Online public records: Top investigative challenges and what to do about them

Magnifying glass on laptop

In my experience as a librarian, business researcher, and private investigator, I’ve done a lot of online searching. I’ve reviewed, purchased, used, and taught others how to use all types of online databases. I’ve searched for all kinds of information. But the most challenging type of searching and the one topic that tests my fortitude and skills is public records. Let’s just say that finding online public records – deeds, incorporation filings, court records, and similar documents – requires a sense of humor and the patience to find a way around the obstacles.

Yes, there’s lots to like about online public records searching: More and more records can be found on the web, with 24/7 access. Not as many trips to the courthouse or calls to the county clerk’s office. It’s an online searcher’s dream.

Or perhaps our biggest nightmare. Every kind of research has it’s frustrations, but, with public records, the list is long. Here are just some of challenges:

  • Not everything is online – It takes money and other resources to post records online, and privacy issues have increased access limitations. Sometimes all you get is a summary or other information about available documents (file number, location, what data they contain, etc.), but no actual documents.
  • It’s time-consuming – You won’t answer your questions through a quick Google search or one handy database. Using public records for investigations requires tapping into multiple sources, lots of fact-checking, and piecing together bits of seemingly unrelated information.
  • It’s confusing – Rules about what’s public information and what’s online vary by jurisdiction. A lot of your time will be spent navigating the intricacies of the various federal, state, and local agencies (see #2 above).
  • Names can be a problem – Nicknames, legal names, maiden names, last name first? With so many variations, it’s easy to miss something important. Common names and lack of identifiers (date of birth, address, Social Security number) add to the confusion.
  • You’ll find lots of mistakes and missing data – Online records are only as good as the system for creating them. Human error, database glitches, and missing records create big problems for investigators.

So what can we do to take advantage of what online public records have to offer, while avoiding the pitfalls? Here are my top suggestions:

  • Take a strategic approach – Make a plan, but plan for the unexpected.
  • Know what’s missing – Use multiple sources to verify the data and fill any gaps, and learn their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Manage expectations – Make sure you and your client are clear on limitations, costs, and the necessary time frame. Consider a second phase of your investigation based on initial results.
  • Avoid a data dump – Evaluate your sources and results to spot any inconsistencies or potential for error. Dig deep for connections and leads to more information.
  • Learn what you can – Take advantage of help pages and vendor training to work more efficiently and avoid costly errors. Just because you’ve been doing this for a while doesn’t mean you don’t have something to learn.

I’ll talk more in future posts about tips for online public records searching and how to avoid common mishaps. Let me know if you have any to share!

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2 comments

  • Mary Ellen Bates /

    Great list of things to beware of, Marcy! I’ve always thought that public records research is the most difficult kind of secondary research there is, because of all the uncertainties you’ve listed. You don’t know when you’ve “finished” a search, and there’s always the possibility that a record will be missing…

    • Thanks, Mary Ellen! When an expert like you considers public records searching difficult, you know it’s difficult.

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