How and When to Report a Missing Person

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The worst has happened. Your heart is racing, and you feel sick to your stomach. Someone you care about hasn’t come home. Do you know when to report a missing person?

One Huge Myth About Missing Persons

Many people believe that you have to wait 24 hours to report a missing person. That’s not only untrue–it’s likely to end in tragedy.

Take the case of Erin Corwin, a 19-year-old woman who disappeared in 2014. Corwin–who was pregnant at the time–told her husband that she wanted to go check out the hiking trails in Joshua Tree National Park.

Her husband later told reporters that he thought he needed to wait a full 24 hours to call the police. Tragically, it turned out that Corwin had been murdered by Chris Lee, the couple’s neighbor and her secret lover.

The Biggest Mistakes People Make When a Loved One Disappears

While the Corwin case is extreme, the sad truth is that most of us have no idea how to react in the event that someone we care about disappears. For many people, their only frame of reference for this kind of tragedy is a TV show like CSI or Criminal Minds. Unfortunately, there’s a big gap between TV and reality.

If you think someone is missing, do not hesitate to call for help. For example, if a spouse or older child doesn’t arrive home at the usual time, it’s not nagging or paranoid to call them. If you can’t reach the person, call their work or school, as well as their friends and other family members until someone can confirm their whereabouts.

It won’t be fun, but you should also call local hospitals and jails with a description of the person just in case something has happened to them.

Once you’ve contacted everyone you can think of, the next step is to call the police. Be prepared to give them a description, a current photo, and details about their vehicle, the last place they were spotted, and anything else you might have learned while calling around.

Don’t underestimate the power of social media, blanketing your community with flyers, or reaching out to the local media. But do talk to the investigators handling your case before making the disappearance public to ensure that you don’t hamper their work.

The Best Advice from Veteran Investigators

People who have worked in law enforcement will tell you to trust your instincts. It’s far better to call and have it be a false alarm than to wait. That’s especially true for children. Most stores are trained in issuing a “Code Adam” for a missing kid and will lock down until you’re reunited.

You might be tempted to wait if an older child goes missing–after all, teenagers sometimes act out or fail to text you back. But you should still listen to your gut–if something feels wrong, then take action. The best time to report a missing person is the moment you realize that they’re gone.