public information search engines

Pam Johnstone Hitt and Jerry Nelson,
McLean High School (VA) alumni of 1959 & 1960
2006, 2011
Jump to list of search sites  
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Learn to help yourself  find lost classmates.

A search in Google for "white pages" or "reverse phone directory lookup"  yields familiar phone book sites like,,   infospace,   or Yahoo's People Search.  AOL's own white pages service is not their own -- they resell Infospace.   Google itself can be used for a white pages search.  Put "Jerry Nelson" in quotes to force exactly that phrase (name) to be searched.  If Google doesn't come up with what you want in the first two hits, click on the Phonebook Results link for all the hits.  Still not there?  Try name variations.  You won't find me in a traditional white pages service unless you look for "Jeremiah Nelson" in VA.  In a people finder like usa-people-search, you could guess incorrectly at my age (say, 62), you could call me JER Nelson, because you don't know if I am Jerome, Jerry, whatever, and behold!  you'll get a Jerry Nelson in McLean.  Now you know at least one valid form of the first name.  usa-people-search is more forgiving than a phone-book-style  search.    

The  "people finder" sites are a little different.  There is a lot of public information out there besides phone books.   Public information search engines compile information published when you register your corporation or partnership, buy a house with a title search and mortgage, guarantee the loan for a kid, apply for a wedding license or die and generate both a newspaper obituary and paperwork at the Social Security Administration.  Birth, census, military and marriage/divorce records may be tapped.  Not all people finder sites aggregate the same information.  

These are great tools, but the trick is to how to use them without paying subscription fees -- at least until you have some practice, some results, and some idea which "engine"  you like best.                    


Go to, try all your best guesses until you get their "star rating" higher.

If tells you that the person has died, get the date and go to the ObitsArchive site.  Get the newspaper and date if a paid death notice was published anywhere in the country.  

Instead of buying the obit text from ObitsArchive (90 days access $40), find the on line edition of the newspaper, and try to look up the obituary there.  

You don't have time to wait until your classmate dies, you say?  No problem.  Finding the obituary of a parent will give you a list of all the children (your classmates).  This is one of the few routes from the maiden to the married name of a female classmate.'s free service uses the government's Social Security Death Index (for deceased targets), but gaining access to a given Social Security Death Index RECORD (SSDI record) requires a paid membership of $180/year (or other time periods).  You can also access the SSDI record  via the link listed above.  


We are in on a sample search for someone who has died; in this case, the student himself, although more often you might search for  the classmate's parents.  The year deceased can be only a guess.  You play with the name and locations to try to improve the ensuing results.  In some people finders, the free output is limited to the first 100 hits -- what you want may be hidden in the unshown hits.  The game is to refine the search with guesses so that fewer than 100 hits come up.  Then  you know you've "seen it all" and your guess was either lucky or definitively wrong, so you can move on. has other aggregations of data besides "generic" public records.  Military data is a great separate search area. output 1 of 2 output 2 of 2
Output from  You play with your guesses about name, dates, locations until the star ratings increase.

The lower John E. Isaacs is alive.  The upper hit has died, and now we know the year of death.  He was married by civil ceremony in Virginia, same state as the high school.  Looks good if we are search for McLean VA high school classmates.  Getting a look at the relevant record of the "Social Security Death Index" or the dates in blue (the "dd's" and "mm's" etc) costs money.  Before we get that desperate, let's look for that obituary in  We know the year (2002). hit was searched for the date of death given by and the name  John Isaacs (John E. Isaacs did not work -- go figure).  The output tells us that a death notice was indeed published.  The paper is the Washington Post, in September of 2002.   Before we sign up for 90 days access to 90 obituaries for $40, it's time to check in at the Wash Post on line.  

Wash Post obituaries (paid death notices) are a little hard to find.  They are in the Metro section.

Washington Post input for death notice search

The "teaser" output of the first 25 words is enough to confirm that all these names and dates are correct -- we have the right person.  

Washington Post hit
Our high school class (McLean VA 1960) has no funds to finance missing persons searches, so just try it yourself on your old friends.  If it works, try one of the missing classmates.   For a list of who's still missing in McLean '60, write to faybrumback at removethis


White page search services were listed.  

Two Google searches were set up (just click).  One finds  more white page services, the other finds  reverse-lookup services.

