Overview of Topic
Review Section
Discussion Group

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Web Search Guides

by Jeremy Stewart, Assistant Editor

I. Overview of Topic

If you're like most people, you've probably considered using the Internet to run a background check -- but didn't know how. The fact is, it's really not difficult if you know how, and it's free.

It's a skill worth learning. There are many situations in life where it's extremely helpful or reassuring to be able to quickly find out something about a neighbor's or associate's background.

Consider these scenarios:

* You're considering making an investment in a business and you want to know more about the current owner.

* You're considering dating someone you met on the Internet and want to know more about that person.

* Your son or daughter has a new girlfriend/boyfriend and you want to check the person out.

* New neighbors have moved in next door and they've been acting a little odd (or so you think). You have kids and would really like to find out more about these people.

* You're in college and thinking of taking on a roommate, but before you accept anybody into your apartment you want to check them out.

* A local used-car dealer has a good price on a car you want. But you'd like to check out the owner of the lot and see if he's been sued or has a criminal record before buying a car from him (i.e., run a quick background check).

The Internet now makes these kinds of background checks possible - for free - and it's perfectly legal as long as you adhere to a few simple guidelines, as described below.

In this Guide I'll discuss how you can access online public records pertaining to just about any adult U.S. citizen. As I said, it's easy, but you do need to know something about public records and where to access them.


Q & A

The easiest way to overview the subject of free online background checks is with questions and answers.

Q: Are online background checks legal?
A: The answer is yes, as long as you only access public records for your own use. That means records like real estate records, bankruptcies, tax liens, and criminal records. Three things you should be aware of, however: First, you can't legally do a background check on someone you're thinking of hiring without his/her written permission (a signed release); second, you can't use "pretexting" in your background check (for example, calling a bank and impersonating the account holder in order to find out how much money he/she has in the account - this is strictly illegal); third, you can't legally access someone's "non-public" information, particularly medical records and credit reports, without a signed release from the subject.

Also - please never hire someone else to do any of those things. You could be held responsible. There are plenty of private investigators and others with Web sites that will gladly use pretexting to determine someone's place of employment or financial assets, for example. You should avoid these people like the Black Plague.

(If your interest is primarily in employment- or credit-related background
checks, you should familiarize yourself with the Fair Credit Reporting Act.)

Q: Where do I get the information for the background check?
A: There are two ways to do it. You can do the work yourself for free, using government web sites that allow you to access public records (e.g., County real estate sites, etc), or you can hire a background-check company to do it for you. Needless to say, the latter method is easier and faster but you need to be confident that the company you hire is legitimate and will do a good job. I offer several recommendations in Part II of this report. I'll also recommend a free Web site that will make doing it yourself much easier, if that's the route you prefer to go.

Q: What can I find out about someone?
A: First the bad news: You can not "Find out anything about anybody," even though a few Internet snake oil salesmen may tell you otherwise. But with that said, there is quite a lot you can find out about someone through public records. For example you can --

- Verify name and address
- Determine past addresses
- Determine marital status (married/divorced/single)
- Find assets (most easily, real estate)
- Check for bankruptcies and tax liens
- Check for honorable military discharge
- Verify occupation or profession
- Check on political contributions/affiliations
- Find out if subject has been written about in the news
- "Listen in" to subject in online discussion groups
- Determine if subject has sued anybody or been sued
- Find out if subject is a sexual predator
- Check for criminal records (in most States)
- Determine if subject has served time in a Federal prison
- Find out if subject is a pilot and/or owns a plane
- And much more, as you'll learn as you get into the subject of public records more deeply .

Q: What about things like "How much is he worth?", "Is he a drug addict or alcoholic?", "What do people think of him?", "Does he have AIDS or other sexually-transmittable disease?", "Does he have children?"
A: Remember, you can't legally access somebody's credit report or medical records. And if you're thinking of hiring your subject, you have to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which among other things requires a signed release before doing a background check. You need to be clear on all that. But there's no law against guesstimating. For example, you can get a pretty good idea of someone's present financial worth by where he/she lives. Home values are public information. So is stock ownership when the stockholder owns more than 5% of a public company. You can not however, access his bank or brokerage account information without a signed release or court subpoena.

One good way to find out personal information legally is to check civil lawsuits. If he's been sued or has sued somebody, the lawsuit case file (which is public information) will often tell you a lot, especially if it's a divorce filing.

