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This Valentine's Day, background your date using public records
Don't let love get in the way of investigating. The old saying in journalism goes something like "if your mother says she loves you, check it out,” and if that's true for your mother then it's certainly true for your Valentine's Day date. So let's begin our walk through of how to make use of publicly available information to background your date.
First, checking property records, criminal records and civil filings is going to be much faster if you have access to Nexis. But if you don’t, you can still navigate your way to the records you need, free of charge.
- BRB Publications has a directory of public records for all states, which you can search or use to get directly to the state agency you need.
- Portico, a web portal hosted by the University of Virginia, has a wealth of links to public information beyond the typical criminal and property records.
- Also be sure to check out Duff Wilson’s Reporter’s Desktop, a portal to all sorts of public information.
- IRE members, see Jaimi Dowdell’s tipsheet “The web as an investigative tool”
Start with the basics
It’s OK to start the first place you'd think of -- Google.
For the purposes of this guide, let’s say my wife wanted to do some overdue background research on me. She could find out quite a bit through some well targeted searches. She’ll want to make sure she searches all iterations of my name: Tony Schick, Anthony Schick, Tony V. Schick, Anthony V. Schick, etc. And if you’re doing this with a common name, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got the right person.
Being a journalist, there’s a lot of stuff from me online because I put it there, but these would work even if I weren’t.
A quick search will probably show a site like Spokeo in the results, where she can find the Portland house I lived in and an alarmingly accurate family tree. Pipl is also a good search. It’ll turn up past addresses, relatives, some public records, etc.
So from there, my wife would easily be able to tell I’ve lived in at least three locations: Portland, Ore., Spokane, Wash., and Columbia, Mo. And she knows I have two parents, two sisters and one brother. Locating his or her relatives can also be a good way to glean information about your date.
Here’s another tip: look online for a resume or curriculum vitae. These provide a lot of good fodder for further exploration. A good way to do this beyond the obvious is to search for a pdf (In Google, you can search for most any file-type. So even if your date doesn’t show up on many web pages, they may show up in some pdfs that are hidden deeper online.
It's pretty easy to find where someone went to school. A search for “anthony schick gonzaga” pulls up a few references I’ve made to attending Gonzaga University. But if my wife thinks I’m lying, the pdf trick might help. A search for “anthony schick filetype:pdf” returns this commencement program from the university website that does in fact have my name and year of graduation on it. (Sure, it could be a well-placed lie on my part, but it aligns with a Spokane address she knows to be mine via other searches. Keep thinking about connecting the dots and whether the story adds up.)
Criminal records and civil filings
Several years ago, my wife probably should have checked to find out if I was a registered sex offender. There is a national public registry and many states publish their registries online, which may be more inclusive than the national registry.
Again, a service like Nexis will make your life easier if you’re doing criminal background checks, as you can use one search across several jurisdictions. You can also access the records directly via local government. BRB offers cross-jurisdictional searches using PeopleSmart, which offers a full criminal report on me for $40.
Besides criminal records, check the civil filings. They will show if your date has had a divorce, child custody issues or any other civil suits. It's also a great indicator to see if they owe creditors. You can also find foreclosure information. Most states also have a list of parents who are behind on child support.
Traffic violations and driving records can also be obtained, though they aren’t as readily available online. But in some cases, it could be worth having. For example, take a look at what The Oregonian turned up last summer about mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith, using his driving record.
Plus, before my wife agrees to let me drive to Valentine’s Day dinner, she might want to check with the Missouri Department of Transportation and then ask me about the the speeding tickets I’ve gotten.
Check property records
When people say they own their house, check their property records. Make sure your man or woman is paying the bills and check for any tax liens. So my wife can breathe a sigh of relief when she confirms with our current county of residence that I don’t have any tax liens.
Find out if your date used to live in another state, and check out those records, too. Can you find a reason he or she moved?
Check the job
If your date says he or she is a doctor or massage therapist or anything that requires a license, then make sure they have a valid license. You’d be surprised how many are on that list (including taxidermist), and it’s growing. New York, for instance, has a list online of the 126 professions that require state licensure. You can also check to see if they have had any suspensions or penalties.
My wife believes I work for IRE. But if she wanted to verify that using public records, she’d have an easy time because I work for a nonprofit affiliated with a public university, so that’s public record. Remember that for many states, payroll data for public employees is already searchable online. If my wife wanted to find out more about IRE, she could always check out its 990. If you need to verify whether someone holds a job in the private sector, LinkedIn connections can be a good resource for that.
IRE Training Director Megan Luther, Database Library Director Liz Lucas and Resource Center Director Lauren Grandestaff contributed to this guide. Blame them, not Tony, if your Valentine’s Day goes badly.