The most productive and most laborious investigative technique is canvassing. Basically, the process involves going door to door seeking information and opinions. In bygone days, there was no other way to cover territory in search of clues. Now, it’s possible to identify businesses and homeowners in specific neighbourhoods using online databases and then to conduct a canvass by telephone. You’ll often get more detailed information, however, if you speak to people face to face.
PreparationSome professional investigators believe a methodical approach to canvassing is best. They recommend beginning in the neighbourhood where your subject was most recently located, or resided, and then checking the vicinity of each prior address in reverse order. Others suggest you can operate more efficiently by estimating which contacts are likely to yield good results immediately.
Consider your personal safety before venturing into unfamiliar areas. Google Earth’s aerial and satellite imagery lets you preview the terrain. France’s Pages Blanches and Pages Jaunes cover far less of the planet but in much greater visual detail.
Local police are usually willing to provide a little intelligence about specific businesses and communities. They can suggest when it might be wise to enlist someone to accompany you. The police might even be able to alert you to a residence guarded by a stealthy bull terrier.
Carry with you a mobile phone, map, notebook, and pen. If you don’t already have business cards, or don’t want to use the ones you have, purchase a few cards printed with your name and contact information. You’ll need to leave something behind, if you want people to notify you of any relevant information they discover after you talk to them.
The more businesslike you appear to people, the more likely they are to speak freely. Conversely, the more relaxed and informal you are when speaking, the more quickly you’ll be able to develop a rapport. So, dress like a member of the church choir and introduce yourself as though you were meeting a new co-worker.
ApproachApproach each person by giving your name, offering your business card, and briefly explaining your objective. The people you contact will vary widely in their communication styles. If they express discomfort or apprehension, you should acknowledge their perspective. Sometimes it helps to ask if there is anyone else present who might be able to answer your questions.
Above all, encourage the person to provide details by asking questions requiring more than a yes or no answer. You can be persistent without being intimidating. Simply express your sincere desire to locate the information you’re seeking, and ask if the person hasn’t done the same at some time in the past. Occasionally, you’ll need to show your willingness to listen to another person’s story before that person is inclined to do the same for you.
Excellent controversy has been generated by the use of pretexts to extract private information that companies or individuals might naturally be reluctant or unwilling to divulge. Pretexts are considered by many people to be unethical, if not precisely illegal. In truth, ingenuity, humility, and courtesy are the most effective tactics at an investigator’s disposal, and they can be employed with little risk of undesirable consequences. The Golden Rule applies. Approach each contact with the same respect you hope to be shown.
People are busy, so expect to be brief. If there is no response at someone’s door, you can leave your business card with a brief note, but few people will respond. The same is true of leaving a recorded message, if you’re canvassing by telephone. If the person who receives the message doesn’t know you, you’re unlikely to receive a call in return. Persistently phoning and knocking on doors is what gets results.
DocumentationKeep a log or record of each contact, including the address, telephone number, and name of the person to whom you speak. You may need to re-contact certain individuals later to clarify discrepancies, obtain new details, or elicit testimony.
Don’t be surprised if it takes much more effort than expected to develop information by canvassing. The results are usually worth it.