have experience with writing press releases, consider hiring a professional to do it for you. That way, even if you don’t have money, you can find a freelance writer on Fiverr to help you for cheap. Or, better yet, get one of your volunteers who is good with words to help you.
Finally, send out the press release to the press as described in the “Officiate a Public Outcry” section above.
PRO TIP: Even publicity from small publications is valuable. For one, you never know what channel that big tip will come through. For two, big media outlets are more likely to pay attention to you if smaller media outlets have already reported your story. So even small publicity is valuable. First get some small publicity and show the big guys. Famous media manipulator Ryan Holiday calls this “working it up the chain.”
6. Contact NamUs
NamUs is an acronym for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. It is run by the U.S. Department of Justice and is used by U.S. law enforcement officials to search for missing people.
Get your missing person publicized on their database by contacting them.
Speed and thoroughness are of the essence when searching for a missing person.
There are many things you can do to look for a missing person. The danger is, it can be overwhelming.
Try to stay calm, and avoid getting overwhelmed. Stressing out won’t do you any good here. Easier said than done, but do your best.
My prayers are with you.