The idea of finding a long-lost relative, especially one you know nothing about, is often portrayed and frequently glamorized in movies and pop culture. If there’s someone you’d like to find in real life, it’s not always easy. Sometimes, you can simply find a person by looking up their name online or on social media. 

At other times, they may have a common name that’s shared with a lot of other people around the world, or you might not even know their name. 

The following are some things to think about know when locating a family member who maybe you know nothing or only very little about. 

1. Why Are You Searching?

Over recent years, a lot more people have started searching for family members and long-lost relatives. People have become increasingly interested in finding relatives, often because of the availability of social media, which can make it seem easier. 

Years ago, Oprah Winfrey made headlines when she found out she had a half-sister. Her mother had given up her sister for adoption decades before, keeping it a secret. It popularized the concept of searching for relatives. 

People want to know where they came from. We tend to have a need to feel validated. 

You might be motivated to search for a relative for reasons like a death or birth in your family, wanting to know more about their lives, or because of genetic reasons. For example, often, as adults get older, they want and need to learn more about their medical background, which could lead them to search for birth parents if they weren’t raised by them, or other close relatives. 

Some people like to learn more about where they fit in, in the world. Of course, it’s important to make sure that you’re ready for things to be less heart-warming too. Some people don’t want to be found, or it can dredge up painful old memories, so you have to prepare yourself for what you may find, good or bad.  

2. Where to Start

If you have the name of someone, you can start out with online searches. When you search for someone’s name online, if you’re lucky, you could come up with something that leads you in the right direction, like a social media profile. You can also use genealogy sites to begin your search. 

If you have someone’s date of birth, this can also be helpful in the earliest phases of your search. You can potentially find birth records, military records, or other helpful details, including for relatives who have passed away. 

If you know the relative has passed away, but you’re piecing together more of your history, you can use the Social Security Death Master file. This file contains listings of people who were issued Social Security numbers and are no longer living. 

Other records are being integrated into this database, so a lot of records will have marriage, divorce, children, and spouse information. You can search by name or year, as well as Social Security number, although it’s probably unlikely you have this. 

3. Finding Current Information

A general online background search tool can be helpful. You can probably find some basic information that will start to point you in the right direction. Then, once you’ve gathered more information from public records, or perhaps feel like this has been a dead-end, you might use a site that conducts more extensive background checks, or you could use a genealogy site that charges a fee. 

4. DNA Tests

Some people choose to use a DNA test to find potential biological family members. If you have a family member who also took a DNA test with the same company as you, you’ll get a match. The number of matches you get with distant relatives is going to vary based on the company because each has its own database. For example, you could find a relative in one database but not another, depending on which they’ve used for testing. 

Every company also uses its own algorithms. 

The DNA shared between an individual and their distant relatives are measured in something called centiMorgans or cM. Current tests will cover around 700,000 markers, which are found across the genome. This is only a small fraction of our total genome variation, though. 

Some companies will use phasing, which is a technique to sort DNA onto maternal and paternal sides. 

When you submit your DNA for testing, companies do try to get it right. They want to report reasonable numbers of matches without adding in too many false matches. 

Matches with close relatives are going to be something that can be determined with a high level of confidence. With distant relatives, this is less likely to be so. 

5. Social Media

You might know someone’s name, but you’re still struggling to find out much about them on social media. People do get “lost” on social media, even when they have profiles. A person could try to keep their presence to a minimum on social media. They could also use a fake name or nickname. 

If you’re looking for someone with a common name, then you might get a lot of results that pop up. 

If you want to find someone who’s “hiding,” you can start with Facebook since it’s the biggest social networking site in the world. When you search, you can use filters, so if you know where someone lives, for example, you can filter the results based on this. 

You can also try searching by adding someone’s name at the end of a social media site. For example, you could type in to see what you can find. 

Another option is using someone’s phone number, if you have one, and doing a reverse search. A lot of people don’t share their phone numbers on Facebook, but you may still find them because they could have connected their numbers to the site for purposes of verification. 

These are just a few options that you might use to find a relative. You typically do need at least the most basic of information to find them or start your search, whether it’s a name, birthday, or city of residence.