Finding people — specific individuals — is one of the essential skills of the journalist. In the past, it was a matter of asking around, or spending a long time searching the electoral register at the town hall. In this area, too, the Internet has something to offer.

The electoral register

The British electoral register is available online, but not from the Government, which decided against doing it. Instead you need to go to a commercial site, 192.com, which has the registers going back to 2002. To get the detail you need to buy "credits". The current price is 34.95 for 100. But at least when you pay you get the full service and not the cut-down version. You can search without specifying a town, for instance. The site also sells CD-ROM versions of the electoral register and business directories.

Telephone and email directories

Telephone directories are widely available on the web for most countries: try teldir.com. Many countries (not our own) also allow reverse searching so that you can find the address if you have a number. The teldir.com site also has a comprehensive selection of "people finders", mainly for the US. You can search for people by name, or by address, and find the names and telephone numbers of their neighbours. For a fee, you can find out whether any of them have criminal records. The sites will also provide you with a map and directions to their door. Try Yahoo People Search to see how it's done in America.

But while it is relatively easy to find where people live, it is often impossible to track down their email addresses. There are simply too many addresses and too many people changing addresses all the time. The arrival of the web-based email systems like hotmail has made the situation worse. There are plenty of email directories on the web, but none has more than a fraction of the potential addresses. In most cases, they are full of dead addresses, since there is no mechanism for weeding out those that are no longer used.

If you need to search for a person's email address, it helps if he or she has been active on the Internet. Search in Google and in Google Groups. Or you might try the Internet Address Finder. A huge American site called Law Research has a vast list of email directories for you to try. Sadly, you will be lucky to get very much from any of them. Happy hunting.

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