In my last column, I described how to do a background check on a person using online databases of property records and professional licenses.
Now we?ll look at researching the businesses and organizations with which a person might be affiliated, as well as checking on political contributions they may have made. And we?ll go through other public records that aren?t as readily available online, but you can order them over the Internet or at least find where they?re physically located.
Most states have electronic databases of incorporated businesses and partnerships that file with a Secretary of State's Office or a Department of Corporations. The filings usually include addresses and the names of key executives.
While the databases often are searchable only by the name of a business, some let you type in the name of a person to see if he/she is an officer, director, agent or partner in some business.
A good place to find the state business databases that are online is Pacific Information Resources? SearchSystems.net Web site. Click on a state and then scroll down to the listing for ?Corporations,? which will link you to the online database for that state.
Another index to the Secretaries of State offices with corporation/partnership databases is the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Some businesses such as sole proprietorships or small partnerships file ?fictitious business name? statements, usually at a county level. These often can be searched by either the name of a business or the name of an owner/partner.
A smattering of online databases of fictitious businesses, especially in California, are available online, and SearchSystems.net is again your best bet for tracking these down. In the ?Public Record Locator? search box type the words ?fictitious business? (without the quotation marks) and to the right select ?Match exact phrase.? You?ll get a list of the states and counties that have their databases on the Web.
For publicly traded companies (those that sell their stock on a public stock exchange), you can search by corporation name at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission?s EDGAR Database.
There are many other databases of corporations put online by private organizations and publications that compile information on businesses. Among the most popular are the Better Business Bureau?s Check out a Company, Hoover's Search by Company Name and the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers (you?ll have to register to use the Thomas site, but it?s free). At each you?ll get an address and phone number for the company and the type of business it conducts.
For an extensive list of the various Web sites and services for finding background information on businesses, try CorporateInformation.com?s links for privately held companies and for publicly traded companies.
Uniform Commercial Code Filings
Uniform Commercial Code filings are records of loans extended to businesses or people, usually with equipment of some type pledged as collateral. States keep databases listing these UCC creditors and borrowers, and some of those databases are online. To see what?s available go to SearchSystems.net. In the ?Public Record Locator? search box type ?uniform commercial code? (without the quotation marks) and to the right select ?Match exact phrase.? You?ll get a list of states and some counties that have online UCC databases.
If the person you?re researching is affiliated with a non-profit organization, you usually can find detailed information online on that non-profit, including its annual filing with the IRS. The best site for locating these filings is GuideStar.
GuideStar lets you search by the name of a non-profit organization to get a general description of it, a link to the group's Web site if available, and financial data on the organization such as the detailed Form 990 report that non-profits file with the IRS. For the Form 990 information, after doing a search and calling up the page with the general information on a particular non-profit, look on the left under ?Contents? and click on the link for ?Form 990.? At the new page you can download a copy of the 990 form in Adobe?s pdf format.
Many state agencies also keep records on non-profit charitable organizations, and some have put their databases online. In California, for example, that agency is the Registry of Charitable Trusts. For a list of some of the other states that have online databases of charitable groups go to Portico?s State Non-Profit Databases.
Another important step in researching a person is to check for campaign contributions the person has made. Besides getting a list of elected officials the person supports, the campaign contribution filings also list an address for every person making a donation and often a business affiliation.
For contributions to federal campaigns, probably the best site is FECInfo. At that page on the left click on ?Donor Name Lookup.? At the new page type the name of the person you're researching into the search box and below that select the years (?election cycle?) you want to search. If you get a listing showing the person made a donation, click on the ?View Image? link at the end of the listing to see a copy of the actual contribution report that includes the donor's address.
To check for databases of donors to state elections, try Investigative Reporters and Editors? Campaign Finance Information Center. There you?ll see a list of the state agencies that compile campaign contribution reports and links to their Web sites.
Web Site Registration
Sometimes you?ll come across a Web site for a person or for an organization with which that person is affiliated. You can get more information on who is behind that Web site by doing a search at one of the Internet?s ?whois? sites, such as Allwhois.
Just type the address or URL for the Web site into the search box to get the registered owner of that site, their mailing address, and contact information for the administrator of the site (note: this search is only good for people or organizations that have registered their own Web domain addresses, not for people who use Internet service providers to host their pages, such as Yahoo!?s GeoCities, EarthLink, etc.).
Now for the not so good news ? public records databases that are not readily available on the Internet.
Court records, especially criminal court documents, are only very slowly going online. Generally only federal and state Supreme Court and appeals court decisions are accessible on the Web. Some federal district courts, federal bankruptcy courts and state superior courts have put their dockets of cases on their Web sites, but those usually are only for pending cases, and the actual documents filed in court are not online. On the other hand, a high profile case sometimes will prompt a court to put some of the major filings in the case online.
A good site for tracking down the Web sites of courts at all levels is FindLaw. The FindLaw site has listings for the Web pages of federal, state and local courts across the country, as well as a multitude of other legal resources.
For federal courts, at the main FindLaw page on the right under the heading for ?US Federal Resources? click on ?Judicial.?
For state and local courts, at the main page click on the right on ?US State Resources.? At the new page select a state, and at the next screen look for a link to courts.
One Web site does put actual court filings online - for federal class action lawsuits involving allegations of securities law violations by corporations. That's the
Stanford Law School Securities Class Action Clearinghouse. At the site there's an alphabetical index by company name to see if a firm has been involved in a securities lawsuit.
Only a relative handful of states and counties have free online databases for searching marriage, divorce, birth or death records. The information provided also is often very sketchy, with a fee required to get the full document (some sites have an online order form).
One index to what is available on both the state and county level is Virtual Gumshoe. Scroll down on the left and click on ?Vital Records.? At the new page click on the right on ?United States.?
If the vital records database you need is not online, go to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics? Where to Write for Vital Records Web site. There you?ll find instructions on how to order such records along with the addresses, phone numbers and fees charged for the state agencies that have the records.
Voter Registration Records
Only a few counties scattered around the country have their voter registration databases online (in large part because of privacy concerns).
One site that has a list of the available databases is Virtual Gumshoe. Scroll down on the left and click on ?Voters Records.?
Motor Vehicle Records
I don't know of any state motor vehicle departments that have free searchable online databases for obtaining license and registration information. Most DMV?s charge a fee for such information and require a request in writing.
For a list of state DMV Web sites and contact information try The Auto Exchange or Virtual Gumshoe (at the Virtual Gumshoe site scroll down on the left and click on ?Motor Vehicle Records?).
I'm also unaware of any free online databases for searching for military service records. But there are a lot of Web sites that assist military personnel and veterans that you can use to try to track down information on someone?s military service.
One of the most extensive lists of those sites is again at Virtual Gumshoe. Scroll down on the left and click on ?Military.?
You can order military service records in writing from the federal government. For help on doing that go to the National Personnel Records Center?s Access to Military Records by the General Public Web site.
None of the indexes I?ve listed here can possibly keep up with the constant flow of public records databases online.
So if you don?t find a particular public agency listed in any of the above resources, try doing a Google search by the name of the agency to locate its Web site. Then prowl around the site -- you may find the agency has just put online exactly the records database you?re looking for.
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.