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Zimmerman's Research Guide


Background Checks

I have been asked to run background checks on dozens of people, and each search has been a little different. Following is a checklist to help you remember all the different places to look.

  1. Public Records aggregators combine People Finder information with other public records to produce a useful report on the person. The public records covered generally include real estate and automobile ownership, litigation, voting records, birth and death records, liens, licenses, etc., although I recommend searching these records individually too, as discussed below. Good aggregators include Accurint and TLO. For more, see the list of People Finder databases in the Finding People entry; all these database provide background reports too.

    Important: The public records aggregators include data from many of the sources discussed below. If I have mentioned a source below, it is because I often find more or better information by searching that source directly, in addition to pulling a "comprehensive" report from an aggregator.

  2. Internet search engines: Of course you will want to search Google. If you have time, it's best to repeat your search using on or two additional search engines, because different search get different results. See the Search Engines entry for some alternatives.

  3. Social media sites: Although search engines now crawl social media sites you can often get better results by individually searching the major social media sites including Facebook, Linkedin, MySpace, Google+, Twitter.

  4. Professional licensing & complaints/disciplinary records: Professional jobs and trades are often subject to registration requirements and regulation. This includes doctors, lawyers, architects, securities and real estate brokers, contractors, plumbers and hair dressers. Generally you will want to identify the regulating entity, check their web site for registration records and a history of complaints and/or discipline, and then call them if you can't find it all online. You can also search the fee-based public records databases discussed in the "Public Records aggregators" section, above. More detailed information is available in this guide for Attorneys, Certified Public Accountants, Doctors and Investment Advisors.

  5. Land records: Not everyone owns real property but many do, and land ownership gives insights into a person's wealth and whereabouts. Most states post a free database including images of deeds, mortgages and other land records. For commercial databases, see the "Land Records" section of the Real Estate entry.

  6. Other titled property: Many states post databases for motor vehicle registrations, or you can search them through some other service (e.g., the "Motor Vehicle Gateway" on Accurint). Alternatively, you can try calling the relevant motor vehicle administration or hire a service that checks MVA records in that state. This will not only tell you about vehicle ownership, but may also tell you about auto loans and liens, additional addresses and unexpected co-owners.

    You may also be able to search boat and aircraft records through through a database posted by state government agencies, by calling the agency and/or through the public records aggregators discussed above.

  7. Liquid Assets: Information about bank accounts, mutual funds and places people keep liquid assets is generally confidential. However, there are ways to find out and some circumstances where you can get around the confidentiality rules. For companies that will look for liquid assets for you, see Collecting and Enforcing Judgments. See also Credit Reports and Wealth.

  8. UCC Filings: For search and retrieving records of UCC lien filing, see the "Filing Records" section of the Uniform Commercial Code entry.

  9. Federal court litigation: You can find Federal cases by or against a person using PACER or one of the commercial or non-profit databases that make it easier to search PACER data. See the Docket Sheets entry for a discussion of the options.

  10. State court litigation:. You generally look for state court cases by or against a person using databases posted by the state, county or city court system. The quality and availability of these databases varies widely from state to state. There are also commercial databases that may provide better search capabilities. See the entry for the relevant state and the the Docket Sheets entry.

    If there is a separate database for liens and/or judgments, be sure to search that too, as well as sex offender registries and municipal courts. See also Criminal Background Checks.

  11. State and Federal court opinions: Pop your subjects name into a sensible database of judicial opinions. You can use free ones like Google Scholar or, for maximum coverage, use Lexis or Westlaw.

  12. News: Search the relevant news databases. This includes articles databases covering your subjects home town, as well as any relevant special news sources (e.g. legal news for background research on a lawyer). You may have access to good news databases for free through your public library's website, or through an academic library website, if you are affiliated with a college or university. Lexis and Westlaw both have strong news coverage. See also News - Newspapers & Magazines - Articles and Periodicals.

  13. Employer's web site: Check the web sites of any known current or prior employer. Browse the relevant pages, use any search box on the site(s), and do a Google search for the person's name and "site:[web address]".

  14. Publications: Search for books using Worldcat, the Library of Congress catalog, Amazon and anyplace else you think likely. Searching for articles will depend on the subjects area of specialty, if there is one. See Medical Materials for doctors, Law Reviews and Law Journals for lawyers, Business Information for businessmen, Dissertations and Masters' Thesis for people who pursued higher education, etc.

  15. SEC Filings: Most people don't get mentioned in SEC filings, but many of the people I have been asked to research do. See the SEC Filings entry for places to search.

  16. Political Campaign Contributions: See the Campaign Contributions entry to find out if someone has funded particular politicians or referendums.

See Also
Criminal Background Checks
Expert Witnesses
Finding People

For comments, questions and suggestions, email the author
Copyright 2015 Andrew Zimmerman