Tracking people down is among the core tasks of any journalist.
You've heard of a source. An ordinary individual, maybe, or maybe a doctor, a lawyer, an architect or a civil engineer.
But no one can tell you exactly where the source is.
Or you've heard a doctor has gotten into trouble before and is a real-estate magnate, to boot.
How can you find them?
What to do? What to do?
Whether you're looking for Joe/Josie Sixpack or Dr. Joe/Josie Sixpack, the process and ways of thinking are pretty much the same.
The starting point: Think through what institutions might have an interest in collecting information on a particular person. Where might records be that illustrate their activities, wealth, etc.
The trick: Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be.
In these days of instant information, computer-assisted everything and the notion that anything-useful-is-on-the-World-Wide-Web-somewhere, we tend to forget about some of the simplest and best resources.
The phone directory, for example. Many journalists ignore this useful compendium of personal information, choosing instead to ask questions like: "Does anyone know where I can find Dr. Joe Sixpack's phone number online?"
Well, yes, probably, but why bother? As the old jingle goes: "Let Your Fingers Do the Walking."
Another example: The newspaper morgue. Some reporter, somewhere, likely wrote at some time about the person you're seeking, especially if they're some sort of professional. So check the online or off-line morgue of the newspaper in the city you think the person is in. If the morgue isn't online, pick up the phone and ask a reporter or researcher at the paper; most often they'll help you out.
Another example: The local library. Reference librarians are wonderful people whose reason for living is to help folks find out stuff. A call to the local library where you think your target is can be most useful.
As newspapers around the country make their archives available either through commercial online services or on the World Wide Web, newspaper clips are even more widely available. And services like PR Newswire make press releases available from companies around the country.
Journalists’ first stop often is the county clerk’s office or the courthouse, where there is a wealth of public records containing what they need. With the explosion of online services, the job has been made easier -- too easy, according to some, because it leads young reporters to ignore paper -- as some (but not all) of the data becomes available at the click of a mouse.
Still, paper records remain the foundation of backgrounding; virtually anything found online began it's life on a piece of paper. Journalists who rely exclusively on what can be found online can miss revealing information. The key is to develop a “document frame of mind,” thinking about what kinds of documents might be generated by an individual or company and where they might be kept.
So, which do journalists use more often, paper or online resources? Both and neither. The pragmatic approach is best -- do whatever works. Sometimes a reporter will have time only to do a quick online check. Others times he’ll seek much more detail.
Remember that public record laws vary state-by-state so what may be available in one may not be in another. Likewise, the record custodians may vary.
Remember, too, that records often provide addresses, dates of birth, information on assets and liabilities and other identifying information not directly connected to the subject of the record, itself.
Finally, while public records are “official” documents and therefore reliable, they can be out of date, contain typos, etc. Verify, verify, verify!
Here are some of the most useful records and online sites journalists can use to track folks down, whether they are licensed professionals or civilians.
These records can be obtained in almost every jurisdiction in the country. They can be kept at the state level, the county level or locally depending on the state. Many of these records are becoming available online, especially those concerning real estate, corporations, courts and licensing, whether professional or not.
- Birth Certificates: Learn precisely when someone was born, where, to whom and what their birth name is. Typically kept at local City Halls or by state departments of vital statistics.
- Boat registration: Find out who really owns that yacht, where and when it was purchased, how much it’s worth and a bit about what it looks like. Often kept by state motor vehicle departments.
- Building permits: How much did someone spend to renovate their home and what kind of work was done? What was involved in building that office building? Who were the contractors? Did they get paid (see “mechanics liens,” below)? Kept at city building departments.
- Business Licenses: Most counties and/or municipalities require all business owners to have business licenses which can be useful when you need to find a business owner or the people behind a business.
- Criminal Court Records: Has an individual or company ever been indicted? Convicted? For what? When? Criminal records can reveal the secrets that people don’t want you to know. Usually available from the local superior court or its equivalent, sometimes available centrally from the state. Some information may be available online.
- DBAs/Fictitous Business Names: Individuals doing business under fictitious names must file documents naming the people behind the storefront. Depending on the state, filed at the county courthouse (usually with the county clerk) or with the same agency that registers corporations (usually the secretary of state).
- Death Certificates: Typically contain such information as name of deceased, dates of death and birth, Social Security number, place of birth, occupation, place and cause of death, name of deceased’s parents. Kept by local or state departments of vital statistics.
- Deeds & Mortgages: The basic property records, showing who owns real estate, who loaned them the money to buy it and, usually, how much they borrowed. If a deed doesn't list a purchase price, it can often be calculated based on the value of tax stamps required for a land transfer to be valid. The stamps are sold at a pre-set value of $X in stamps per $Y of purchase price. Find out X, multiply by Y and you can approximate the purchase price. Kept in county halls of records. Sometimes online or through available through major information brokers.
