Editor's Note: Part one of two.
Whether you?re working on an investigative project or a breaking news story, one of the most common tasks a reporter faces is doing a background check on a person. Researching public records -- property ownership, business ties, professional licenses -- is a central part of that.
Those public records databases are increasingly being put on the Internet by government agencies. Finding them is another matter. There is no master database for all the records -- you have to go to the Web site of a particular agency to see what?s available.
But there are numerous Web sites that track the different public records databases and help you more quickly find what's accessible online in a particular state or locality. This is a guide to how to do a background check on a person that takes you through the different kinds of public records databases, describing what's available and the best Web directories to assist you in locating the records. The services I list here are free -- not commercial research sites that charge a fee to do a search for you (which are fine if you have the money ? they can be a real time-saver).
It's wise to start by running a person?s name through some general Web search engines, especially someone with a common name, to see if you can find any identifying information on the person. Where a person lives or works, their age, or their affiliations with corporations or associations will help you decide which databases in which states, counties or cities to try.
If you can identify someone's profession, for example, then you know to go to the online database of a state agency that license professionals. If you identify where someone lives, then you'll know which county to check for online property records databases.
Identifying information also will help you sort out which records pertain to the person you're researching and which ones relate to someone who just has the same name. Keep in mind that even a seemingly uncommon name may belong to several people, and you have to be very careful to make sure a public record pertains to the person you're researching.
As a first step, I recommend just typing the person's name into the Google search engine, which has a special ranking system for Web pages that gets high marks from researchers for returning relevant results. There's even a new verb for this kind of search - "googling" someone to find whatever information you can on him or her.
You might also try the same search at AllTheWeb, which now claims to have a database of Web sites larger than Google?s. And because AllTheWeb uses a more traditional method of ranking pages, you may find different Web sites at the top of its list than Google?s, especially more obscure sites that may just have a key scrap of information on a person.
Again, look for identifying information that turns up in a search, such as age, address and affiliations.
I also recommend running the person through one of the big online phone directories, again so you can try to find a specific address for the person that might come in handy later in your research.
A good online phone directory is Switchboard. Just type a first and last name into the ?White Pages? section at the top to do a nationwide search. Another online white page directory is Bigfoot, which also lets you do a reverse directory search, typing in a phone number or address to see who it belongs to.
Now armed with a little more information on the person you?re researching, you can start to mine the more specific records databases.
Some county agencies put their property transaction databases online, usually a summary of property sales or mortgage loans that can be searched by the name of a person.
A good index to these databases is the Web site for NETR Real Estate Research and Information. NETR has a map of the United States you can click on to bring up a list of all the county agencies in a particular state that record property sales (usually recorder's offices). Agencies that have Web pages are noted, and if their property records are available online that is flagged with a ?Go to Data Online!? link.
Some counties just list the parties involved in a transaction, such as the buyer and seller of a piece of property or the lender and borrower in a mortgage loan, the date and maybe an identifying number such as an assessor's parcel number for the piece of property.
If you want to look up more specific information you?ll have to contact the county office directly. To get phone numbers and addresses for county recorder's offices all over the country, go to Peelle Management Corporation's National Recorders Directory.
County property ownership records also are frequently available online. But many don't allow a search by a person's name. Instead searches can only be done by street address to find the assessed value of a property (and not ownership information).
Privacy concerns are part of the reason for this, and, in the case of California, legislation that barred release of property ownership records for public officials. Many counties in California simply don't post any ownership records because of the time it would take to sort out which property owners are public officials.
A good index to these county property ownership databases again is NETR. Click on a state in the map of the United States to bring up a list of all the county agencies in that state that track property ownership (usually assessor's offices). Agencies that have Web pages are noted and online databases can be accessed through the ?Go to Data Online!? link.
Another index of county assessor?s office Web sites is at Portico?s Real Estate Online Assessors.
All kinds of professions require state licenses - doctors, nurses, accountants, psychologists, contractors, veterinarians, security guards, geologists and so on. Many of these licensee databases are online, sometimes including addresses and information on disciplinary or enforcement actions.
A good index for the state licensing agencies that have online databases is Pacific Information Resources? SearchSystems.net. Pick a state and then scroll down to the entries for ?Licenses? for the list of state licensing agencies and links to their online databases.
Another site that has an index of licensing agencies is CLEAR's Directory of Boards of Professional and Occupational Licensure. You also can browse this index by type of professional license.
Probably the best searchable directory of attorneys is the Martindale-Hubbell Lawyer Locator database, which is also used by the Web site for the American Bar Association. You can type in an attorney's name and search for a listing anywhere in the United States.
The FindLaw site also has a database of attorneys. At the main FindLaw page scroll down to the ?Business? section and click on ?Lawyer Directory? on the bottom right. At the new page in the tab above the main search box click on ?Search by Name.?
Information on doctors is available at the American Medical Association?s Physician Select Web site. Click on the ?Search for a Physician? button, accept the terms at the next page, click on the ?Physician Name? button at the following page and you'll get a search box. There you can type in a physician's name and the state he/she practices in to get an office address and information on his/her educational background.
For information from state medical boards try the Association of State Medical Board Executive Directors? DocFinder service. This has links to state licensing agencies that have online databases of physicians practicing in those states, sometimes including information on disciplinary actions.
Pilot Licenses and Aircraft Ownership
The Federal Aviation Administration keeps databases on licensed pilots and owners of aircraft. A searchable version of the FAA databases is available on the Web at Landings.com.
To check if someone has a pilot?s license, click on ?Databases? in the menu at the top. At the new page in the left menu under ?Certifications,? click on ?Pilots.?
To check if a person or corporation owns a plane or helicopter, at the Landings home page again click on ?Databases? in the menu at the top. At the new page in the left menu under ?Registrations? click on ?US.? At the next screen scroll down on the right and click on ?Owner Search.?
For ownership information on aircraft in other countries, at the Landings home page again click on ?Databases? in the top menu. At the new page in the left menu under ?Registrations? click on ?World.? Then scroll down on the right through the list of countries that have searchable databases available.
The Federal Judicial Center?s Judges of the United States Courts database has biographies of federal judges from district court on up to the U.S. Supreme Court, dating back to 1789. It?s searchable by name.
Many other professions have membership organizations that put searchable databases of their members on their Web sites. You often can use these sites to get contact and biographical information on a person (such as schools attended). For a list of the Web pages of professional associations try Yahoo!?s Professional Business Organizations directory.
In my next column I?ll cover the online databases you can check for information about businesses and non-profit organizations affiliated with a person, as well as political contributions they may have made. And we?ll look at other public records that aren?t readily available online ? such as court records ? but where the Web can help you locate where the records are kept or order them online.
Paul Grabowicz is director of the New Media Program at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he has taught computer-assisted reporting since 1995. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years, for much of that time as the investigative reporter at the Oakland Tribune. He has also co-authored "California Inc.," a book describing how entrepreneurism has shaped the politics, culture and economy of California.