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You Don't Need Sam Spade To Trace A Lost Pal

Personal Business: SLEUTHING


My grandmother, who at age 88 is a very busy woman, recently asked me to help her with a project: She recalls lending a large, sterling-silver tea tray, about 40 years ago, to a woman named Jean Dinion, her friend and decorator in New York. My assignment was to find Ms. Dinion and ask if she had the tray.

I haven't tracked her down yet. What I have learned (unless she married and changed her name) is that she has not died, is not listed in any U.S. phone book, and has not recently bought or sold property in New York. And the search has just begun.

SLIM CLUES. For anyone who would like to track down someone from the past, there are seemingly endless methods of doing so. With persistence and ingenuity, you can find almost anyone at a surprisingly low cost and with very little information. Even adopted children, who face the highest hurdles of all, have had amazing success locating birth parents.

Many times, you can start with just the people's last names and the area they're from, says Joseph J. Culligan, a private investigator and author of You Too Can Find Anybody: A Reference Manual (Hallmark Press, $19.95). "The whole thing comes down to one secret," he says. "Follow the paper trail."

Today, amateur sleuths can take the trail to its conclusion with amazing ease and speed, thanks to the growth in online information, says Thomas Fedorek, managing director at Kroll Associates, the nation's largest investigations firm. Researchers can gain access to driver's license information, change-of-address forms, professional licenses, voter-registration cards, and more--all by computer. The data may not go back as far as you need, may often contain errors, and may be restricted in the state required. But despite holes, chances are you can get enough information to find the person you seek.

Many such databases aren't directly available to the public. While there are no legal prohibitions against providing most of the data to consumers, companies prefer to serve businesses. That way it's easier to make sure the information won't be used for nefarious purposes, says Marty Abrams, director of privacy and consumer policy at TRW Information Systems & Services.

The online services are also costly and require special research skills, so you may be better off hiring a professional anyway. Through NEXISExpress, you can request a search costing $6 a minute by calling 800 843-6476. (Searches average five to seven minutes.) Or you can hire an independent information broker: Ask your librarian for a referral. Usually, researchers charge for their time as well as the cost of using the database. LOSTfriends in Columbus, Ohio, (614 890-6818) will begin a search with just a first name and birth date. Fees range from $35 to $150. These services won't do any off-line detective work for you. But licensed private detectives can also tap into the databases and, for about $50 an hour, will interview former neighbors, search newspaper morgues, and comb through city files.

All the databases do is make it easier to gain access to public records. You always have the right to write to public agencies to request the same information or go through the files yourself, although the trend now is to restrict access to protect privacy, says Abrams. This can be time-consuming and intimidating. But it's free, it's accurate, and you may be able to glean other facts from the hard copy.

Whether you plan to pursue electronic or old-fashioned gumshoe methods, you should first gather as much information as you can. The full name, age, physical description, former address, profession, and hobbies can all come in handy. And if you are looking for someone who might be in your hometown, the public library may be a good first stop.

POODLE PEDIGREE. If you're tracking down people who are elderly, consult the Social Security Administration's Death Master File to make sure they haven't died. You can write directly or use an online service, such as CompuTrace or CompuServe. Another easy step is to check a national phone book program and see if the person is listed. CompuServe offers Phone*File. ProCD's Select Phone CD-ROM, which costs $149, lets you search by name, address, and phone number.

How you proceed next depends on what information you've got. If you know what state the person moved to, you may still be able to request a driver's license record, although laws are changing. Voter-registration files, real estate records, and marriage and professional licenses, if available, all contain addresses and may show forwarding addresses, as well. Hobbies can be a great clue. Culligan found one woman through the registration of her purebred poodle. He located a deadbeat dad from his hunting license. If the person might be a techie, check the member lists of online services.

If all else fails, you may be able to employ tricks of the private eye's trade. For example, try picking up the trail of the person's brother or father, who may be easier to locate or have a less common first name. If you can narrow down your list to a reasonable number of people with the same last name, hit the phones. Explain why you want to locate the person: You're an old Army buddy, or you want to tell your fifth-grade teacher how much she influenced your career. Make sure you don't create the impression that you have a sinister intent. Less intrusive than calling is sending a simple photocopied form letter asking for help.

If you know which city the person has probably landed in but can't find an address or phone number, try using a classified ad as "a last-ditch effort," says Fedorek. He once found an elderly woman when a social worker who had treated her in the hospital read the ad and notified him of her whereabouts. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross have programs to locate lost family members. The Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service won't give out an address but will forward a letter to a relative.

If you want to find a friend you've simply lost track of, you'll have to do some legwork on your own--or get your granddaughter to do it. My next step in the search for Jean Dinion will be to write a letter explaining my goal to the handful of Dinions that I found on CD-ROM. Even if that doesn't work, I am hopeful I will find her eventually. I am less confident about recovering the tea tray.

Finding That Elusive Someone

-- Obtaining a Social Security number will simplify your search, since it makes it easier for public agencies to trace individuals.

-- Check a national database of phone listings, available through CompuServe, or one of several CD-ROMs, costing $50 to $150.

-- Check public records, such as motor vehicle registrations, in the relevant states. Also peruse voter files, real estate records, and marriage or professional licenses.

-- If you are searching for elderly persons, write to the Social Security Administration to find out if they are deceased.

-- The Salvation Army, Red Cross, and Social Security Administration will help with searches for missing relatives--but not friends.

-- If you narrow your search to a handful of people with the same name, write to each of them asking for help.


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