Online public records – What’s missing?

missing pieces in a puzzle

As a professional investigator, online public records are some of my go-to sources for information about people and businesses. But searching the public record through online databases has its challenges, especially when it comes to missing information.

Online public records don’t contain everything, so, depending on your level of investigation – and your level of risk – you may need to dig deeper. Maybe through a phone call or a trip to county assessor’s office .

Sometimes, though, it’s the best we can do. We may not have the time or money to search physical records, and sometimes the level of risk doesn’t warrant the cost.

When working with online public records, investigators need to be prepared for dealing with missing information. To avoid problems, we especially need to know what’s missing and why it matters.

What’s missing?

Any online access
Not all agencies have the funds or the personnel to post their records online. You may find some but not all records, and sometimes, you’ll find none. Due to the cost of Americans With Disabilities Act compliance, many have decided not to go online at all. And, through exceptions to their public records access laws, jurisdictions may decide not to add certain records to an online database.

Current, historical, or accurate information
Sometimes there’s a gap between the time a record is created and when it appears in the database. It could be weeks or months, so you may have to use other means to locate the most up-to-date information. Some records might be removed after a certain amount of time, and they could be dropped altogether or moved to a different database. Also, data entry errors lead to incorrect spellings, skipped entries, and other problems.

Partial records
For privacy protection, some agencies redact or omit identifiers such as name or address. For example, in Los Angeles County you won’t find names in online property records; you can’t search by name, and the names won’t be in the online record. In Hennepin County, Minnesota, they don’t allow searching by name, but they do provide names in the online record. And in Jefferson County, Colorado, you can search by name and view names online. Three large, major counties with different policies about what’s included and what’s not. Finally, most jurisdictions don’t include addresses and other identifiers for individuals in law enforcement or other high-profile and high-risk professions.

Full documents
When searching public records, you’re generally not searching the actual documents. For example, with property records, you search the records index, which includes just basic information that you can use to locate the full document. With court records, you’re probably searching the docket, a summary of the case and proceedings, which requires another step to access full documents.

Why it matters

Just because something is considered a public record, it doesn’t mean it’s always publicly available or available online. Since every jurisdiction’s different, investigators need to learn the intricacies of online searching and downloading. What’s public and what’s not? What records require manual or phone research?

If you don’t find what you need, don’t be too sure it doesn’t exist. Try different spellings, start looking more broadly before narrowing your search, and – when in doubt – pick up the phone and ask.

Make sure to manage expectations – yours and your client’s. Explain limitations of online records ahead of time so everyone knows what to expect, and always add disclaimers to your reports in case they forget.

Verify everything. Check for identifiers, so you can determine if this record is about your subject or not. Try different databases, including some of the fee-based aggregators, because you may not be aware of all the jurisdictions to cover.

Keep learning. These sources and their rules for access constantly change. Look for links to FAQs, manuals, or other guidance, and follow the experts on social media to stay current.

Don’t fall into the “everything’s online” trap. Online public records are not complete, and, in the investigative business, we need to know what’s what’s included, and – more importantly – what’s missing.

To learn more about how to search online public records like a pro, check out my latest online course.

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