The Making of a Public Records Researcher
Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase
Originally published in The CyberSkeptic's Guide to Internet Research (February 2006).
25 August 2006. What constitutes public record, public information and private information sometimes is as clear as mud. (For a discussion of the differences, see The Art of Public Records Research.) In a recent e-mail exchange concerning a proposal for a distant education course for journalism students on public records research, one professor expressed concern that students wouldn't have access to commercial databases containing personal information. She also commented that drivers' records "are available to private investigators, but not to reporters." How, then, should the faculty handle the instruction of the use of such records in journalism research?
In a nutshell, students and journalists don't have full access to commercial personal information aggregators because the vendors forbid it. Arguably, these groups would not have a permissible use for the data protected by two major privacy laws - the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Drivers' Privacy Protection Act. But, just because journalists don't have access to private or sensitive information through these research systems, doesn't mean they can't find what they seek - legally.
Considering potential sources of the information - as well as their availability online - is the key to finding obscure or elusive information when it exists.
Dig Deeply for Assets
An accomplished sleuth knows her way around public records. Public records contain a wealth of private information, including Social Security numbers, dates of birth, driver's license numbers, medical information and financial account numbers.
Suppose you want to collect on a judgment. You conduct an online search of real property, liens, judgments, bankruptcies and UCC filings. The results are dismal, showing indebtedness rather than affluence. But are these debts an indicator of ability to pay?
In public records research, online searching often yields a superficial answer - a peek in the shorts, rather than - well, you get the idea. While a glimpse might be sufficient sometimes, a deeper investigation could result in more accurate information that gives you an edge.
Considering potential sources of the information - as well as their availability online - is the key to finding obscure or elusive information when it exists. For instance, in this scenario, you would ask yourself, "What kind of public records are likely to list assets?" If you answer, "Recent divorce filings," then you're well on your way to becoming an expert public records researcher.
Inquiring Minds Go to Court
Court records generally serve as a good starting point for finding personal information. Civil filings might reveal medical conditions and treatments, financial investments, personal income, employment or business affiliations. If the court in question has an online access system, you might even find this information without leaving your computer. You should be aware, though, that digging deeply into the details of a case might require a visit to the courthouse.
The U.S. Party/Case Index serves as a gateway to electronic filings in many federal courts. It provides basic case information, and then links to the originating court for docket and other information.
In accordance with policy, the courts partially redact Social Security numbers in the case summaries. But if a bankruptcy petition, for instance, is available online, you can download it to obtain the full Social Security number as well as other private information, such as the names and ages of minor children and bank and credit account numbers.
Likewise, if you want to locate an address - not necessarily a home address, but an address where you are likely to find someone - scour the docket for a "return of service." It provides the address where the defendant was served with the lawsuit. Other informative civil filings include complaints, amended complaints and answers to complaints.
The Accidental Researcher
Vehicle accident reports contain a wealth of private information. Check The Sourcebook to Public Record Information (BRB Publications, Inc., 7th edition, 2006) or the Public Records Research System (PRRS) to determine whether these are public record in the relevant jurisdiction. If they are, you might find the names and addresses of the drivers and accident victims, their Social Security numbers, dates of birth, drivers' license numbers, and the date and location of the accident, as well as the Vehicle Identification Numbers, license plate numbers and descriptions of the vehicles involved.
While much of this type of research must be done at the state or local agency level, some jurisdictions have placed accident reports online. PoliceReports.us is a commercial gateway to accident and incident reports in several locations throughout the U.S. Some states or municipalities, including Arkansas, the City of Madison, Wisconsin, Maine, New Mexico and the City of Philadelphia, maintain separate Web sites.
Anyone who has ever retrieved an automated report (Accurint and AutoTrackXP) knows to suspect the information provided. Data entry errors often result in erroneous Social Security numbers, dates of birth, phone numbers and other information.
The Laboratory for International Data Privacy at Carnegie Mellon University offers a useful tool for validating SSNs. SOS Social Security Number Watch reveals the state of issuance. It also warns you when the number is false or invalid. See, for example, the results for 123-45-6789.
Finding Help with Public Records
Whether you are a beginning public records researcher or an expert, you will find The Sourcebook to Public Record Information invaluable. In addition to a 60-plus-page primer on public records research, it provides a state-by-state - including U.S. territories - digest of the availability of government records. It provides the public status of specific records and explains how to obtain them. It covers state agencies as well as federal, state and local courts. You will also find information about the availability of Canadian criminal records, parole or pardon information, and driving records for the provinces.
BRB offers a special in which you can purchase this book at a discount when you buy access to the Public Records Research System. The PRRS helps you locate the government agency responsible for maintaining certain records. For example, suppose you want to obtain the voter record of an individual who lives in Philadelphia. You enter the ZIP code in the database, or drill down by state and county, and then select "Voter Registration" from a pull-down menu.
In addition to providing contact information for the agency, PRRS explains, "The state [Pennsylvania] is in the process of implementing a statewide database (SURE Project). 80% of the counties now participate. Until 100% participation is available, it is suggested to do record searches at the county level." It reveals the public status of the records and the research methods (online, mail, fax) available. It also integrates information from the free Public Records Retriever Network (PRRN), which helps you locate a business that provides retrieval services in the area.
Conducting public records research requires special knowledge and skill. You can find sensitive information - information above and beyond that sold by companies such as ChoicePoint and LexisNexis - if you can identify the type of government record likely to disclose it. If the records are available online, you might find what you seek with a simple search. More often, though, success comes at the price of on-site research.