Due Diligence on consumer data brokers

What should you know before you purchase public records from a consumer personal information data provider? Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has a list of some of the data brokers – the well regarded and the may-be disreputable — but many, many are not here and one site owner may have a dozen or more domains that draw on the same data. Professional investigators get snookered, too, much as consumers do who want to reverse an unlisted telephone number, identify the user of an email address or find where someone works. These searches are more uncertain because the information is not usually in electronic databases of public records.

When It’s Too Good To Be True
If a data broker uses terms that suggest you can get instant online access to court records, a residential address or income, look closely at their language. Are you making assumptions about what the words on the site refer to? Does it really say what you think it does? Sure, millions of criminal records are searched, but is a list of geographical areas covered and inclusive dates at the site? The town, county, state or type of record that’s relevant to your subject may not be included. At most, you may get a disclaimer I read at one site: “In the event of using this service for criminal background checks, you should not assume that this data provides a complete or accurate history of any person’s criminal history.”

Free or fee?
A common practice of the consumer sites is to layer the costs. First, the searcher is presented with a “free” name lookup. Then there may be a fee to identify an address, an additional one for a criminal record search or a “special offer” that reduces the cost but levies a revolving monthly credit card charge. After all that, the site may provide you with a residential address but how current is it? It’s more likely to be current if the person lives at a real property that they own. But then you can look that up for free at the online website of the County Assessor or Clerk-Recorder. You can find links to the free government public records at SearchSystems.net. This site has the most extensive collection of links, and they’re updated daily. Look for the section “Free Public Records Locator” in the middle of the page.

SearchSystems.net does offer fee searches – for criminal, bankruptcy, court judgment and tax lien records – that are good quality. This may meet your needs if you want to search more broadly than in just one jurisdiction or for filings that aren’t available at an online government site or if you don’t have access to a professional database source. Refer to books by Internet for Lawyers for evaluations of public records directories and other investigative resources.

Narrow your search, reduce the costs, get more accurate results
An uncommon name is helpful when you’re searching through thousands of people with the same name who may even have the same birthdate. But you probably won’t be graced with that. So look for a people finders site that will let you perform a free search by name and narrow your search by age or state. Then it should return a list with all the matches. This will give you a good idea of the number of people with the same profile. A middle initial, names of relatives and former addresses may also be returned. You’re more likely to find information on the right person if you know more about them. Once you’ve pinpointed the person, you can lookup criminal, divorce, property and other records at the associated state or county online database, for free.

In the next installment, I’ll illustrate the research I did on a data broker that a fellow PI considered using. The owner of that company was taken to court by a state Attorney General for defrauding customers of a public records site he operated.

Related post: CriminalSearches – A free criminal records resource

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