A bunch of more powerful people finder search services were listed.

We did an example that illustrated using
Another person's useful "Guide to Finding Classmates" is here.  

top    links at bottom

Public information from free search engines

Notes:  Basic info from the following is free.  Never pay to retrieve data, if prompted.  Do not register or sign in.
A basic go-to search engine.  Screen allows age to be entered if date of birth is not known.  It also allows middle initial to be entered.  Locations going back 20 or more years are reported, but current location is not specified, which means additional searching is required.  If person is deceased, it is not reported.
A basic go-to search engine.  Will do nationwide searches, even on a single last name and nothing more. 

First search menu is limited.  Middle initial and age cannot be entered.  Always enter first name and middle initial in the first name block.  On the next screen you can refine the search if you have too many hits.  Back out the middle initial and enter it in the block below the first name. 

Locations going back 20 or more years are reported, but current location is not specified. 

PeopleSmart  is different from Veromi in that it notes if the person is deceased (even 30 yrs ago), and reports year of death.   Write this down;  below.

This site handles death notice archives for over 800 newspapers, mostly in the USA.   When other obituary searches identify the newspaper and date of a death notice, you can come here to get the notice's full text for free.  On the page linked above, enter by the city-where-published.  A nearby  "source" field will have a pull-down list for all the papers in the city you entered, so just select the one you already know published the notice you're after.
Pipl brags that it finds info that no other search engine does.  It is a “snoop” engine, reporting from court records, newspaper articles, and social networks.  May report date of birth.  Address information comes from another search engine, and appears incomplete, but click on it to bring up the full address.  Data is often old.     
Basic go-to search engine.  Very forgiving.  Use name fragments, rough guess at age.  Shows (possible)  relatives, exact age, location.  

Only 100 hits maximum are reported regardless of how many there were, so the game is to throw enough guesses into the search to narrow the retrievals to under 100 possibilities.  You can use the middle initial for men, but not women.
Address  and phone numbers.  "Three time more residential listings than White Pages."
Will sometimes give date of birth.  Asking for "more information" may give you spouse's name even if you have no intention of purchasing "background checks," etc.
With its rich access to databases, Google is an essential search engine.  Note that it no longer reports  residential address and telephone information.  Use it to search for professional and social information.
White Pages
Frequently updated.  When the town in which a person lives has been determined, go to White Pages to pull up address and telephone number.  Age is sometimes reported, plus names of others at the same address.
Over half of everyone in the US is now on Facebook, which requires correct name.  Married female classmates may list their maiden names along with their married name.  Photos may help in identifying people.   =  
Find a newspaper obituary or--more likely--paid death notice.

Search by state or region.  Never enter anything in “Name of Deceased” block because newspapers usually archive obituaries under the lead obituary.  Enter keywords in “Obituary Text” such as last name of deceased, first names of survivors, home town, or occupation.  If a name is displayed, this may confirm the identity of a  person related to the deceased in order to do a Google or Google News search.  Note that all obituaries found here require payment.  Do not order the obituary, but rely on other search engines to continue tracking the person. has stopped reporting the most recent location from local directories.  Do not use as a search engine to find the living.  If a death report is from the Social Security Death Index, write down the name exactly as it appears and the year of death in order to get a retrieval out of the SSDI.
Social Security Death Index (SSDI) via

If a search service such as PeopleSmart reports a death, come here.  Enter the year of death given and the name -- no more is needed, don't let the form intimidate you.  It’s best not to enter the middle initial.  The state of residence from which the person first applied for a Social Security Number is reported, which is helpful to determine if the deceased is the person for whom you were searching.
National Gravesite Locator
Reports burial locations of veterans.  Sometimes the veteran’s obituary and names of relatives is reported.
Find a Grave
Select from many choices of cemeteries to find burial locations.
Google News allows you to search newspaper archives.  The initial search always scans news from the current month.  After the first scan, you click on Archives.  You may then select a custom range of years.  This is helpful when looking for obituaries.  However, most obituaries require payment.  After finding a news report of interest, go to the Google Web screen and search using keywords.  The information may pop up for free.   Try "an exact, short phrase in quotes."  

Information sources more likely to require payment
Memory Lane (formerly, but still accessed through the above link)
Note:  You must register and allow your name to appear on the directory in order to search, but basic information is free.  Paying the dues could be worth it, since people enter their own information and photos.  It is a good tool for reconnecting.

