Home Advice & How-ToGuides Which State Has the Most Missing Persons? You Might Be Surprised
Home Advice & How-ToGuides Which State Has the Most Missing Persons? You Might Be Surprised

Which State Has the Most Missing Persons? You Might Be Surprised

by Fred Decker

Some of the most heartbreaking stories you’ll see on the news involve missing persons.  The child who disappears in the night; the young woman who heads home from the gym and never makes it; or maybe a much-loved grandparent, now far gone in dementia, who wanders away one day when a caregiver’s back is turned. 

These stories are universal, and they happen in every part of the country, but they are more common in some places than others.  Let’s take a look at which state has the most missing persons, and look at how it compares to other states where disappearances are common.  There’s a lot to unpack, and you may find some of the details surprising (and reassuring). 

Defining “Missing Persons”

There are rival definitions of “missing,” from the relatively brusque standard used by the Association of Chief Police Officers (“Anyone whose whereabouts are unknown …”) to the more variable standards applied by researchers and local government agencies.  For most of us, it’s a pretty straightforward decision: If someone who would normally be here suddenly isn’t, they’re missing. 

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The reasons can vary pretty widely.  Kids get lost, or run away or are abducted by estranged parents or other relatives.  Adults sometimes fall victim to violence, but often they may also feel so overwhelmed that they simply walk away from their existing lives.  Both adults and children may also fall to misfortune, eventually turning up as unidentified remains long after the initial attention to their disappearance has dissipated. 

With that being said, disappearances are more common in some places than others.  Let’s take a look at that. 

Which State Has the Most Missing Persons? 

In any given year, roughly 600,000 Americans are reported missing.  Unsurprisingly, the states reporting the highest numbers of missing persons are heavily populated: California, Florida, Texas, Arizona and Washington make up the top 5 if you count the absolute number of missing persons. 

That’s not necessarily the best way to count missing persons.  It’s a bit of a no-brainer that states with more people have more missing people.  It’s more constructive to look at how many people go missing per capita, and by that standard an entirely different picture emerges.  The top 10 states for missing persons on a per capita basis are: 

  1. Alaska.
  2. Arizona.
  3. Oregon.
  4. Vermont.
  5. Washington.
  6. Maine.
  7. Wyoming.
  8. Hawaii.
  9. West Virginia.
  10. New Mexico.

Alaska is the winner — if that’s the correct word — by a lot.  It checks in at 41.74 missing persons per 100,000 of population, more than triple the 12.40 of second-place Arizona and over six times as many as 10th-place New Mexico. 

Why Does Alaska Have So Many Missing Persons? 

Alaska’s status as such a remarkable outlier has caused a lot of speculation.  Some even draw a comparison to the legendary/mythical Bermuda Triangle, speaking of an “Alaska Triangle” where disappearances are strangely frequent. 

The reality is probably rather more prosaic.  The “triangle” extends from Juneau and Anchorage in the south to Utqiagvik in the north (depending on your age, you may remember it as Barrow).  It’s some of the wildest territory to be found on the continent, filled with craggy mountains, glacial crevasses, rampaging rivers, extreme weather and dangerous wildlife.  It’s the kind of place where accidents, overconfidence or even one drink too many at the wrong time can kill you as certainly as a bullet.  The remoteness of the surroundings means that if you are lost or injured, the likelihood of being found in time for it to matter is minimal. 

Some disappearances may simply be due to undiscovered suicides.  The state’s remoteness and harsh climate, especially the long, dark winters, contribute to it having one of the country’s highest suicide rates, as well.  In short, there’s not necessarily anything supernatural or unaccountable going on.

That being said, there is one factor which — while it affects the entire country — may play a larger role in Alaska. 

The Role of Race

Those who research missing people and disappearances often turn to demographic analysis to look for insights into who goes missing, and race is a recurring factor.  It’s another example of why absolute numbers are sometimes less meaningful than per capita numbers. 

In absolute terms, Caucasians are the most likely to go missing, accounting for about half of the total each year.  According to census data, African Americans represent about 13.4% of the U.S. population — compared to “white” at 75.8% — but account for a disproportionately high percentage of missing persons cases.  Other non-white ethnicities are similarly over-represented, including Native Americans. 

That’s especially notable in Alaska, which has the highest per capita indigenous population in the United States.  In early 2022, Alaska’s Public Safety Commissioner (and longtime state trooper) James Cockrell penned an op-ed for the Anchorage Daily News, acknowledging the high percentage of Alaskan natives who meet with violence or go missing — at the time he wrote, over 300 were officially “missing” in the state — and pledged to do better. 

More Information About Missing Persons

Some of Alaska’s characteristics are shared, in varying degrees, by the rest of the top 10 states for missing persons.  Most of them have large areas of wilderness (relative to their size).  Many have large non-white populations as well, and may also experience extreme weather (cold winters in Wyoming, for example, and intensely arid heat in Arizona and New Mexico). 

The statistics on missing people can be parsed in a number of ways. According to NamUS — the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — there were over 22,000 active, unresolved missing-persons cases in the U.S. as of November 2022.  That’s actually good news, given that the nearly 600,000 new cases reported every year.  The vast majority of cases are being resolved.  Unfortunately, while new cases come and go, unresolved cases accumulate: 40% of all cases have been unresolved for longer than 20 years, and another 21% have been unresolved for 10 to 20 years.  

