What Is Public Record?
The first step toward success in finding
information about people or companies begins with understanding what
constitutes public record, public information and private
information. All types of information fall into one of these three
categories, or a fourth that I'll define
later. But the classification isn't always
Generally, personal or confidential
information is private. A person's Social
Security number, date of birth, and
medical, financial or insurance information is private. Likewise,
confidential company information, such as unpatented formulas,
designs or processes, or undisclosed business practices, is private.
But researchers should know that private information sometimes
becomes public. This means that you might be able to find it out –
legally and ethically.
Public records are government records.
Generally, real estate records, court records, including
bankruptcies, liens and judgments, professional licenses,
intellectual property filings and business records, such as business
filings, public company filings and UCCs, are public record. There
may be exceptions to this rule. For example, juvenile court records
generally are not public record.
Federal or state law determines what is
public record. Because the laws of the 50 states vary, what is
public in one state may not be in another. For example, under Maine
law, you may use voter registration records to locate a missing
heir. But you may not access the records for this, or any other
non-political purpose, in several other states. Similarly, you may
search records at courthouses for misdemeanors or felonies, but the
state's criminal repository – the agency
responsible for maintaining criminal histories – may bar access to
Staying on the right side of the law
requires discovering whether the records you want are public in the
relevant jurisdictions. Fortunately,
several reference works and databases to
help you comply.
Information that is not public record is not
necessarily private. It may become public information through
legitimate or illegal means. If someone reverse engineers a computer
program, and then distributes the code via the Internet, it may
become public information, albeit unlawfully. If a disgruntled
employee shares confidential company information with his
prospective employer, the information may become – if not public –
an open secret, albeit unethically.
But information might become public through
several legitimate means. A person might volunteer it. Those with a
public telephone number choose (by accepting a public listing) to
publish it. Job seekers frequently post resumés to public forums.
Sometimes these job summaries contain sufficient personal
information – name, address, phone number and Social Security number
– to launch an illicit identity theft business.
Information might become public through
Remsberg v. DocuSearch, the New Hampshire Supreme Court
determined that "where a person's work
address is readily observable by members of the public, the address
cannot be private…."
One of the more common ways private
information becomes public, though, is through disclosure in a
public record. Bankruptcies and divorce filings typically contain
private information, such as bank and credit card account numbers,
employment, and the names and ages of minor children. Court records
in personal injury litigation may contain detailed medical
information. Vehicle accident reports sometimes provide vehicle
identification numbers (VIN), license plate numbers and driver's
There is another category of information
that falls somewhere between public record and public information.
BRB authors refer to it as "quasi-public"
records, or government records that are accessible with
restrictions. Military records fall into this category, as do school
records and in some states, worker's
compensation records and criminal repository records. Under some
circumstances, you can obtain limited information.
Online Public Records Databases
Hundreds of government databases containing public records exist.
Resources available at the BRB Web site
will help you identify them as well as the
many commercial vendors of public records.
There are many regional and specialty (special focus) – and often
less expensive – vendors in addition to the well known ChoicePoint
Inc., LexisNexis and Acxiom. Keep in mind that these data
aggregators mix public record and private information. In light of
recent incidents of data theft, they monitor access closely. If you
use these services, pay attention to the contract. It governs the
circumstances under which you may legally use the databases.
Finding Federal Court Filings
One of my favorite non-commercial sources is
Party/Case Index. It serves as an index to civil and criminal
cases filed in federal courts across the nation. While it doesn't
provide access to all federal courts (see "Courts
Not on Index" in the main menu), it covers
most of them. Access requires registration with
You may search all available courts
simultaneously, certain types of courts (bankruptcy) or individual
courts. Coverage varies, but generally extends back to the
When searching a person or company, run
several queries using variations on the name. For example, for
personal names, search with and without a middle initial; for
company names, search assumed names (fictitious business names or
DBAs) as well as corporate names. Also try searching partial names.
