Performing Searches for Public Records on the Web
Fee-based sites are still the most comprehensive, but much information can be had for free
By Carole Levitt
Carole Levitt is an attorney and president of Internet For Lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Attorneys often need access to public records to find assets; conduct skip tracing and background checks; identify registered agents for service of process; and locate birth, death, and Social Security records. While many of these public records can be found in databases that charge fees, some are also available free on the Internet. A savvy searcher can save time and money by knowing whether a desired piece of information is best found for a price or for free.
All searchers should understand, however, that no single database includes every public record in every government agency in every jurisdiction, so persistence is still of great importance in locating elusive information. What comes closest to reaching the ideal, in terms of breadth of content, geographical range, and ease of use, is a fee-based database.
Fee-based databases—including Westlaw, Lexis, Choice Point, Accurint, and Know X—all achieve their breadth of content by supplementing their public record databases with personal identity information that has been divulged to other companies. An example is the information that a person gives to a credit agency when applying for credit—name, address, phone number, birth date, estimated income, and Social Security number. Until recently, after this information was used for its intended purpose, the financial data was deleted (leaving the personal identity information at the “head” of the report), and the remaining personal information, referred to as a credit header, was sold to marketing and research database companies. Credit headers greatly supplemented these databases, which at one time comprised only public records.
Fee-based services also allow users to conduct nationwide or multistate public record searches. Lexis (http://lexisnexis.com) or Lexis One (www.lexisone.com/index.html), Westlaw (www.westgroup.com), Choice Point (www.choicepoint.net), Accurint (www.accurint.com), and Know X (www.knowx.com) all allow a nationwide search (or, more accurately, a multistate search, since not all states have their public records available on the Internet).
With the exceptions of Know X and Lexis One, fee-based information services require advance subscriptions, and several services require users to complete detailed applications to ensure compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Some applications even request a copy of the applicant’s business license or state bar license along with the applicant’s bank account number.
Lexis One does not seem to have as much public record information as Lexis, but a searcher need not subscribe in advance or pay a monthly fee to use Lexis One. Instead, Lexis One users can pay by credit card for each search, day, or week. At Know X, users with credit cards can pay as they go.
Deciding When to Pay
When should a search be conducted on a fee-based service? A fee-based database search is the logical choice for any broad-swath search, such as multistate searching or multiagency searching. Attorneys needing to identify a company’s registered agent in each state are better served by a fee-based database, on which they can conduct a multistate public record search quickly.
Not every secretary of state’s corporate records are online, but the vast majority are. Delaware is a special case. The state’s corporate records are found on most of the databases that charge users, but Delaware requires a searcher to pay a separate fee of $25 to $35 to locate registered agents in Delaware. In fact, Delaware even limits the time of day during which users can search its corporate records. The hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Eastern time) Monday through Friday and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Mondays.
Another kind of broad-swath search best conducted on the fee-based services is a single search across unrelated public record databases. To mention one example, a searcher can conduct a single search for a California person’s bankruptcies, liens, property records, corporate records, professional licenses, and civil and criminal filings.
Narrower searches, however, may be conducted for free. One example is a search of only one agency’s records. California’s corporate records can be searched for free on the secretary of state’s database (http://kepler.ss.ca.gov/list.html). Records are updated weekly, are searchable by partial names, and include the agent for service of process. Limited partnership and limited liability company records are also found at the same site. For searches limited to the corporate records of other states, users may visit the site maintained by the National Association of Secretaries of State (www.nass.org). This site directs users to state sites that provide free corporate records.
Search Systems, Portico, and BRB Publications have created free directories of state, local, and federal public record links. Some links are to fee-based sites, but most are to free sites created by government agencies, universities, nonprofits, and the like. For example, politicalmoneyline.com, a nongovernment entity, has gathered political contribution public records back to 1980 to create a free database to search by donor name. Hoping to determine the political persuasions of potential jurors, a jury consultant may use this database to investigate any candidate contributions that they have made in the past 21 years.
Search Systems (www.pac-info.com) has a directory of 4,948 searchable public record databases arranged by state and topic (e.g., birth records). The California list of public record links includes a database of all insurance companies admitted to do business in California (along with complaint information), the unclaimed property database, and professional licensing boards. Search Systems also provides a topical directory, often to sites where one can conduct national searches. For example, by clicking on “aircraft ownership” a searcher can link to landings.com, and from there conduct a national search by owner name. Portico, another directory of public record links, is arranged first topically and then by state (www.indorgs.virginia.
edu/portico). BRB (www.brbpub.com/pubrecsites.asp)links to more than 650 state, county, city, and federal sites where public record information is free. Unlike Search Systems and Portico, BRB does not feature links for state occupational licensing boards or registrations. For a directory that links to other states’ medical licensing boards, visit AIM’s Doc Finder at www
.docboard.org. Some states, including California, also display discipline and malpractice data on the licensing record.
