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Do-it-Yourself Private Investigation

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The popular image of a private investigator is a person in a trench coat, armed with a .38, slinking around alleys and back rooms interviewing shady characters in a quest to solve a case. In real life, private investigators come from all walks of life, and some of their investigative techniques are available to anyone. For example, there are free, online resources to conduct searches on phone numbers, email addresses and state professional licenses.

Do-it-Yourself Private Investigation

Research the information linked to a phone number. One easy reverse phone number search is to enter the number (using the format 555-555-5555) in the Google browser and press the "Search" button. The results list online sources that contain the phone number and references to it, such as a person's name, location or business.

Conduct a deep web people search. According to Bright Planet, the deep web is an immense network of "invisible" data estimated to be thousands of times larger than the traditional web (See References 2). One free deep web people search engine is Pipl. Also, you can create a deep-web search in any search engine by entering the word "database" (without the quotation marks) with a search word -- for example, search "Sally Smith" and "database Sally Smith" and compare the results.

Research information linked to an email address. There are several free, online people-search engines that offer email searches as well, such as Pipl and yoName. For a minimal annual fee, Spokeo also provides email searches (See References 3, 4, 5).

Check someone's criminal history. County courts maintain the most relevant, up-to-date criminal records. If you know the county where a person lived, worked or attended school, go to that county courthouse and request that individual's criminal records from the court clerk. Typical fees include a search fee and copying charges.

Verify a professional license. BRB Publications offers a free, online look-up service "The Professional License Verifier," which checks licensure for individuals and businesses (See Reference 6). Go to, select a state, choose a category and follow the instructions.


Avoid online services that advertise nationwide criminal records searches. There is no such thing as a national repository of criminal records.


All but five states -- Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota and Wyoming -- require a person to be licensed to conduct business as a private investigator on behalf of others. Although it's all right to conduct do-it-yourself investigations for your own personal purposes, you might run afoul of state and local laws if you conduct investigations commercially for other people.