Kahren Oxner was 35 when Washington state, where she had been adopted as an infant, started allowing adoptees in closed adoptions to obtain their birth certificates in 2014. She sent away for hers and received a document showing her birth mother’s last name was Smith.
Oxner, now 40 and a mortgage lender in Lake Oswego, Oregon, had wanted to find her biological mother but now wasn’t sure it would be possible.
“How many Smiths could there be?” she wondered. “That’s the most common name. I knew nothing. I just knew the adoption agency and had my birth certificate.”
She got in touch with private investigator John Jayne, who worked via public records to locate Oxner’s mother inside of two weeks.
“I called her, and it was the most beautiful thing that I could have ever imagined,” said Oxner.
Finding people usually isn’t nearly as difficult as you might imagine. Unless they’re actively trying not to be found, most people these days leave a blazing trail on social media and in public records that enables even non-investigators to track them down fairly easily.
Whether you’re looking for biological parents or old friends you haven’t spoken to since high school or college, read on to learn some of the best tips for how to find old friends.
Reasons for finding old friends
There are many reasons you might want to locate an old friend or acquaintance you’ve lost touch with (or, in Oxner’s case, someone she wishes she was acquainted with).
One likely reason is that you’ve got an invitation to extend. Events like high school and college reunions necessitate inviting many people to a single occasion, and some of those people may be more in touch with their classmates than others.
You may be looking to reconnect with someone to conclude unfinished business; perhaps this person owes you money or had once promised something but never delivered. You may even suspect a potential romantic spark could emerge based on previous interactions and promises.
Those going through 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous often have very strong motivations to locate old friends. The step that involves making amends with those you have wronged often requires you to reconnect with people who may have dropped out of your life.
There are as many reasons to connect with old friends as there are friends. When you add in all the people you don’t actually know yet but may have reason to find, such as Oxner’s biological mother, there are even more possible motivations for knowing how to do a people search.
How to find an old friend online
There are two main ways to find an old friend: do your own online search, or hire a professional to do the legwork for you.
Your decision might depend on how hard the person is to track down, which “depends on how bad the person wants to not be found and the amount of stuff they have in various records,” said Jayne, owner of Virtus Group Investigations in Oregon City, Oregon.
The best way to find an old friend for free or cheap is to do the search yourself using many of the strategies familiar to private investigators, including accessing similar information from search databases. Here are three strategies for finding old friends online.
Searching for friends on social media
Social media is an obvious place to turn when looking to reconnect with someone. If you had mutual friends, that person is likely connected to some of them. Scouring mutual friends' connections to see if the person shows up is a promising strategy.
If you know which schools and workplaces the person has been associated with, you can use that information to inform your social media search. You can find some of this information using the National Student Clearinghouse, a public database with information about where and when people attended U.S. colleges. You can then search social groups or event listings associated with that school for the person you’re trying to find. Similarly, if you know where someone has worked in the past, you can check LinkedIn for all profiles that list that institution in their employment history.
Finding people on social media is more often successful with people under 65. If you are looking for someone older, they are less likely to have a strong social presence.
Finding friends via internet search engines
Social media involves being strategic with how you search, while looking for friends via search engines requires casting a wide net and then narrowing down the results.
“To be honest with you, the best option for someone starting out is to hop on Google and enter as much information as you can,” Jayne said.
Type the person’s name and anything else you know about them—a hometown, occupation, spouse, school, workplace or some other identifier—into a search engine in the format “name + [any keyword].”
Be discerning when looking at the results. It’s common to pull in information about many people with the same or similar names, so take an “innocent until proven guilty” approach to identifying a person this way. Until you are absolutely sure the information you’ve found is associated with the person you’re looking for, be skeptical about each potential lead you identify.
Finding friends through a people search
If social and search engines don’t bear fruit, it can be worth paying for a report from a people search service. These services can give you a large serving of information about people immediately and affordably. However, more research may be required to verify the accuracy of the information.
If the publicly available people search doesn’t cut it, consider hiring a licensed private investigator (PI). They usually have access to more thorough databases than the general population does, including the popular and far-reaching TLOxp database. Owned by Transunion, TLO can only be accessed by certain law enforcement and investigative professionals. Investigators often use this database and others like it, along with public records and internet-based searches.
In the age of social media and extensive online search capabilities, it’s easier than ever to find old friends.
“The possibilities are endless when it comes to digital information today,” said Jayne. “It depends on how savvy you are and how much of a footprint that person left for you to find.“However, just because you can find someone doesn’t mean you should. Some people may not want to be found by anyone, or may not be interested in reconnecting with you specifically. When looking up long-lost friends and acquaintances, it’s important to know how to take “no” for an answer.