- Divorce Files: Can provide addresses and detailed financial information. Remember that divorce filings can contain all kinds of unsubstantiated allegations. And, you can assume that the financial information therein is the minimum disclosable. Kept at the courthouse where the divorce was filed. Old files are often archived in a central location. Basic information may be online.
- Drivers license, accident reports, vehicle registrations: Some people say you are what you drive. And whether someone drives a brand new Mercedes or a `69 Toyota can provide insight into their assets and their values. Drivers licenses, accident reports and vehicle registrations can help identify where someone lives, what he or she looks like, their date of birth, whether they face a tremendous lawsuit resulting from a collision, etc. Kept by state motor vehicle departments. Access varies state by state.
- Education: State education departments, school districts and private schools will usually confirm when a person was enrolled and where. College registrars will ordinarily confirm degrees, years of attendance and, sometimes, majors. Many will confirm over the phone; others require a written request.
- Economic Development Authorities: Developers seeking local, state, or federal grants, bonds, loans or loan guarantees for projects must provide detailed information on the project and themselves to the funding authority. These can include financial statements, resumes, names of other investors and more. Entrepreneurs seeking to locate in "business incubators" must provide similar information. Kept by the funding authority.
- Government contracts: Provide insights into an individual’s business. Contract documents often include financial statements and more. Kept by the contracting agency; sometimes available centrally through the office of the treasurer at the local or state level.
- Grant Applications: Like contract documents or applications before economic development authorities, government grant applications often contain personal or company financial statements. Available from the funding agency.
- Health inspections: Companies dealing with food or other consumables, such as vitamins or medicine, are usually subject to regulatory inspections. The reports generated can say something about the condition of the company. Available from the regulatory agencies.
- Incorporation Records: Provide information about the establishment of companies including the names of officers, boards of directors and the “registered agent” whom accepts legal documents on behalf of the firm. Remember that many companies are set up by lawyers or companies that specialize in quick incorporations. As a result the initial officers and board members often consist of whatever legal secretaries happen to be handy. It’s a good idea to check a couple of subsequent updates companies file, usually annually. These often contain the real officers and board members. Custodians vary state by state, but they’re often kept at the secretary of state’s office. Often available online.
- IRS Form 990: Tax documents filed by non-profit organizations and foundations, containing information on personnel (including top salaries), grants, boards of directors, etc. Available through the IRS and, often, through state attorneys general. By federal law, any non-profit must provide three years worth of 990s for inspection during business hours at principal places of business. Until recently they were not required to make copies available or to honor requests by mail. Recent legislation requires non-profits to provide copies and to accept mail requests. Many are available online at www.guidestar.org
- Judgments: Documents filed by the winner of a lawsuit, legally recording the debt owed by the loser. Judgments are cleared when the debt is paid. Usually kept at the county courthouse, in the same place deeds and mortgages are kept. Often available online.
- Lawsuits (state and federal) and Bankruptcies: Lawsuit and bankruptcy case files can provide everything from someone’s address to detailed financial statements, sometimes for both defendant and plaintiff. Remember that the lawsuit itself contains only allegations until adjudicated. Can provide insight into an individual’s financial situation and business dealings. Lawsuits filed in state court are usually kept at the county courthouse where the suit was filed. In some courthouses, it’s possible to check court jurisdictions throughout the state from the local courthouse. Old lawsuits are often archived at a central location for the entire state. The clerk of the federal district court keeps Federal suits. Bankruptcy records are kept by the clerk of the federal bankruptcy court, usually at the same location as the district court. Basic information available online through the federal court's PACER system.
- Liens: Any encumbrances on a piece of real property, including tax debts, special tax assessments, debts to the winners of lawsuits, etc. Liens must be cleared before a property can change hands. Usually kept at the county courthouse, in the same place deeds and mortgages are kept.
- Limited Partnerships: Limited partnership agreements provide information about companies, real estate developments and the like. More detailed information is usually available about the general partner than the limited partners, but the documents can be very enlightening. Usually kept by the same agency that keeps incorporation records; sometimes kept at the county level. Sometimes available online.
- Liquor licenses: Provide names, addresses, dates of birth, investors and, often, financial statements of anyone involved in the licensed establishment.
- Marriage Certificates: Provide names, addresses, dates and place of marriage, officiator, etc. Sometimes yield surprises, such as the politician whose marriage certificate was dated two years after the birth of his second child. Usually kept at city hall, sometimes by state departments of vital statistics.
- Mechanics Liens: Liens on property filed by contractors who do work on a property and want to make sure they’ll get paid. Can provide insight into whether an individual or business pays their bills, what kind of work they’ve had done, etc. Kept in the county courthouse, usually in the same place as deeds, mortgages and other line and judgment documents. Sometimes online.
