The following article was written by my good friend, William Dollarhide. Enjoy…
Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 49: A relative is someone with all the information about the family you want, but died last week.
Finding Dead Relatives is one way of describing what we do in genealogy, because most of our ancestors are deceased, some for hundreds of years in the past. Any genealogical research to identify our dead relatives involves the use of a myriad of resources to record the facts. For example, one of the many sources is the use of old city directories to find a person by name and residence. But for this review, the subject is Finding Living Relatives, and unlike the dead ones, this subject has just one primary look-up resource. To find the name and address of a person living today, we need to use the current directory listings available on the Internet.
Family Historians attempting to locate a missing relative have some valuable tools available to them on the Internet. But, other research tasks can benefit from these tools as well. For example, anyone attempting to prepare a list of all persons born with the same surname usually start with the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1940. Such One-Name Studies projects will benefit greatly from the search for living people, filling in even more details than one could ever find using census records alone. And, after finding the living persons, they can become your correspondents, adding valuable information to your genealogical projects. So, finding living relatives is a worthwhile endeavor – whether for a lineage, pedigree, or descendancy; or for a One-Name Study. To get there, this 2-part review lists Social Security databases and services, and then lists the top 24 websites for finding living relatives.
Help from the Social Security Administration
Before diving into the websites for finding living relatives, it might be a good idea to confirm that a person is actually alive. Probably the best place to do this is through the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), a database of deaths reported to the Social Security Administration (SSA) since 1962, and updated regularly. There are several websites available online with this database, but not all of them are up-to-date within the last few weeks. The latest free version of the SSDI at the www.familysearch.org site is updated monthly, and is the same database as the one used at www.ancestry.com. Even more information is available at the www.worldvitalrecords.com site, where the free SSDI database is updated regularly, and every zip code for a deceased person’s last residence is geo-coded to a detailed map of the area (and may pinpoint the location of any cemeteries nearby). So, before getting into the People-Finder websites, confirm that your lost relative’s name is not on the SSDI list. If not, the chances will be great that the person is still alive, at least within the last month or so.
There is another service available from SSA, and something that might be done first if you have good information about a lost relative, but just don’t know where the person lives. SSA will forward a letter to a missing person. There is no charge for this service if the letter has a humanitarian purpose. (“Genealogy” may not be considered humanitarian, unless you are contacting the person to inform them of family matters, such as funerals, births, marriages, or matters that SSA would agree that the missing person would want to be informed about). If the letter to the missing person is informing them of money or property they have coming, SSA will charge a fee of $25.00 for the forwarding service. You will need to provide the lost relative’s social security number, or you can provide detailed identifying information (the person’s full name, date and place of birth, father’s name, and the mother’s full maiden name) You must write a letter to the lost relative, enclosed in an unsealed, unstamped envelope with just the name of the person on the outside of the envelope. SSA will not reveal the person’s address to you, but will forward the letter to the person; either to the care of the person’s last reported employer; or directly to the person if he/she is receiving SSA benefits. SSA will not follow-up to determine if the person actually received the letter, and you are not allowed a second request for the same person. After a reasonable length of time with no response from the missing relative, assume they do not want your contact. To initiate this service, send a letter of request to Social Security Administration, Letter Forwarding, PO Box 33022, Baltimore, MD 21290-3022. SSA’s information webpage on the Letter Forwarding service is at www.ssa.gov/foia/html/ltrfwding.htm.
Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 5: A Social Security form SS-5 (original application for a SSA account) is better than a birth certificate because few people had anything to do with the information on their own birth certificate.
About Online Directories
A directory is an alphabetized list of names of people for a certain place or group. A telephone directory may list just the person in whose name the phone is listed, while a city directory may list more people in a particular household (usually all adults, but sometimes complete lists of family members). Typically, these two general directory sources are the main lists available at the many free-access White Pages sites on the Internet. But there are more directories that may be specific to one association, trade, profession, religious group, or ethnic group.