Drilling down further, 62% of missing persons are male, and 38% female.  By age, 16% are children under the age of 18, and another 7% are 18 to 20 years of age.  Young adults ages 20 to 30 account for another 24%, bringing those under age 30 to just under half of the total.  Figures from Statista show that for those under-21 girls are more likely to go missing than boys, but over the age of 21, men are more likely to go missing than women. 

A Quick Look at Unidentified Persons

The flip side to missing persons is unidentified persons; remains that are discovered but aren’t successfully connected to a specific missing person.  NamUs figures show well over 14,000 unresolved cases nationally as of November 2022, over half of which date back more than 20 years (and another 20% go back 10 years or more). 

There have been some successes in clearing these older cases.  One initiative fingerprints unidentified persons, for example, and then taps the FBI for assistance in matching them.  That program had notched its 300th identification by April 2021, a period of just over 4 years.  DNA matching may take on greater importance in this work over the coming years, now that the cost of analysis has come down dramatically, and may be especially useful in clearing older cases where the remains have badly deteriorated. 

Why People Go Missing (It’s Not Always Nefarious)

It’s entirely understandable if you’ve begun to feel a bit paranoid by now, but it’s not as bad as it may sound at first blush.  NamUs estimates that violence is only a factor in about 10% of all missing persons cases, which might be rather lower than you’d expected.  It’s more common with female victims than with males. 

So if violence isn’t a large factor, why do people go missing?  Well, there can be a lot of reasons, including (but by no means limited to): 

  • Violence or sexual abuse in the home.
  • Depression and mental illness.
  • Dementia or other cognitive disorders.
  • Death through some accident or misadventure.
  • Secretive suicides.
  • Slipping away to start a new life, perhaps under an assumed name.
  • Substance abuse.

To be sure, violence can be involved as well.  Many of those longtime missing persons and unidentified persons cases ultimately turn out to be homicides, abductions, and human trafficking also figure into the picture.  Overall, though, they’re relatively rare. 

What Can You Do? 

There are several things you may be feeling if you’ve read this far.  If someone you know has gone missing, you may be wondering what you might (conceivably) do to help find them.  You might decide, quite rightly, that even a 10% chance of violence is too high and resolve not to put yourself at risk.  You may even wonder about that one relative that everyone’s lost touch with, and whether they’re really and truly missing. 

Staying safe, personally

If you’re concerned about your own safety, we’ve published numerous articles explaining how to use Spokeo to identify a catfish, know when someone’s using a bogus photo to attract your attention or hooking you into a romance scam.  Most scammers just want your money, but they may become dangerous if you unmask them.  Similarly, dating and hookup apps (or sites) can be dangerous because you’ll eventually want to meet up with these people.  Verifying their identity using Spokeo’s name search or reverse phone lookup is just plain common sense. 

Similarly, if you’re buying or selling on sites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, do your diligence by searching the name, phone number or email address you have for the other person, and by meeting only in safe, public, well-lighted spaces (some police departments and municipalities offer safe places to conduct this kind of transaction). 

Finding someone who’s missing

If you know of someone who has gone missing, the first and most responsible path is to make a report with law enforcement. If you think they may have done so voluntarily for any reason, you may want to put on your “web sleuth” hat and try to track them down.  There are lots of good resources out there that you can use, aside from Spokeo.  Don’t neglect Google’s Reverse Image Search, which can sometimes find matches for photos of a specific person.  If you suspect someone may be out there living under an assumed name, that will sometimes help you find them. 

NamUs also provides the option to search its database of missing or unidentified persons, to see if you can find someone who corresponds to your own missing person. 

Finding “unclaimed” persons

Aside from missing and unidentified persons, NamUs tracks a third category: “unclaimed” persons.  Those are people whose identity is known, but whose next of kin can’t be found or haven’t come forward.  This is sometimes where those long-lost family members turn up. 

If you’re concerned about finding someone who may have dropped off the radar permanently, Spokeo is — again — a good starting point.  You may find someone you believe to be the correct person, though the address may be outdated.  Another resource is NamUs itself.  There are currently over 15,000 unclaimed persons known to NamUs, and you can search those as well using NamUs’ own database. 

You’re Not Especially at Risk, but … Be Safe Out There

The bottom line, then, is that most of us aren’t especially at risk of going missing involuntarily. With violence involved in only 10% of the 600,000 or so disappearances each year, that’s just 60,000 from a total U.S. population of over 330 million. 

That’s cold comfort, of course, if you happen to be one of those relatively few victims.  Judicious use of Spokeo’s tools, and your own common sense, can help keep you out of that number.  Also, if you know of specific reasons you might be at risk, there are usually places to turn for help.  If you’re in an abusive relationship, for example, the Domestic Violence Hotline and Women’s Law websites can be tremendously useful.  There are also resources available if the threat comes from within your own head, whether it be from mental illness or substance abuse issues. 

There’s little need for most people to obsess over things like this, but part of Spokeo’s mandate is to provide you with the tools and knowledge you need to live confidently and safely in the modern world.  Whatever the situation, and wherever your state ranks for missing persons, we want you to be — and feel — safe out there.