- Military records: Can provide information about location and dates of service, rank, jobs, medals and more. Must be requested under the Freedom of Information Act from the National Personnel Records Center in Overland, MO, near St. Louis. It’s a complicated process and something of a crapshoot, but can yield valuable information.
- OSHA Inspections: The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and its state equivalents enforce federal safety standards at companies nationwide. OSHA reports provide insight into workplace safety; its investigations of serious or fatal accidents can be incredibly enlightening.
- Pet licenses: Sometimes its useful to know whether someone has a pet – it can be a great conversation starter. But pet licenses can also be a great way to learn someone’s address and phone number? Why? Because many people don’t know they’re creating a public record when they fill out a pet license form. If Rover runs away they want to get him back so they fill in their name and address without a thought. Kept by the licensing entity, usually a city or county.
- Professional Licenses/Disciplinary records: Licensing information is typically available for practitioners of all kinds of trades from beautician to physician. These typically contain name, address and license date. They sometimes contain information on education. Disciplinary actions, which come before the licensing board, are typically public, as well. Sometimes online.
- Property Tax Records/Property Cards: Property tax records contain the legal description and assessed value of a piece of property. They also contain the name and address of the individual to whom tax bills are sent. Property cards often contain detailed descriptions of any structures on the property including renovations or additions for which permits were pulled. Remember, the assessed value is often a percentage of the real market value. You need to find out the ratio of assessed value to real value and adjust accordingly. Kept by local taxing authority, usually the municipality or the county. For a list of property assessors nationwide who make data available online, go to http://indorgs.virginia.edu/portico/personalproperty.html
- Public Companies: Companies traded on a stock exchange send voluminous records with the U.S. Security Exchange Commission. The filings include quarterly and annual reports, including balance sheets; insider trading reports; and proxies that include the salaries of many executives.
- Salaries: Salaries of public employees (including officials, teachers and staff) are typically public and available for the asking. Salaries of top-paid employees at non-profit organizations are available in IRS Form 990. Top executive salaries of publicly traded companies are available in proxy statements filed with the Security and Exchange Commission, http://www.sec.gov.
- UCCs: Uniform Commercial Code filings are the equivalent of mortgages for property that isn’t land. They’re typically filed with the county by lenders who loan money on equipment or who accept equipment as collateral. Another way to learn about an individual’s debt. Sometimes online.
- Voter Registration: Provide name, address, date of birth, party affiliation and in what elections an individual has voted. Not available in Florida by individual online, you have to go to the Supervisor of Elections office. CDs of voter registration rolls are available for minimal cost from the Florida Secretary of State’s Election Division.
- Wills: Sometimes provide detailed financial information. More often, though, the information therein is minimal; the detailed information is usually in documents not required to be filed. But wills will almost always provide the names of beneficiaries, executors and attorneys. Kept in the probate or surrogate’s court where the deceased lived.
Virtually every profession has its own professional association which often will provide an address or phone number for one of its members or reach out to a member on your behalf. One way to find a professional or affiliate association is to type "american XXXX association" into a search engine and see what pops up. That's how I found many of the organizations listed here. Another way is to check the Encyclopedia of Associations, available in most good libraries. Some examples:
Air Line Pilots Association
Represents pilots in the US and Canada. Find news releases, an e-zine, a list of job opportunities, and reports on air safety.
Find pilots and aircraft owners at this site.
The American Association of Cosmetology Schools
Links to a variety of professional groups
American College of Radiology
Summary of the activities of this professional association, with details of policy, education, and research guidelines.
American Institute of Architects
Professional organization of architects.
The American Medical Association Physician Locator
Find physician addresses and credentials. From the AMA home page, click on “AMA Health Insight” and then “Physician Select.”
Martindale-Hubbell Lawyer Locator
The on-line version of the well-thumbed, multi-volume lawyers directory. Find addresses, phone numbers, professional credentials. Westlaw provides similar information through West’s Legal Directory: www.lawoffice.com/
National Funeral Directors Association Online
The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) is the largest funeral service organization in the world.
Rabbinical Assembly of America
National organization of Conservative rabbis
These sites let you look up names, addresses phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. Most are updated only as often as printed directories and most do not contain unlisted numbers. Some also include reverse directories. Inconsistent results; try more than one.
Also has a reverse directory by address. Plug in the address and it'll give you the listing.
Reverse Phone Directory.com
Exclusively a reverse directory
Yahoo People Search
A recent arrival to the people-finding scene. Finds neighbors. Requires download, installation of a small software client. Advertising supported.