Professionals involved in finding living people include law enforcement officials, private investigators, skip tracers, heir chasers, and professional genealogists. A few books have been published by professionals on the subject of finding living people, and in every case, they report that the highest success rate for finding people comes from the name lists found in general directories. The professionals report that their success rate using just directories to find a living person is about 80% of the time. For the rest of us, the same rate of success could be obtainable in finding a living person using one or more of the free White Pages websites, because these sites are mostly made up of general directory listings. It is that 20% remaining group that will require more work (and more money). These are the remaining people who are the hardest to find because they have no known published address or phone number listed in a general directory.
About the Fee-Based People-Finder Sites
Many of the people within the 20% group can be found if you are willing to pay for the information, because there are more complete name lists available on the Internet, mostly offered by commercial People-Finder sites. After an initial directory search, there are expanded lists of people, such as names and addresses for unlisted phones or unpublished cell phone users (those not included in the general telephone directories); plus national lists showing a person’s previous address and phone number, names and addresses of home owners and personal property taxpayers, public utility company customers; or lists of names compiled from legal notices published in newspapers, including bankruptcies, tax liens, court case announcements, marriages, divorces, sex offenders, drug offenders, etc. And, there are other public records available for some of the states, such as real estate records, vehicle registrations, and driver’s licenses. All of these compiled name lists are available through commercial websites, and all of them charge a fee for full access to their databases. Many of these sites have a free look-up in the general directory listings, but charge a fee to access the details from the expanded name lists derived from public records.
You have some good tools at your disposal for finding living relatives, and when you are ready to start your online search, here are the top People-Finder websites:
First Places to Look
Google (www.google.com/advanced_search). Free site. If the surname is fairly common, use the Advanced Search option, “with at least one of the words.” Keywords here might include “living,” “born,” “married,” or “resides.” If looking for common names, such as Andrew Johnson, try to link that person to another, such as a wife’s maiden name, e.g., use the keywords, Andrew Johnson and Amelia Grant. Even that set of words may produce unmanageable long lists of names, so, if necessary, start over and add place information, such as Andrew Johnson Union County Iowa. Only in the Advance Search screen can you link words together so they don’t bring back results separately. For example, the “Andrew Johnson Union County Iowa” general Google search would return over 800,000 hits, because each word is returned separately, included every occurrence of the word “county” or “Iowa.” However, in the Advanced Search criteria, using the “exact word or phrase” option for “Andrew Johnson of Iowa” returned just ten entries. You may have to be a bit creative in coming up with the best “exact words or phrase” that will return the entries with the best chance of finding a particular person.
Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com). Subscription site. There are probably as many names here from recent directories and public records databases as any of the fee-based People-Finder search sites. That’s because Ancestry.com acquires databases from many sources, including People-Finder sites. Non-members may search Ancestry.com’s indexes for free. Ancestry’s search criteria is very detailed and includes Soundex and other sounding devices for names – but to get to a specific person, first try going for the exact spelling of a name, and add any known places of residence. Using the Soundex option may increase the numbers by thousands of entries, so if one spelling doesn’t get the person you are after, try changing the exact spelling slightly, such as Hansen to Hanson, and so on, before going to the Soundex search. You can also define a range of years (for an event) in the Ancestry search screen, which might narrow down a large number to a workable one. For example, since you are searching for a living person, you might limit the date range to within the last ten years.
ProGenealogists.com (www.progenealogists.com/genealogysleuthb.htm). Free site. The Genealogy Sleuth pages here act as portals to many genealogy resource sites, including those they describe as “Find Living Relatives” websites. Linked here are Internet sites used the most by professional genealogists, and one section has direct inks here to several People-Finder websites.
ReferenceUSA (http://referenceusa-resourcecenter.com/). Free to library patrons only. This huge database of names from many current directories is found at subscribing libraries only. Check with your local library to see if they subscribe and perhaps allow home access via a library card ID.
These First Places to Look name lookup sites and portals should give you a good start. But, there are many more free lookup sites and research tools for finding a missing person. In addition, there are some fee-based search services that can be used when the missing name does not present itself in the general directory searches. Stay tuned – this subject will be continued in the next Genealogy Blog with Online Resources for Finding Living Relatives-Part 2.
End of Part I