Many writers craft bad guys, or gals, in stories. In a romantic suspense story, it’s the villain. In a mainstream, maybe there’s a loathsome character that adds sinister story twists. Even in a sweet romance, there might be a vile person who darkens a few plot points.
What if your sleuth-character must track this villain but there’s only one clue, such as the color of hair? Besides being a writer, I’m also a private investigator who once solved a case on such a scant clue.
Or what if the sole clue is a license plate number, and you’d love for your sleuth to not use the clichéd “I have an inside source” at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)? Although I can legally request records from the DMV, I’ve researched license plates through free, public means that I’ll share in this article, too.
First, let’s look at how my PI partner and I uncovered the identity of a “mysterious blonde.”
Tip #1: Loose Lips Sink Ships…and Tattle on Neighbors, Too
It started with a phone call by a distraught granddaughter whose elderly grandfather had recently died. Known for his frugal ways, he’d surprised her months earlier when he shared his savings account statement that showed a quarter of a million dollars. More recently, he hinted about a much younger, blonde girlfriend, but didn’t give her name. After his death, the family checked his savings account and were stunned to find a zero balance.
As he had made no major purchases or paid any extraordinary expenses, the family was concerned about possible foul play. They hired my PI partner and I to discover the identity of this mysterious blonde.
After searching his home, and finding no photos, letters, even a jotted-down phone number, we decided to interview his neighbors.
After six neighbors said they had never seen a blond woman at his residence, we wondered if the girlfriend story was real. But we struck gold with the seventh neighbor, a middle-aged man who had seen a tall, thirty-something blonde visit him several times a week. Said she drove a vintage sports car that she parked on the far side of his house, out of view from most of the neighborhood. He didn’t recall the license plate number.
We knocked on a few more doors, eventually finding another neighbor, an older woman, who said the blonde showed up the day after he died, entered his home with a key, and exited with several boxes of items. We reported these sightings to the family, who immediately changed all the locks on the house and garage.
The elderly man hadn’t owned a car in years, and no one had seen the two of them drive off in her vintage car. Nor had they ever been seen together during daylight hours, which made us wonder if they maybe walked to one of the nearby bars or neighborhood restaurants in the evenings.
We walked to every bar and restaurant in the vicinity, showing bartenders, managers and waiters a photo of the elderly man, asking if they had ever seen him and a younger blond woman. Finally, a bartender said he clearly remembered the two of them, and that they had drinks and dinner there at least once a week. He knew her first name, which was unique, and that she once mentioned having driven up from Castle Rock, a nearby city.
Lucky for us she had an unusual first name because searching for a “Mary” or “Jane” would have resulted in dozens of prospects. After running her first name, age range and Castle Rock in a database, we learned she had a criminal record for – guess what? – embezzlement. We forwarded this information to the man’s family, with the suggestion they contact a probate attorney immediately.
Tips 2 through 5 apply to license plate numbers, from readability to ways your character might discover the driver’s ID and more without resorting to the “inside friend at the DMV” stock phrase.
Tip #2: Can Your Character Really Read that License Plate?
I recently read a story where the sleuth miraculously read a license plate on a dark street as the car zipped past him, while he was tumbling to the ground. Hmm. Although most autos have lighted rear license plates, that might not be helpful to someone who’s off-balance and falling. Also, what if the car was coming toward him as he fell? Nineteen U.S. states do not require a plate on the front of the car, which you can check here: How Many States Require Front License Plates.
Tip #3: Ditch the Mysterious Friend Inside the DMV
I’ve read many stories where the sleuth has a mysterious friend inside the DMV who secretly forwards license plate registrations and other drivers’ documents. Not only is that ploy cliché, it shreds believability. In the real world, if a DMV employee is caught illegally forwarding/selling people’s personal driving information, that employee could lose his/her job and be slapped with some serious criminal charges.
Instead, your sleuth can creatively check a license plate number via tip #4 or #5.
Tip #4 Conduct a Reverse Number Search
A reverse search is taking a piece of information, such as a license plate number, entering it into a search engine, and seeing what associated information pops up. Google--being the largest, most comprehensive search engine in the world--is fantastic for such reverse searches. Just type the number in the Google browser, press Return, and Google lists the websites, blogs and other online entities where that license plate number appears. Check each for what information, such as a name, is associated to that plate number.
Once my PI partner and I solved a case by running a reverse license plate number check on Google. Turned out the numbers and letters were an amateur radio holder’s call sign, which we further researched and learned the person’s name, address, job, and more.
#5 Run a Reverse Image Search
Maybe your character has a photo of the vehicle that shows only part of the license plate. The sleuth can plug the photo into a reverse image search to see where else that photo might appear on the Internet—maybe it shows up in a personal blog, social medium or even a Craigslist ad that gives the seller’s name and email address!
Google offers a comprehensive image search (go to Google.com, select “Images” in the top right corner, click the camera icon and follow the instructions). Another free reverse image search is TinEye.
Hopefully some of these tips will help your characters track those villains!
All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins) requires specific, written authority. Please do not copy/distribute any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. Images noted as in the public domain are copyright-free and yours to steal.