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Missing Persons: How Private Investigators conduct a Skip Trace

Locating people who are lost or missing

People go missing for many reasons; some deliberately, and some in suspicious circumstances. Being able to find missing persons quickly can come down to understanding why the person went missing, and following the leads. The good news is that Police find most missing persons alive within a few days.
Discover how a Private Investigator can help in certain types of missing persons cases.

How to file a missing persons report

Firstly, if the missing person is a child or young person, go to your local Police station immediately. Don’t delay, because as vulnerable people, every minute makes a difference. You can also read our special blog post on how to report missing children in Australia, because there’s a specific protocol for missing children and young people.
For cases of missing adults: if you know or suspect a crime has occurred, or if you think the missing person is in danger or likely to harm themselves, go to your nearest Police station. In Australia, Missing Persons reports must be made in person at a Police station.
The most important point is: you don’t have to wait 24 hours to report a person missing. You can make the report as soon as you notice they are missing if you have serious concern for their safety.
Include in your missing persons report:

  • Name, age and address
  • A physical description of the missing person – include any identifying features like tattoos, scars or other unique appearance
  • A recent colour photograph (this can be still on your phone; it doesn’t have to be printed)
  • A description of the clothes they were last seen wearing
  • The reason you think they are in danger, or the possible reason they went missing
  • Where the missing person was last seen
  • Description of any possible crimes or suspicious behaviour
  • Their usual routine and frequent places
  • Names and contact details of family, friends and colleagues

Police might also ask for other information about the missing person, such as:

  • Birth certificate, marriage certificate or other changes of name (if they are your family)
  • Medical and mental health condition, allergies and blood type
  • A video or recording of the missing person’s voice

If you have lost contact with a family member or friend over a long period, but have no reason to suspect foul play, the Police might not be able to help you. Australian Police are stretched thin investigating crimes and protecting people, so a long-lost friend is simply not their priority. However, you can engage a Private Investigator to find your missing friend; see below for how a PI can help.

How many people go missing in Australia each year?

In Australia, about 38,000 people are reported missing each year and most missing persons are found alive within a few days.
Here are some statistics from a report by Missing Persons Australia, www.missingpersons.gov.au:

  • Just over half of missing persons in Australia are male (51%), compared with female (48%)
  • Younger adults are more frequently reported as missing persons than older adults: age 18-24 (9.9%), 25-34 (10.5%), 35-44 (9.3%), 45-59 (7.7%), 60+ (6.1%).
  • 98% of missing persons are found alive
  • 64% of all missing persons (adults and children) are found within 48 hours, and a further 22% in 2 to 7 days

Why do people go missing?

Common risk factors for missing persons include:

  • people who are vulnerable due to illness or age (very young or elderly)
  • experiencing a physical illness, disability or mental health condition
  • living in special accommodation, care facility or service-user of DHS
  • likely to attempt self-harm or suicide
  • the missing person has left behind important personal belongings
  • drug or alcohol dependent
  • known problems at school or work, or financial problems
  • exhibiting behaviour that is out of character or did not keep their last appointment
  • people who have gone missing before
  • experiencing family conflict, domestic violence, prolonged bullying or harassment
  • involved in a violent, homophobic or racist incident
  • involvement in criminal behaviour

If your missing friend or family member has recently shown some of these risk factors, contact your local Police. Any information you can provide may help locate the missing person quickly.

How are missing persons classified?

People go missing for many reasons; some deliberately, and others because they are lost or victims of foul play. There are six official categories for missing persons:

Voluntary missing persons

  • people hiding from debt collectors or gang members
  • fugitive from Police, bail or court appearances
  • runaway children and teens
  • escaping family violence or avoiding a stalker
  • severing ties with family and friends to start a new life
  • witness to a crime and they fear for their safety
  • suspected suicide

Involuntary missing persons

  • people in abduction or hostage situations
  • missing in suspicious circumstances
  • missing against their will

Unidentified living person

  • a person in care of a hospital or Police who can’t communicate their identity due to amnesia or unconsciousness

Unidentified human remains

  • Deceased persons of unknown identity


  • a lost or missing child who has wandered away from parents or carers
  • people experiencing dementia or disability who have wandered, becoming lost or separated from carers
  • hikers who disappear on an expedition
  • missing persons during a natural disaster such as fire, flood, earthquake or tsunami

Missing Murdered

  • A person who is missing and Police have reason to believe the person has been murdered

Skip Trace: How do Private Investigators find missing persons?

Skip Trace is the term used when a Private Investigator attempts to locate a missing person.
Common skip traces include:

  • finding someone’s missing partner to claim child support payments or serve legal papers
  • tracking down long-lost relatives as beneficiaries of a will
  • debt collection such as unpaid business or personal debts
  • skip bail – finding someone who has disappeared prior to a court appearance

A skip trace starts with a detailed interview with the client who has employed the PI. The PI collects information similar to the missing persons report described above; who the missing person is, what they look like, what are the risk factors, why they might have gone missing, their movements and behaviour before the disappearance, what their usual routine is, and much more.
Private Investigators usually start the skip trace with an online search of data in the public record. PIs also have access to databases that include extra information not available to everyone. They search for clues to a missing person’s location using:

  • social media activity
  • employment records and professional memberships
  • bills and leases
  • electoral roll
  • vehicle registrations
  • newspaper and media reports
  • fee for service databases such as Detective Desk or Caspar
  • credit search databases such as Dun and Bradstreet

Sometimes, this detailed data search is enough to locate the missing person. If there isn’t enough information, the next level of skip trace involves:

  • interviewing family and friends about the missing person’s history and behaviour, and following all leads that arise
  • visiting places where the person used to go, such as sporting clubs
  • accessing the missing person’s computer, if available
  • discussing the case with Police, such as in a cold case; however, only certain information can be shared by Police in open investigations
  • being issued an ‘authority to release information’ by a person permitted to release that information; for example to access to financial information

This interview and search process often reveals critical clues to find a missing person. It’s extremely difficult to disappear completely these days; our lives leave a digital footprint that can be followed by a skilled investigator. Cold cases are trickier, because there’s less digital evidence to trace from 10+ years ago. Nonetheless, clever investigators can solve some very unlikely cases.

What if a missing person doesn’t want to be found?

Sometimes missing people don’t want to be found. But that doesn’t stop friends and loved ones worrying, and wondering if they are safe and well.
Private Investigators are careful to interview their client to find out why they want to locate a missing person. If the PI senses a risk of harm to the subject, the PI will refuse the skip trace. Specifically, protection of vulnerable subjects is the PI’s greatest concern, and in fact they have an obligation to protect at-risk people.
If the client has good intentions, and simply wants to reach out to their missing friend, the PI can pass on a letter or contact details. Then it’s up to the subject to decide if they wish to make contact with their friend.

If you have information about a missing person:

In Australia, please contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 if you have information about a missing person. Outside Australia, please contact your local Police or missing persons register. Any information, no matter how small it may seem, adds another piece to the puzzle that helps to find a missing person. Your information might be the piece that helps to solve a crime or bring a missing person home safely.

Want to know more about hiring a Private Investigator?

Contact an Australian Private Investigator today. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about how a PI can help you or refer the best available Investigator. Feel free to get in touch.

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