This database is especially helpful in finding women's married names.  Although the directory lists people by their first and last names, the married name may display on the screen when you click a name for additional information.  Must always pay to see the map showing approximate location.  
Now packaged as "mylife".

Because classmate-type sites group together people of similar age who have attended the same school, they are useful for finding brothers and sisters of the person you can't locate.
Provides supporting documentation in some cases (e-mails, house value, political party affiliation), but is not an effective a people search engine.  Does reverse phone lookup, but hits are shown as teaser letters, never a full name.   Requires payment for most information, but only $36/yr.  Use as a last resort only.
For spokeo, knowing the person’s full name is of utmost importance.  Check the senior yearbook to find the middle name.  Or check the commencement program.   (McLean, VA 22101)
This is McLean High School’s official directory of graduates and teachers.  Usually a classmate’s middle name is listed. 


Once you have a current location from people finders, you can do a real estate search.  Property ownership often gives you names for both husband and wife.  Although by law real estate transactions are public, searching is difficult because it varies by county.  County?  Yes, the first problem is finding the county.  

FINDING THE COUNTY if you know the town is easy with this Google search string:

"Known City, State"  county department tax assessments property

The name of the county will pop up, whereupon you recycle the search with this string to find the government office that handles real estate ownership:

 "County, State" department tax assessments property

For Fairfax County, where many classmates or their parents live, you can search for assessed property by address (or tax map reference number) here.

Search for most (but not all) counties in the State of Maryland from this single site  (thank you, Maryland!).

And now we come to our big surprise, the easiest way to find civic organizations within any State of the Union.

Karen Pranger
SUMMARY:  go to any State and get Websites of each county as well as state-wide government sites.  In most states, real estate ownership records are maintained at the county level.  

Here's a drill-down for the entire site.

Karen Pranger is a librarian with the Santa Clara County Public Library and I am going to take you through her Website.  With just lists of links she has created a portal that rivals Yahoo, AOL, MSN and all the rest.  "Karen's corner" has no ads and it leads to many non-commercial and government organizations.  We imagine that Ms. Pranger has personally visited each link and scolded them if they did anything wrong.

Karen's home page is      
"www.garlic"?  The garlic comes in because Ms Pranger is hosted -- perhaps for free, we do not know -- by a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) called South Valley Internet in San Martin, CA 95046 (Silicon Valley).  They call their Internet service and  Examples of non-local ISPs are Verizon and AT&T / SBC.

Everything on the home page is worthwhile.  It lists:
Recall that we know the probable town of residence of a missing classmate and used Google to get the county for that town.   On the Karen's home page, select  "United States (Individual States)" , then choose State and Local Government on the Net    In the Local State Government, I picked the state I wanted, then the county -- in my case, Fairfax County.  

From county offices that are on line, I picked   "Fairfax Country Real Estate Assessment".   On that homepage for The Department of Taxation Administration, we read that "
Our website provides assessed values and physical characteristics extracted from the official assessment records for all property in Fairfax County" and go to the website, which finally offers property searches for Fairfax County.     Go find the person you want and their mailing address.  


The Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide  is a non-profit organization that has been representing Foreign Service spouses, employees and retirees since 1960.  If Dad gets posted to an unfamiliar place, the AAFSW Website can show Mom what kind of life to expect and how to fit in.  By going to the page for Virginia, you can gain entrance to many county and city Websites.  Post 9/11, this site no long shows pictures of  the housing project I grew up in in Germany.  It is no longer useful for finding Foreign Service "alumni".


Adjacent-year yearbooks and get you brothers, sisters,  cousins attending the same neighborhood schools who may be easier to  find.

Enter the missing person's last address into any whitepages site, get  the phone number, swallow hard and call. 

A parent's obituary in the local paper will tell you where their kids  live, and it links the maiden and married names of daughters.

Tackle uncommon names first -- same effort, more missing classmates.   As more of us are found, we hopefully generate more sources of help  for finding the remainder.

Any lead you get in one search engine gives you a better shot if you go back and try again in another.  


Jerry says:  Pam Johnstone Hitt  is the most talented searcher I know.  If you attended McLean High School in Northern Virginia, perhaps you can persuade her to help you.    pamela hitt all one word at comcast  dot net.  

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