Data brokers compile billions of public records on individuals, including information on property, lawsuits, vehicles, professional licenses, neighbors, relatives and more. Financial records, access to which are restricted under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, ordinarily are not available. The various data brokers have different offerings and different price structures. Some require special software, others utilize standard communications software or are available via the Internet. When opening an account with a broker make certain that all information they offer is truly public and legally acquired. Recent concerns about privacy have led some to screen subscribers carefully but occasionally arbitrarily. And privacy concerns (hysteria?) means that records once available are no longer.
Go online to research both publicly held and private businesses.
Search a database of more than 10,000 profiles of companies, both public and private. Free searches provide basic information on companies, with links to additional on-line sources. A $9.95 per month subscription enables access to more in-depth profiles.
Dun & Bradstreet
These profiles are a way to research thousands of businesses, including officer names, general business information, payment patterns, debts, liens, and judgments, etc. Most information is self-reported and must be considered in that context, but for privately held companies these sources often provide the best available information
Security & Exchange Commission/EDGAR
The SEC’s EDGAR database enables researchers to search for all SEC documents from publicly traded companies that file electronically. Proxy statements contain information on executive compensation. 8K and 10K filings contain company financial data.
Another SEC search engine, one of several that allow searching across SEC records for specific names. Useful to learn how companies or people are connected. You can also create "watch lists" to track particular companies.
Stock Quotes/Business Data/Business News
Get stock quotes, finance data, news, insider trades and the like for any publicly traded company.
Distributes press releases for public and private companies.
The American Journalism Review, a journalism trade magazine, maintains a Web site which lists the on-line addresses hundreds of newspapers, magazines and radio and television stations. The URL is www.ajr.org/. The Yahoo Internet index also provides a good list at . And of course Lexis/Nexis provides access to publications around the world.
Here are some major Web news outlets. Some charge for complete access
Sources of general demographic, statistical and reference info.
The US Bureau of the Census
The official source of information on the nation, states, counties, municipalities, even neighborhoods. Conducts authoritative demographic studies that can be useful for targeted marketing.
A potpourri site with links to a dozen or so federal statistics agencies.
The White House
A gateway to information on the president and all executive branch departments. See especially, “The Interactive Citizens Handbook,” which provides links to departments, independent agencies, and more.
THOMAS: Congress On-line
THOMAS (named after Thomas Jefferson) provides links to both houses of Congress. Offerings include bill-tracking and the Congressional Record.
The CIA World Factbook
A CIA handbook containing detailed profiles of every country in the world. Updated annually.
Maps and driving directions for an address, neighborhood or a region.
World Wide Web Indices and Search Engines
Indices and search engines help researchers search huge chunks of the World Wide Web at one fell swoop. An index, such as Yahoo, is a collection of interesting Web sites assembled and maintained by human beings. A search engine, such as Google, scans every word on millions of Web pages and presents the addresses of pages meeting user-specified criteria. Always check out the “Help” links to learn how to refine and focus your searches. There are dozens of search engines, each with their own strengths. Go to searchenginewatch.com to learn about them.
Click “More” on the Google home page to see all of Google’s offerings.
Internet Mailing Lists and Newsgroups
The Internet is full of discussion groups on almost any conceivable topic. Those online conversations are archived and can be searched. It’s sometimes possible to gain insight into what makes a person tick by retrieving his or her postings.
Internet mailing lists, sometimes known as listservs, allow people interested in a particular topic to talk among themselves via e-mail. For a list of more than 50,000 mailing lists, searchable by topic, check out lists.topica.com,
where you can also create your own mailing list.
Newsgroups are another kind of Internet conversation. Unlike listserv mailing lists, newsgroups don’t arrive via e-mail. Rather, you have to connect your computer to a news server. But you can search an enormous archive of newsgroup postings at groups.google.com. Formerly called Deja and before that called DejaNews, the archive has been acquired by the folks who run the Google search engine.
Mailing lists and newsgroup postings are often also available via the major search engines. Be sure to search both the World Wide Web and Usenet, the component of the Internet where a lot of these conversations take place. Many search engines have an option to search either.
PROSPECT RESEARCH SITES
There's this other profession, prospect research, whose practitioners do a lot of the things journalists do. Prospect researchers work for non-profit organization developing background and wealth assessments on potential big givers.Most journalists do not know what prospect researchers do and aren’t aware of some of the great backgrounding resources some of the best have put up on the Web.
The Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement
This professional group's home page provides links leading to a number of sites assembled by prospect researchers around the country.
The Internet Prospector
A terrific site maintained by Randy Bunny at the University of Wyoming, with contributions from ace researchers around the country. It includes tutorials.
The Prospect Research Page
Maintained by researcher David Lamb, formerly with the University of Washington.
The University of Virginia Prospect Research Page
Includes the best collection of online tax assessor databases.
© 2005, Neil Reisner