The internet is an incredible source of information. Now more than ever, information is easy, and in many cases free. to access. Our personal lives and personal information can be readily shared, whether through choice or not. With this increased accessibility, there often comes a temptation to play detective and do a bit of sleuthing of your own. Whilst this is not something we would necessarily advocate – trust us, some things really are best left to the professionals – we recognise that people are going to try to find things out themselves. With this in mind, we have produced this handy guide for those of you who cannot resist the temptation to do a bit of investigating and want to be your own private detective.
As investigators, we use a lot of what is known as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). The broad definition of this is information that is in the public domain and legally accessed. Sometimes a fee is required to access certain databases, but even then these sources are readily open to public scrutiny.
Before giving some guidance on accessing OSINT, it is worth reminding everyone of the importance of making sure their own personal information is as secure as possible. Privacy settings on social media should be at maximum level, passwords should be changed frequently, and in general be wary of what is shared online as there will always be someone who can access it.
One other caveat: if you are looking for information concerning an individual, be aware that some searches are entirely traceable. You could end up in a whole lot of trouble.
Searching the web
Everyone is familiar with the major search engines. However there are a few tips which are worth passing on when searching online.
Perhaps the simplest and most useful, is to use inverted commas when searching, especially when searching for people.
The advantage of this is that it gives you far more accurate results.
For example, let’s suppose you are looking for someone called Benjamin Booth. If you just type Benjamin Booth into Google, you will get 14,600,000 results (go on, try it).
However, if you type “Benjamin Booth” you will only get 14,600 results. This is because by using the inverted commas, Google know you want to look for those exact words, together in that exact order. It just saves time.
When searching for people you need to use a variety of search terms.
So, you could search for:
“Booth Benjamin” (names often appear reversed in databases)
“Mr B Booth”
“benjaminbooth” (it is really useful putting a name and surname together without a space as this tends to bring up social media sites).
You can of course add locations etc to your search term.
Another useful tip is to change the time scope of your search. This is particularly helpful if you are looking for references to specific events such as news items in a particular year, or if you want information from a certain time period. To do this, click the Search Tools button at the top of the Google search page, then click on the Any Time button. This will give a dropdown menu which will allow you to customise the scope of your search, from the last day, to weeks, years and specific time periods.
You can of course also utilise the News, Images, Video buttons etc to further narrow down your search.
Useful sites for searching for people
There are many databases, usually payable, which will give you access to the electoral roll. These are useful in locating addresses. Sites such as 192.com can also give phone numbers. However, you can still access phone numbers free on the BT phonebook . As more people tend to only use a mobile these days, locating numbers can be more problematic. Sometimes just doing a Google search for the name of the person with the words “contact” or “phone” can yield results, even if only a work number.
There are many genealogy sites which are good for establishing where and when someone was born or married, and whether they have any children. Most of these are fee payable. We like www.thegenealogist.com . For all genealogical sites, information for very recent years can be limited e,g, no births after 2005.
Social media is a good and free way to find out more about people and their friends, family, hobbies, work etc. Facebook is very useful in being able to look at friendships/acquaintances, and then cross reference, search further on Google etc to establish relationships. It is also worth looking at photos and checking all the comments, as much can be revealed from this. Facebook can also give information on educational and employment background, but this should never be assumed as being fact. People tend to exaggerate or lie on social media, so any information should always be followed up.
A person’s location can also be revealed by looking at the location on the post. Searching Facebook is not as user-friendly as it used to be, but you can add a location down the left hand side of the search to narrow down your search
Twitter is useful in getting an idea of an individual’s thoughts and opinions, though with the same caveats as Facebook. Can also reveal location of an individual.
Instagram is predominantly a photo sharing site, but much can be obtained from the comments shared on the images. For example, people tend to post what they were doing and who they were doing it with at the time a photo was taken. Again useful for building a profile of friends, social life etc.
Pinterest is a site where you can post images of things that inspire or interest you. Again useful for building a background.
Tumblr is a popular photo and blog sharing site. More difficult to access profiles here unless you sign in and/or know the person.
With all of the above, sign in is required (though free), but I have successfully searched instagram without signing in, as long as you know the name of the individual you can just Google the name and “instagram”. Ditto with twitter.
www.linkedin.com site allows professional networking. Can search for free, but need to be a premium member to access some profiles and information. Various subscriptions at £14.99, £29.99 and £49.99 a month – not really worth it as main advantage is that it gives you the opportunity to send an inmail to an individual. Need to be a member to search (free) but beware that people can see if you have viewed their profile. Searching is not anonymous unless you change your profle settings..
There are various professional directories for searching for someone in a particular profession. There are many other sites specific to many professions, too numerous to list individually, but simply googling the profession concerned, with “register”/”directory” etc yields results. Some examples:
http://www.gmc-uk.org/doctors/register/LRMP.asp free search for GPs and specialists, as long as you know full name or just surname. Lists place of study and year of qualification
http://www.gdc-uk.org/pages/searchregisters.aspx to check dentist and dental technicians/orthodontists etc are registered. Free search
http://www.crockford.org.uk/searchresults.asp?id=58 allows you to search for members of the clergy and gives details of parish. Free www.imdb.com for searching for actors/presenters/technicians in film and TV. Free
http://www.xproexperts.co.uk/ a site for searching for expert witnesses. Free search, simply select area of expertise and region, and you will be given a choice of witnesses and contact details. Allegedly run by lawyers
Details of cases at Crown Courts can be accessed free here:
Checking domain names and IP addresses
There are several free sites you can use to verify or identify a domain name/IP address/registrant/location/owner etc:
Many sites around which will let you look up details of a company or a company director, but they will often charge you to access the information.
This can all be accessed free at Companies House
Information can be obtained from images and photos on the net. If you right click on an image then click “search Google for image” Google will look for any other instances of that image.
You can also upload photos taken from the net to look for the Exif data. This can give you details as to when and where a photo was taken.
You can do this here: http://regex.info/exif.cgi
Tin Eye is another good Reverse Search site – just upload a photo and it will tell you where it appears on the web https://www.tineye.com/
Property – location/valuation
Many property sites are available which give access to previously sold prices as well as current estimated valuations of UK property – useful when assessing the value of assets/estate etc. These sites also give link to google maps and street view, useful when pinpointing an individual’s location etc.
and Primelocation http://www.primelocation.com/ are three of the biggest and most comprehensive.
For identifying property ownership, the Land Registry http://www.landregistry.gov.uk/ is invaluable, and title registers and plans can be instantly downloaded for £3. (You need to create an account which is free). n.b. these downloaded extracts are not admissible in court – for that you need to order an official copy by post.
Can be very useful looking at different locations and working our specific routes. Also gives clear close ups of properties etc.
This information given here is just an overview. As professionals, we have many other resources available to us which the average person would not. If you need help, please at contact us .