This approach will help you find as many relevant filings as
Searching for records involving real estate
developer Donald Trump illustrates why the strategy is important. If
you query the civil index with his middle initial, J, you retrieve
almost 70 records. But if the May v. Bucklew (8:00-cv-02079-SDM)
case in the Middle District of Florida ultimately proves relevant to
the research, you won't find it. For
whatever reason, the court indexed the case without Trump's
How do you know it’s relevant? Examine some
of the documents filed in the case. Document number 13 indicates
Trump was served at the address of one of his Florida companies. You
may check Florida
business filings to confirm that Donald J. Trump is, in fact, a
Of course, confirming the relevancy of all
the cases resulting from a broad search will take some time. But
then you and I know that finding useful information often demands
diligence. Unskilled searchers may get lucky on occasion, but
experts know that luck alone won't yield
Click the video to watch a
7.5 minute screencast on using the U.S.
Finding Signs of Trouble
Another government database I favor is the
List System. EPLS provides information about people and
companies barred from receiving federal contracts or federal
financial assistance. In addition to active debarments, you can find
information about past actions. In fact, searching the database at
the start of an investigation might shortcut the research, providing
a clue about what to seek or where to find it.
For example, suppose that in running a
routine background check on a businessperson, you find an
affiliation with the defunct Kansas City pharmacy, Courtney
Pharmacy. You check the corporate records to obtain the officers'
names and run them through a couple of high quality, low-cost
databases such as the U.S. Party/Case Index or EPLS. The strategy
holds the costs of the research down while allowing for a more
thorough preliminary check.
In running the name of one officer – Robert
R. Courtney – through EPLS, you discover that he has been banned
indefinitely from doing business with the U.S. government. The
address in the record offers a clue as to the reason for the ban.
But even if you don't recognize it – it's
a federal penitentiary – the information is enough of a red flag to
warrant more thorough research regarding the connection with the
original research subject.
Finding Clues in Public Filings
A third favorite,
provides a useful starting point for finding identifying information
about people. The Securities and Exchange Commission's
free EDGAR database contains public company filings.
An upgrade enabled keyword searching for
documents filed during the past four years (recently, enhanced from
two years). Previously, you could
search only the header information (public company name,
address and unique identifier).
The search engine
supports both natural language and Boolean searching, but
researchers who want to pinpoint specific information will do well
to learn the advanced syntax. For example, enclosing a search term
in quotations (e.g., "mars") turns off the automatic pluralization.
If you want to find mention of the private company, Mars
Incorporated, rather than every instance of the word, mar,
it's a useful trick to know.
proper nouns in search terms will improve the relevancy of the
search results. This technique is critical when seeking information
about someone with a common name. (Note:
27 November 2007. For the past 6
months, I have not noticed a difference in
the search results when using the
But because the SEC's
EDGAR research system limits retrieval to the immediate past
years, going back farther requires the use of a commercial system, such as
Suppose a business client asks you to
conduct a background check on Donald Trump. She knows what she reads
in the news, but she has few identifying details. Since Donald Trump
is a businessperson, it makes sense first to query an EDGAR
database. You'll find references to him in
the body of the filings that reveal useful information, such as his
middle initial, business affiliations, business addresses,
investments, and more.
In another matter, the client might ask you
to locate someone who has a common name. If the individual is a
public company executive, you might find additional identifying
information, such as age, educational background or previous
employment. This information might prove helpful in eliminating
others with the same name.
Business researchers also search EDGAR
filings for information about private companies. Private companies
do not have to disclose their finances or information pertaining to
their business. Yet their public company competitors might mention
them. Depending on the context, this could be useful information.
Creative searchers likely
will discover myriad uses for government databases in people or
company research. While you should heed warnings about the
limitations of online public records, as explained in several books
published by BRB, making wise use of them can hold down the costs of
preliminary research. They also can keep you out of trouble with
commercial vendors if the need for the information – concern about a
daughter's new fiancé, for instance – is out of step with the
The art of conducting
public records research takes time and experience to master. This
article barely skims the surface of what you should know. But
already Sheri Lanza has suckered – ah, convinced – me to write
another one. (Part 2)