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5 Things to Know About Missing Persons Reports

By Holly South | Last updated on

Missing persons reports appear routinely on crime and legal shows, but these reports involve much more dramatic situations in real life. By the time a missing persons report is filed, tensions are often running high, meaning important details might be missed.

It doesn't help that TV and movies don't tell the whole story about how to file missing persons reports. They often leave out important information and say things that just aren't true.

Knowing the facts can be critical before a crisis occurs. If it ever happens to you and you need to fill out a missing persons report, here are some important facts you need to know:

  1. There is no waiting period. In many shows and movies, people have only 24 or 48 hours to report missing people, but that waiting period doesn't exist in real police offices. As soon as you know an adult or child is missing, report it to your local police.
  2. Anyone can be a missing person. It's not just limited to children. Adults can be reported as missing, too. If you suspect that a loved one can't be located and may need medical, legal, or other help, it's time to file a missing persons report.
  3. Bring the right information. Police need as complete a description as possible to locate a missing person. When you report a missing person, bring one or more clear photographs, preferably from the shoulders up. Also have a clear physical description of height, weight, age, and any identifying marks such as tattoos or birthmarks. Know what they were wearing when last seen and who they were with. Also, be sure to give police your contact information and that of anyone else who may be close to the missing person.
  4. Give all the details. Police may do an expedited search, depending on the factors involved. A critical missing person is anyone under 15 years of age or over 60 years of age. People who are mentally or physically impaired or in need of medical attention are in more danger the longer they are missing. Those who were likely the victim of a crime or other foul play may also draw particular attention from police. Once law enforcement has all the facts about a potential disappearance, they will be better equipped to respond appropriately.
  5. Know what to expect after they're found. Hopefully, the missing person will be found quickly and before any harm happens. If they turn up on their own, make sure to inform police to call off the search. If police find a missing adult whose actions were voluntary, they might not disclose where the person is unless the person gives permission. Filing a missing person report for an adult doesn't entitle you to know where they are, only that they are safe.

Common Reasons for Someone to Go Missing

There are many reasons why people go missing, and more of them are found alive than are not found at all. However, there are several common classifications of missing persons.

  1. Lost persons, including people who simply become disoriented. An example is someone who took a wrong turn on a hiking trail and can't find their way back to the car.
  2. Missing persons who are voluntarily missing. These include people who purposely exited their lives and don't want to be found by friends or family members. Americans do have the right to go missing, and police cannot let loved ones know where you are without your consent — only that you are safe.
  3. Missing persons who are under the influence of a third party. Typically, these are people who have missing against their will, such as an abduction.
  4. Missing persons due to accident, injury, or illness. These can include people who are abandoned following a hit-and-run, or if someone with dementia has wandered away from their home.

How Missing Persons are Tracked

Every state has its own procedures for missing persons cases. These procedures can also differ among law enforcement agencies. Typically, police and investigators can use license plate scanners, online databases, social media, and interviews to gather information on where a potential missing person might be.

Police departments employ different types of technology to find the last known whereabouts of missing persons. They can obtain search warrants to go through a missing person's cell phone records and social media accounts to see when the person was last active online, or if they had been planning to leave voluntarily.

Also, a system known as Technology to Recover Abducted Kids (TRAK) can be used by law enforcement to create and distribute flyers with any type of image as well as relevant information to other jurisdictions, the media, and community groups. Nearly 500 police departments in 23 states use TRAK for a variety of purposes, including missing persons cases, runaways, and finding people with mental illnesses or disabilities.

Depending on the severity of the case, local law enforcement agencies may contact the FBI to aid in the investigation, especially if foul play is suspected, if the missing person is a child, or if they have a mental illness or disability.

If a loved one has gone missing, you can use the resources available through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Not all states require police to enter missing persons into the system, but many do. All police are federally required to enter a victim's information into the National Crime Information Center. If the person you suspect to be missing is returned to you, let police know that they are no longer missing so resources can be directed to those that may need them.

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