Caveat Emptor! Hiring a searcher, P.I. or data company?

Depending on now far into your search you are, you may have been offered the help of a professional searcher. You may have seen ads for companies that do searches for a flat rate, or been approached by or run across people offering to do certain search tasks for you for a fee. I never utilized services like this in my search but have read plenty from people who have, so I wanted to pass along a few caveats:

USE CAREFUL JUDGEMENT. Ask a lot of questions.

FIND OUT ABOUT GUARANTEES. There are places that swear they will cheerfully continue searching if they give you the wrong match. On that premise, they could tell you they are searching forever and you get nada. Some of these places NEVER refund and just "keep searching" so they have kept their word to not give up. Ask what happens if you find while they are still looking.

NEGOTIATE. Some companies offer a search for a flat rate. I have heard fees like $1400 regardless of results or of the state you are in which is ridiculous since some states are easy and some states like PA are ridiculously hard. If you already have gotten a name or other critical info, you should be able to bargain a searcher down a bit since you are coming to them with a lot of info already. If a place has higher fees, they may back their work with a "no-find, no-fee" guarantee.

SEEK OTHER OPINIONS. If you wonder about a place or person, post it and let's see if anyone tried it or has a good or bad experience to report. I will gladly post it elsewhere and see if I get any response to your query.

BE WARY OF NET SEARCHING. Some is good, some not. Again seek opinions, check with the BBB in the home city. (This doesn't work though with one well-known ripoff company in Florida, however, as they are outside the jurisdictation of the nearest BBB.) Don't toss your money around- ask first if anyone knows where you can get it for free- it can happen.

CHECK FOR VOLUNTEERS ON THE LIST. As we grow the possibility of getting a list pal to do leg work for you will increase.

CHECK FOR VOLUNTEERS ON THE NET. There is an organization called Volunteer Search Network (VSN) that has volunteers in various places. These folks are only to charge for expenses if any costs are involved at all. They are at All of them get search basics instruction, but their abilities will vary and most do it in their free time so you may need to be patient. It is worth checking them out and seeing if there is someone in your search area.

PRICE SHOP. I recently helped a NJ woman named Sheryl who had some info and wanted a social security lookup done. She got quotes from people on the net that ranged from $10 to $35.

BE ALERT FOR SOLICITATIONS/REGISTRY MISUSE. You may or may not care since you can always use your "delete" button, but you should know that there are private investigators and the like who comb the net for searchers. They go to registries and copy down info and then solicit the posters to try to drum up business for themselves. It's no crime, but it is a little icky, and there are some (Hi Sean and Dan!) who will hit you repeatedly with no apparent marketing strategy - you have to wonder if searches are conducted the same haphazard way. One I heard of was so manipulative that they would take down your info (including birthdate) and then send you an e-mail with something like "News about your search for 2/26/62!" in the subject line, just trashing the hearts of a lot of people. I have even heard of searchers saying they had the info the person sought and then basically holding it for ransom. It stinks to realize that there are vultures who prey on the vulnerabilty of the adoption triad, but REALITY CHECK- this is the net. Many people make it a practice to never use the services of someone who actively solicits them- and to turn to those they seek out, with refernces from people they trust.

TIPS FROM A STRANGER VIA EMAIL OR IN A CHAT ROOM ARE NOT GOOD REFERRALS. People who sell services do this to drum up business, posing as a happy client. Only take tips you'll pay for from people you know and trust.

There are good and bad in every bunch and searchers are no different. I have heard some good reunion stories because they did their jobs well, as well as some heartbreakers. Take your time and consider their services when you have hit the brick wall or when it is clear you do not have the time to do it yourself. Go as far as you can on your own first, and take your time with this decision if you get to thinking about it.

A PI adds the following ideas: "It may be worth it to use a searcher, but get more information. Researchers/PIs/Genealogists can be valuable. However, BEFORE paying anyone check them out!

Is s/he currently a licensed PI?
In which state(s)?
What professional associations does she belong to, if any? Are they reputable?
What's their success rate with this type of service?
What specific information must you provide?
Does your contract specify exactly what information they will provide? (Always get it in writing. Take no verbal promises. You just never know.)
How long before they deliver the information?
If no find, when is you $ returned?
If paying online, be sure it's a secured e-commerce site."

LASTLY, remember PA is considered even by professionals to be one of the worst states to search in because many of the records readily available in other states are not open here. And PA does not have a "birth index". Now you know why there are so many searchers and PI's working California- they know what is available and how to successfully use it. Unless you have some pretty concrete info, the typical searcher in PA is not really likely to be able to help, so it would be really smart to get one who works with a no-find, no-fee agreement.

Pennsylvania Adoption Search and Education Links


PAFind EMAIL LIST - a FREE e-mail list of PA searchers helping one another.

STATE REGISTRIES AND POLITICS - Why neither are helping PA searchers much.

RELINQUISHMENT PAPERS - Like to see an example of PA relinquishment papers?

YOUR OLD AGENCY - Backtrack here for possible help in search.

COUNTY OF FINALIZATION - Some county specific info. You need to find this out and it may not be where you think.

THE DECREE - Adoptee is adopted in the county of finalization, records now sealed. Want to see a decree?

FORMAL PETITION - Learn how some counties make it a bit harder.

NON-ID - Learn what it is, and how to ask for it.


PA ADOPTION LAW - the easy version or the actual wording.

ADOPTION GROUPS - known in PA that handle search, support, legislation or all three.

SEARCH BASICS - In addition to this whole menu, here's a list of ways to search and try to be found.

PHONE CALL AND LETTER IDEAS - When you are close to making that respectful first contact.

SEARCH SUCKS! I NEED A *@$#! BREAK! - Take one, pal.

THE UNIFORM ADOPTION ACT or UAA - Learn more about "The Evil Act". Coming to PA or your state?

CITY PAPER - Coverage of adoption search, law and the UAA in PA.

PERSONAL ESSAY - on adoption with info for all sides of the triad.

REGISTRIES AND GENERAL (NON-PA) ADOPTION STUFF - links to varied good places.

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