What does it really mean when an investigator says that they are going to do a background search on a person and track down all the relevant documents “on the public record”? Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean: bank documents and cell phone records are not public record.  Any investigator who tells you he can track these down for you is ostensibly promising to break more than a couple of laws to get you that information.  In addition, given that he’s acting as your agent, odds are it could get you in a heap of trouble as well.

So what can you expect instead?  Below is a list of the various public documents that you should expect from your investigator when investigating a person.  Future blog posts will detail similar lists for background research on companies and for asset searches.

For due diligence on an individual:

  • College or university enrollment and graduation information: Colleges and universities will often confirm if someone did or did not graduate from their institution.

  • Professional licenses and affiliations: If someone’s job requires a license (think doctor, accountant, attorney), public records will indicate if they are licensed and whether or not they are still in good standing with the licensing authority.  Similarly, any professional sanctions against someone whose work is licensed are often publically available.
  • Criminal behavior: Despite what cheap background search companies will tell you, there is no way to do a quick and easy nationwide criminal background search.  No central database compiles this information from the federal, state and local governments for anyone outside of law enforcement.  However, it is possible to do searches of federal records and of individual state and local records to confirm whether someone has ever been tried or convicted of a crime, or been the subject of a restraining order. Done right, this is done state by state or county by county.
  • Civil litigation: Public records will confirm whether someone has ever sued or been sued, although copies of the court documents are usually not available unless you go to the proper storage locations in person or hire a subcontractor to do that on your behalf.  Usually the most important documents are the complaint, answer and disposition of the case, as well as any judgment or notice that the case settled.  The complaint and the answer are especially helpful—they get to the heart of the case and often provide a summary of facts that can help fill in any gaps about the person’s involvement in the matter.
  • Corporate affiliations: Corporation records, filed with the Secretary of State in the state in which the company is doing business and where the company was originally incorporated, can help link a person to a private company.
  • Securities and Exchange Commission filings: Publically held companies are required to file information with the SEC, and these documents may link a person to a public company or provide information about their salary and any bonuses or stock options awarded. They are useful for turning up new addresses too.
  • Property records: Deeds and to land are publically available.  Furthermore, mortgaging information and liens against a property are as well.  Records of loans outstanding on other property, including cars, motorcycles, aircraft and watercraft are also available to the public.
  • Liens and judgments:  A search of litigation records and public-records databases will help determine whether someone has a judgment against them or has been subject to a state or federal tax lien.
  • UCC filings: If an individual has entered into a secured borrowing transaction with another individual or a company, then they should  have filed a Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) record detailing the transaction, including what items or equipment have been put up for collateral.  UCCs are available on the state and local level.
  • Bankruptcy records: Some clients are surprised to learn that bankruptcy records are not sealed.  You can determine whether someone has filed for bankruptcy using general database searches, and can usually obtain copies of the documents filed by paying only a small copying fee.
  • Media mentions: If something has been published in the press about a person, or posted online, then it’s definitely worth tracking down. Not all publications are on line, however. As with courthouses, your investigator may need to get out of the office to find what you need.
  • Driving record: The public record will provide information on driving violations. 
  • Voter registration records: Public records will detail where someone registered to vote and whether they are affiliated with any political party.
  • Political contributions: Every time someone gives money to a politician as an individual and not through a corporate entity, their name, the amount given and to whom will be made publically available.
  • Security/terrorism sanctions: This may seem unlikely, but it is worth doing a name search on the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control list, as well as Interpol, the International Financial Action Task Force and UN Sanctions lists.