Another way is to hire a private investigator. But you need a legitimate P.I., and frankly a lot aren't legitimate. Some P.I.'s are macho former military types who are not overly concerned with niceties like the Fair Credit Reporting Act, State privacy laws, etc. These guys (and ladies) can get you in serious trouble. Some are down-on-their-luck former cops or refugees from other occupations who you really don't want to get involved with either. In Part II of this report I've listed two sources for finding a reliable P.I if you need one.

The basic investigative technique in the P.I. profession is simple: they follow people around. They term this "surveillance" and, frankly, it works. A good private investigator can indeed learn a lot about your subject you'd never find out from public records. Just be sure you know who you're dealing with - check the State licensing board and the BBB for starters to see if he/she is in good standing.



Background checks use public records, which are maintained at County courthouses and various State/Federal agencies. You can access most but not all of these records online. Some agencies haven't gotten their records online yet, but more and more are getting their records on the Internet as time goes by.

As a U.S. citizen, you have a right to free unrestricted access to U.S. public records.

Your use of such records is generally confidential. Except in rare cases like accessing driving records in some States, the subject isn't informed and there's no paper trail.

All you need to do public-records background checks is the Internet and a list of links to the various County/State/Federal public-records repositories. We suggest a Web site that provides the latter, below, in the Review Section.

If you're doing a background check for employment purposes or to evaluate someone's credit, you need a signed release from the person. For more information, read the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Don't get involved in "pretexting" -- e.g., calling the phone company and impersonating your subject in order to get your hands on his/her phone records, or calling any other type of business and doing this. Pretexting is strictly illegal. (Don't hire a private investigator to do it, either. That's also illegal.)

Remember, you're only entitled to access public records, not private records like medical or credit records, unless you have a signed release from the subject. However you can find a certain amount of "personal" information in some types of public records, like civil lawsuit case files.

You can do your background check yourself, for free, using public records Web sites, or you can pay someone to do it for you. The former is free and a bit time-consuming; the latter costs money (usually about $50 or so) and is faster.

That's it - our ten minutes are up! (OK, maybe twelve or thirteen if you're a slow reader.) Below is a listing of Web resources to help you continue your research on free background checks.

II. Review Section

This Section provides reviews and recommendations of Web sites and other online resources.


Intelius is one of the leaders in online background checking, with revenues from this and related investigative services approaching $100 million a year. You'll receive your background check almost immediately online at a modest cost. Recommended.


You may be familiar with US Search  from its TV ads. It's a major player in the background-check business. To use its service you need to set up an Account, which however is simple and quick. Its advantage is that you can order background check information piecemeal, for example, only a property records check, or only a check of marital status (however, note that only some States are covered in its marital status searches). Recommended.

Several Services Offered by Washington Research Associates Inc

Washington Research Associates, Inc. is the company that publishes the Web Search Guides. We have several online services we offer in the background-check field, and I'll just mention them without pitching them too hard:


What if you're only interested in determining if your subject has a criminal record? That is, you don't want a complete background check, just a criminal record search? Our "E-MaximumCriminalSearch will provide this. It's unique in that it searches every source of criminal records in the United States, not just, say, your subject's State-of-residence criminal records. It tries to do a thorough job by searching nationally at all levels - County, State, and Federal.


I mentioned above that employment-related background checks are a special case. They're closely regulated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act and State laws. If you need this type of background check, our E- EmploymentScreening service may be a good choice, especially if you're a small business (small businesses are our specialty). We will complete the pre-employment screening report on your subject within three business days and post it to a secure web page, emailing you the password. We don't care if you only need one report or if you need a hundred. You'll get the work done right, and you'll get our personal attention.

However, if your company is large - i.e., you screen thousands of applicants - you'll need a larger background-check screener. I can tell you that one of the best-known is HireRight .

Their reputation is very good and I recommend them for larger businesses.

Finding a Private Investigator

First Advantage is a well-known, major investigative firm. They have offices in major cities nationwide and can handle just about any investigative job you throw at them. If you prefer a smaller firm or are in an out-of-the-way location, try InvestigatorsAnywhere.com.

III. Discussion Group


Have questions or thoughts to share regarding this topic? Visit our Web Search Guides Discussion Group.

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