With the proliferation of the Web and global interconnectedness, there are more sites than ever to help you find a long-lost loved one. But you need to do your homework before dropping money on a scam or ineffective service. You might be able to do a lot of the legwork yourself, without even dropping a dime. Start with doing your investigative work the old-fashioned way, and by using free people finders.
Think like Sherlock Holmes. Exhaust the traditional channels to find your loved one. Search through old records, the local library's newspaper clippings and phone number look-ups on the Internet. The more you know about a person, the more quickly you'll be able to track them down on your own.
Search free people finder sites. Besides simple googling there are sites that do deep dive Web searches free of charge. Check out Pipl and other sites listed in the Resources section below.
Connect with others. If you have very little to go on, reach out to those from your past who are most likely to know where this person may be now. The added benefit is you'll connect with other old friends along the way.
Be careful of sites that advertise themselves as "free." Initially, they may seem free but once you get into the search they may tell you records are available "for a fee." By this time, they have already reeled you in and you're more likely to fork over the dough to pay for the information. After all, the person is listed in their database...
Know when is the time to turn to for-a-fee sites. If you have exhausted free sites, your networks and other traditional resources, now is the time to consider the pros. These people are trained to hunt and will go to bat for you.
Check their credentials. What makes these people professionals? Go to the website. Does the site seem legitimate? Are there a lot of pop-up ads and other distractions that reduce its legitimacy? A clean, straightforward website is the way to go. Read bios thoroughly to find out what makes these people qualified to track down your loved one.
Call if you're still unsure. Contact those doing the hunting directly. One surefire sign of a legit service is ease of reaching that person. There should be a phone number available to reach them directly. Ask how they execute their searches and get a better feel for if they are who they really say they are.
Check testimonials. If it's a good site, often touching testimonials from satisfied customers will be available online. See if you can get in touch with those individuals. One caveat: don't always trust online testimonials. If at all possible, you'll want to go directly to the source--someone who has been helped tremendously by the service.
Be wary of paying online. See what other payment methods are available. If it's a good service, there will be more options at your disposal than simply the "secure" credit card payment online.
See what follow-up these services conduct with you. How often can you expect to hear from the professionals during the search? They should address this during your conversation with them, via phone or email. You are paying them well, so you should expect regular follow-up on the search until that individual is found. You should not have to track down the people finder service just to get regular updates. This is not good service.
Watch out for red flags. Another sure sign of a bad service is bad customer service upfront. If you call to inquire about a service and no one answers the phone or you get a voicemail message and no place to even leave a message, stay away. You will probably be unhappy with the service you receive if you can't even get through the first time around or it may even be a scam.
Check the Better Business Bureau. It's always a good idea to see what grievances and complaints may be out there regarding your prospective service. Plus, this will give you more insight into the company's history and other elements that may increase the legitimacy of the service (see Resources below).