Public records sources: What to know and what to avoid

Caution signs on laptop

When conducting online investigations, public records add valuable info about our subjects. Assets, liabilities, legal trouble, and much more.

Public records are useful, but searching can be tedious and time-consuming, and our findings affect people’s lives and livelihoods. So, in addition to using quality information, we need to gather it efficiently.

That’s why it pays to know your sources. Whatever you’re using for searching public records – free or fee-based, aggregated or direct – it helps to know some basics: 

How does it work? – Learn about the available tools for quickly targeting what’s relevant and downloading it into a useful format.

What’s included? – Are you getting a full record or just a brief entry with basic information? What dates, regions, jurisdictions does the database cover?

What’s missing? – What does the database exclude? Is the coverage limited in any way (date ranges? redacted records? legal limitations?)

How accurate is the info? – Try checking your own name to see if the database has it right. Then learn who recommends this source. If possible, look for your source’s sources.

Can I use it? – I’ve encountered a few agreements with databases vendors that prohibit me from sharing the information I buy with anyone, including clients and team members, which makes it useless to me.

Part of knowing your sources is learning what sources to avoid. So, watch out for misinformation, low-value content, high costs, wasted time and money, and, when searching online public records, avoid these types of sources:

  1. The “one-and-only” – Every so often I get a call from a database vendor, and they try to convince me that their product is all I need. That’s my cue to end the conversation, because there’s no such thing as the one-and-only source
  2. Web scraping – Sometimes it pays to add the human touch. Sites that curate and organize the information add more value. Web-scraping, where a machine does the work of gathering what’s on the web, provides lower value.
  3. Consumer-oriented sites – If you’re serious about your results (Remember, they affect lives), it pays to go professional. That means paying for some quality databases and knowing how to vet the information they offer.
  4. Instant background checks – Again, low-value, since there’s nothing “instant” about a proper public records search. Searching public records requires preparation, a process, and some patience.
  5. Universal background checks – Nope. There’s no such thing (see #1). No single database includes everything, and everything’s not online. Searching public records requires multiple sources – sometimes even at the courthouse or the county recorder’s office.
  6. Online sources for banking and financial info – If a site offers someone’s financial details, just run. GLBA, or the Graham Leach Bliley Act, protects our financial records here in the U.S., so the seller hasn’t gathered the data legally. And nothing good comes of that.

Know your sources and know what sources to avoid. It can make a big difference to our clients, their clients – and our reputations.


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