In addition to using free directories to locate state public records, searchers also have the option of visiting the home page of the applicable agency directly. For example, when searching for licensees on the California State Department of Consumer Affairs Web page, users can access the state’s database for free by clicking on License Look-Up at www.dca.ca.gov/r_r/. The records are searchable by a license number or name. Users simply choose one of the listed professions and enter as much of the name or license number as known. The search can be refined by entering city or county. Attorneys are missing from the California Department of Consumer Affairs site, but attorney licensing records can be found at the State Bar’s Member Records Online database at www.calsb.org/mm/sbmbrshp.htm.
Some vital records, including births and deaths, are available free on the Web. The Social Security Death Index contains more than 66 million records of deaths occurring after 1962, when the index was first computerized. To locate a death record, the death must have been reported to the Social Security Administration. The index, updated monthly, is searchable at several free sites, including Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com/ancestry/search/ssdi/ssdi_
index.asp) and Rootsweb (http://ssdi.genealogy.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/ssdi.cgi). Searchers will also find an amazing number of other vital statistic links at Rootsweb.com (http://searches.rootsweb.com), such as California birth records from 1905 to 1995 (http://vitals.rootsweb.com/ca/birth/
search.cgi) and California death records from 1940 to 1997 (http://vitals.
rootsweb.com/ca/death/search.cgi). At the Orange County Clerk’s site (www.oc.ca.gov/recorder) searchers are informed that certified copies of birth, marriage, and death certificates can be ordered (for a small fee) on the Web from a private company, Govern Link (www.oc.ca.gov/recorder/
govlink.htm). The orders are processed and mailed the business day following the request.
Finding the Money
In a search for a person’s assets, attorneys should not overlook unclaimed property. An attorney owed money by a client found $32,000 by searching for the client’s name on an unclaimed personal property database. The California unclaimed property database is found at www.sco.ca.gov/col/ucp. For other states, visit www.unclaimed.org.
When an attorney needs to search for real property information to discover who owns a certain property or discover its assessed value, Portico is a useful free site that links to all county assessors that are accessible for free on the Web (http://indorgs.virginia.edu/portico/personalproperty.html). In California, only selected offices (Los Angeles is one- http://assessor.
co.la.ca.us ) have placed their records free on the Web, and the amount of information posted varies from county to county. At the Los Angeles site, one can search by address or intersection but not by owner name. Also, once the record is located by an address search, the assessor’s record fails to indicate the owner’s name. Los Angeles is typical among the free sites in permitting only address searches, but some free sites do permit name searches and will display the owner’s name within the result of an address search. If an attorney needs to search by an owner’s name, any of the fee-based services are recommended. The same applies if an attorney needs to learn the name of the owner in an address search, perform a multijurisdictional property search, or locate assessor records not found free on the Web.
For skip-tracing and other investigative needs, searchers can employ the same databases that law enforcement agencies most likely used to track associates of the terrorists involved in the recent World Trade Center attack. The databases include Accurint and Choice Point. Accurint, a database with more than 20 billion records from 400 sources and with searches beginning at 25 cents, caters to collection agencies, attorneys, and law enforcement agencies. Results from searches will display a person’s current name, aliases, property ownership, date of birth, Social Security number, current and historical addresses going back 20 to 30 years, current telephone numbers, names of others living at the subject’s current address, relatives, associates, and date of death when known. One can search by name, Social Security number, address, or phone number to trace a person’s whereabouts.
Predicting how long public records will be free on the Internet or how long other personal information will be accessible in the fee-based databases is in question. For example, access to the best source for personal information, credit headers, is now a thing of the past. In July 2001, credit companies were ordered by the FTC (after a long battle) not to sell this information any longer. This was a coup for privacy advocates and those fighting the growing problem of identity theft, but the ruling (and others like it that are likely to occur soon) means that attorneys who have legitimate needs for this information will have to work harder or pay more to get it. On the other hand, attorneys can expect that the continuing expansion of the Internet may aid in their search for public records or for personal information from other publicly available sources besides credit cards.