Missing Person Vs. Locating a Person: What Is The Difference?

As a private investigator in Knoxville, we often receive requests to find people. This can be for various reasons, such as to serve them with legal papers, an heir following a death, or tracking down a missing family member. One thing that crops up from time to time is whether or not the case is truly a 'missing person' case. People must realize that locating a person differs from finding a missing person. Let's explore some of the differences from the perspective of a private investigator in Knoxville.

What is a Missing Person?

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, a missing person is defined as "someone whose whereabouts are unknown to a parent, caretaker, or others who have normal contact with the person." There are many circumstances under which someone can be considered a missing person. They may have left home voluntarily, been abducted, or unable to return safely for some reason - for example, if someone goes missing on a hiking trip after becoming lost or injured. In many instances, a missing person case needs to be handled by law enforcement. Still, some individuals may also choose to work with a private investigator in Knoxville to help find the individual.

Fact Check! As of October 28, 2022, there were 658 missing persons in the state of Tennessee. Eighty-eight of those are from Knox County.

Locating A Person

The critical difference between a missing person case and a private investigator in Knoxville simply locating a person is that the individual's whereabouts are not necessarily common knowledge for the person wanting to find them. For example, suppose you attempt to serve divorce papers or a subpoena but are unaware of their current address or place of employment. In that case, you may contact a private investigator in Knoxville to locate them. This person is not in potential danger; their whereabouts are unknown and you want to locate them.

How Police May Handle a Missing Person

When it comes to searching for a missing person, it is usually the responsibility of law enforcement. However, specific procedures must be followed, which may hinder the investigation. Here are a few things police can and cannot do in a missing person case.

  • Police cannot file a missing person report until an individual has been missing for a minimum of 24 hours. Even after the report is filed, the police may not begin actively searching for the individual.
  • Sometimes, an individual may not want to be found, making it more difficult for police to find them. For example, if the individual is a runaway or an individual who has chosen to leave home without informing others for their reasons. It may only sometimes be possible for police to locate these people and return them home if they are willing to return. All that the police can do is confirm their well-being.
  • Police can conduct a search of the area where a missing person was last seen, including interviewing friends, neighbors, and colleagues who may have information on their whereabouts.
  • Police also have the authority to search the missing person's cell phone records or credit and debit card use to help pinpoint their movements since they were last seen.
  • Police can also obtain CCTV footage to help indicate where the individual was headed or if they got into a vehicle or caught a bus.

What Can a Private Investigator Do?

While a missing person case is usually the domain of law enforcement, many people will hire a private investigator in Knoxville to assist. This is because they are not tied to the same protocols as police and can often have a little more freedom in locating a missing person. Law enforcement also has limited resources, so they may be unable to dedicate as much time to searching for a person as the family might like. A private investigator in Knoxville can step in and dedicate the time needed. Here are some things a private investigator can do to supplement a police investigation into a missing person case.

  • While police must wait for 24 hours to pass before filing a missing person report, a private investigator can start their search immediately.
  • Private investigators are not limited by budgets and procedures like the police are, so they have more freedom to search for all types of missing persons, including those who have voluntarily left and do not want to be found. There is no statute of limitations for them, so they may even be able to work on cases the police have considered cold.
  • While anyone can perform a quick internet search of public records, private investigators have access to other databases that the general public does not. They also have the experience and skill to filter through irrelevant or outdated information to get crucial data.
  • Police are restricted from searching within their jurisdiction unless they contact other police departments. However, a private investigator is not restricted in this way and can easily travel across county or state lines if the search requires it.
  • Many people are uncomfortable talking to police and may even hold back information out of fear of getting their friend in trouble. That's why sometimes a private investigator can uncover more details because people are more comfortable talking to someone who is not law enforcement.

Uncover the truth!


Ken Shull served as a Special Agent with the FBI for almost 25 years and was head of the FBI Polygraph program until his retirement in 2001. At that time he set up the Kendall Investigations practice as a private investigator in Knoxville, TN offering Polygraph services, private investigations, and security guards. Ken is a member of the American Polygraph Association and The American Association of Police Polygraphists.

The Truth is Still the Truth Even if No One Believes it, A Lie is Still a Lie Even if Everyone Believes it.