This post is based on a CLE presentation (Find it Fast and Free on the Web) that I wrote and presented in King of Prussia in December of 2015.
Investigative Research: Public Records and Publicly Available Information
There is no correct way to find information on the internet. First, there are too many websites that offer information. Second, websites are always changing – either they decide to try to monetize by going to a subscription basis; or the operator loses interest and the information becomes stale. Finally, what you are looking for and the reason you need it will guide how you conduct your research. The key is to have a search plan. As you will see, many of these sites are actually geared towards journalists, so remember that journalism mantra: always verify your sources!
For some of the public information you would be looking for, it has already been covered in the Dockets section of this program. Information on finding people and companies will be discussed later. This section will try to point you to official records and other public information that would be useful. At times, if you don’t have any idea on where to start, Google is going to be your best friend. You may have to enter variations of your search terms, use quotes, add descriptors, but eventually Google will help you find it.
One great resource is the Society of Professional Journalists’ Journalist’s Toolbox. It provides an ever updating list of links to sites based on topic to provide background, data and other information that may one day be useful to you.
Accessing Public Records
As we discussed in previous sections, the level of information available to you from a particular agency is dependent on that agency and its website’s level of sophistication. Some agencies will offer public records online, while most should at least tell you how to get a hard copy of the record if it isn’t available online. This can be useful so that you can at least determine that it is not available online (at least not for free). The most likely records that you will find online would involve some sort of consumer information – as this is information that the government wants to make as readily available as possible. For example, health inspections, school licensing and testing; consumer complaints are all likely to be found online at the State and local levels.
- https://foiaonline.regulations.gov/foia/action/public/home – Online submission of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from participating agencies. Currently: The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce (except the US Patent and Trademark Office), U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of General Counsel of the National Archives and Records Administration, Merit Systems Protection Board, Federal Labor Relations Authority, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, Department of the Navy.
- https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/appj/scra/scraHome.do – active duty military status (a must if seeking default judgment or divorce decree).
- http://usaspending.gov – searchable site to find out who receives federal government contracts. Can find by date, company or location.
- http://www.osha.gov/oshstats/ – inspections by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
- http://www.rtknet.org/ – environment, health and safety databases from the nonprofit Right-to-Know Network.
- mspb.gov – federal disciplinary appeals, if you enter a person’s name, you can find out some information on whether they have been subject to disciplinary action while a U.S. employee.
- http://patents.uspto.gov – patent search
- http://www.copyright.gov/records/ – copyright search
- Political Records
- opensecrets.org – Federal campaign finance reports
- fec.gov/finance/disclosure/disclosure_data_search.shtml Federal Election Commission
- http://forms.irs.gov/politicalOrgsSearch/search/basicSearch.jsp?ck Section 527 independent political committees
- followthemoney.org State or city campaign finance offices.
- http://www.legistorm.com/financial_disclosure.html Salaries, personal financial disclosures, trips and earmarks of members of Congress; salaries and revolving doors for staff.
- http://clerk.house.gov/public_disc/foreign/index.aspx Foreign travel reports by members of Congress,
Some sites do provide a fairly comprehensive list of what is available online and links to those sources.
- publicrecordsources.com – this site provides information on finding public records and has links to state information. If you click on Pennsylvania, the website provides information (and links) on what records are available at each county’s website. You can see that most counties have property tax and ownership information.
- http://www.brbpub.com/ – This site also offers links to state information and county websites. It doesn’t fully describe what is available at each county site, but it does provide some details on birth and death records.
- http://publicrecords.onlinesearches.com/ – This site provides links to some of the other Statewide information, like business licenses and crime statistics. It also tells you which links have free searches.
- searchsystems.net – Another site that has links to publicly available information. It also provides links to pay sites that help find information on criminal records or bankruptcies. Searching by topic allows you to find the attorney licensing body in each state.
- http://virtualchase.justia.com/research-resources/state-resources – This site contains links to State resources like statutes, politicians and also attorney licensing. It also provides links to public records like the inmate locator or the Megan’s Law database.
There are probably twice as many professional licensing bodies as there are professions. We have tried to provide a variety of options for various fields here, but in the end you may just have to look up (read: Google) “[profession] licensing body” or something similar to find what you need. This site, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor is also helpful in finding licensing information: http://www.careeronestop.org/explorecareers/find-licenses.aspx?frd=true
The Pennsylvania Bureau of Professional and Occupation Affairs provides licensing and disciplinary information from 29 licensing boards and commissions. http://www.dos.pa.gov/ProfessionalLicensing/Pages/default.aspx#.VilsKCvlwxI
In addition to state agencies, there are also national organizations that can provide licensing information:
- Doctor: AMA – https://extapps.ama-assn.org/doctorfinder/recaptcha.jsp
- Lawyer: Martindale Hubbell directory http://www.martindale.com/Home.aspx
- Researcher in a clinical trial: clinicaltrials.gov
- Conducts medical or scientific research: Medline – ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- Runs a Web site: http://www.domaintools.com/ and Waybackmachine: http://www.archive.org/web/web.php
- Pilot: FAA pilot and plane records and Pilot and aircraft certification from Landings.com
- Form research: Citizen Audit – http://citizenaudit.org/
- Guidestar – http://www.guidestar.com/ – IRS Form 990 and 990EZ are annual tax forms and show highest paid employees; Forms 1023 and 1024 are the nonprofit application forms.
- Track and identify funders: .Foundation Center – http://www.foundationcenter.org/findfunders/foundfinder/
- Lobbyists: Center for Responsive Politics – http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/search.php
- VineLink offender databases: http://www.vinelink.com/index.jsp
- Federal Inmate Locator (1982 to present) http://www.bop.gov/iloc2/LocateInmate.jsp
- Pennsylvania Inmate locator http://inmatelocator.cor.state.pa.us/inmatelocatorweb/
- National Sex Offender Public Registry – http://www.nsopr.gov/;
- Family Watchdog (sex offender) http://www.familywatchdog.us/Search.aspand
Vital Statistics: Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce records
In many states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, birth and death records are not considered public records, and are therefore not searchable online. In addition, they may be restricted in availability to family only.
- Fee service for some birth, death, marriage and death records (authorized vendor for PA Department of Health) vitalchek.com (~$15)
- Social Security Death Index, https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1202535
- Check county clerks for marriage license applications. Some are open, some are not.
- com finds obituaries http://www.legacy.com/Obituaries.asp?Page=ObitFinder
- Pa Department of Health – http://www.health.pa.gov/MyRecords/Certificates/Pages/11596.aspx#.ViloCCvlwxI
- NJ Department of Health – http://www.nj.gov/health/vital/
Real and Personal Property Records
- County websites – most counties will provide tax and ownership details. Searching dockets can also find mortgage and lien information. Availability varies by county. Use publicrecordsources.com to find which counties have the information available.
- Recorder of Deeds – this will often be separate from the property tax information and may provide information that you could not find there.
- Home values and comparables: http://www.zillow.com/ This is not necessarily fully accurate, but it can provide some background information including ownership, taxes and location (if needed for jurisdiction purposes).
- Common level ratio – used to calculate actual property values (multiply ratio by county assessed value) http://www.revenue.pa.gov/GeneralTaxInformation/Tax%20Types%20and%20Information/Pages/Realty%20Transfer%20Tax/Common%20Level%20Ratios.aspx#.VilrXCvlwxI
- Realtors Heat Map shows nearby values and for-sales: realtor.com
- Aerial photo and map of the neighborhood: http://maps.google.com/