How to Find a Missing Person

Sep 12, 2022 - By Ariana Manikas

While it can be scary to think about, having a loved one go missing is always a possibility. In 2021 alone, 521,705 missing person reports were filed in the United States. The best action you can take to avoid tragedy is to educate yourself. Let’s talk about what it means for a person to go missing, and what steps you need to take to get that person home safe.

Who is Considered a Missing Person?

There are several categories of missing persons, but all share one similarity: their whereabouts are unknown to law enforcement. Until they are located, a person will remain defined as “missing” until their well-being can be confirmed. Once it's been determined that a person is missing, they will be placed in one of three groups:


  1. Voluntary Missing Person 

  2. Missing Person Under the Influence of a Third-Party

  3. Lost Person


Voluntary Missing Person

If a person runs away from home or otherwise leaves a situation under their own power, and they can not be found, they are defined as a “voluntary missing person.” Those looking for these people are aware they do not wish to return home, and tend to have either issues with their guardianship or the intent to commit suicide.


Missing Person Under the Influence of a Third-Party 

If someone goes missing against their will, they are defined as a “missing person under the influence of a third-party.” These persons have usually been the victim of a crime like abduction or in more severe cases, murder.


Lost Person

If a person goes missing due to incapacitation, usually related to a medical issue, mental illness, or intoxication, they are defined as a “lost person.” This often happens to those who wander away from senior care facilities, get lost after a night of drinking, or run away in the midst of a mental break.


What to Do if Someone is Missing for 24 Hours

A common myth you may have heard is that you can’t report a person missing until they have been gone for 24 hours. This is not true. You can report that a person has been missing after any amount of time; the sooner the better. This is particularly true if the person is at higher risk, like children or the elderly. People in high risk groups are less likely to find their way home on their own, and therefore emergency services should be dispatched as soon as possible.


How Do You Find a Lost Family Member?

If you believe a family member has gone missing, and you have the ability to get in touch with them, you should try to do so before contacting authorities. While it's important to get emergency services involved, it does make the situation far more complicated. If you have the phone number of the lost family member or a general idea of their whereabouts, quickly call or try to locate them before calling 911. If you can’t find them right away, immediately get the police involved.


What Steps Should Be Taken to Find a Missing Person?

If you cannot easily find the person, there are several steps you should take as quickly as possible. The faster you alert authorities and the public, the faster the person can be found.

Contact the Authorities

Call 911 and report the person missing. Give the authorities all the information you have about the person; the more info you provide, the better chance they have of finding them.

Reach out to Friends, Co-Workers, and Acquaintances

Contact anyone the person usually spends time with and ask if they’ve seen them; close friends, co-workers and supervisors from their job, acquaintances from local clubs or the gym; anyone who may have seen them should be called.

Check Their Favorite Spots and Nearby Services

Check any coffee shops, libraries, or parks they usually hang out at. Contact local hospitals to see if they have been admitted, as some missing persons have been the victim of an incapacitating accident.

Register Them Missing with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System 

Register the person missing with the NAMUS and other national missing persons registries to further assist law enforcement.

Post Flyers and Get On Social Media

Put up photos of the person and identifying information both on social media and on posters around town. Try to target areas the person frequents.

Contact the Local News

Let your local news outlets know the person is missing to further get the word out. The more press surrounding the case, the higher profile it becomes.

Missing Person Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How Long Till a Person is Considered Missing?

Despite the popular myth that a person isn’t considered missing until 24 or 48 hours, anyone whose whereabouts cannot be determined is immediately considered missing. If you believe a person is lost or missing, and you cannot find them with a simple phone call or search, call 911.

How Long Will Police Search For A Missing Person?

Police will search for a missing person until they are found. Once a missing persons report has been filed, it's important to make sure authorities are alerted the second that person is found. If not, they will continue to have an open file and the police will search until that file is closed.

Should I Hire A Private Investigator?

If you do not believe that the person can be found through the authorities, social media, and local news outreach, hiring a private investigator could be helpful. Private investigators have a different level of insight than law enforcement agents, and may be able to use their experience to find alternative methods of finding a missing person.

Which Law Enforcement Agencies Are Responsible For Finding Missing People?

All levels of law enforcement can be involved in finding missing persons, from local and state all the way up to federal authorities like the FBI. The number of agencies involved depends on the condition of the missing person, how long they have been missing, and how high profile the case has become.

If you believe a missing person has tried to contact you from an unknown phone number, you can conduct a reverse phone lookup to get their identification information. While there are public phone directories for reverse searches, third-party services can usually retrieve the information much more quickly.

Can A Person Be Unreported Missing?

There are several reasons a person could be unreported missing, including:

The person in question is suffering from chronic homelessness

  • The person is estranged from friends or family

  • Law enforcement refuses to take their report

  • The person is in the country illegally

  • The person is an unknown dependant of unreported missing adults or teens

  • The person may be the victim of an undiscovered crime

 These conditions are usually rare, and a person isn’t usually unreported missing without notification to interested parties.