Background Check Resources: Accessing Public Records for Information

Background checks and other investigations rely on public records, often times in combination with other source materials, to gather pertinent data on subjects. For example, if you sign a release form for a background investigation it will state that public record research will be gathered for analysis. So, what exactly is a public record? Some examples of publically accessible records include:

  • Federal & State Criminal Filings
  • Incarceration Records
  • Sex Offender Registry Entries
  • Federal & State Civil Litigation
  • Judgments & Lien Filings
  • Real Estate Records, Tax Assessments, & Mortgage Data
  • Political Donations
  • Bankruptcy Filings
  • Arrest Warrants
  • Professional and Occupational Licenses
  • Business Filings

This is not an exhaustive list; in fact there are many other types of documents that can be considered public records. In many cases this is not universal, as certain jurisdictions can opt to classify records as publically available or limit access to only certain acceptable requests (such as for employment).

Another classification of documents is confidential, or private, records. These would include records such as medical history, mental health treatment, financial credit reports, bank account information, telephone records, and brokerage accounts, to name a few. While access to some of these records can be obtained with a signed release and a permissible reason, others will only be released with a Court order for a very limited purpose.

Now there is some gray area in between public and confidential records. As an example, in some states voter registration records and marriage certificates are available as a matter of public record, while in others they are not.

Great, what difference would my voter registration or marriage certificate make and why would that help in a background check? Well, these records could include data such as your current or former spouse, address, date of birth, phone number, prior residences, self-identified race, political party affiliation, and which election years you voted. The information contained in these filings varies greatly from state to state, but they are still a great source of personal information.

Still other records are split in themselves; meaning part of the record is considered public and part confidential. The best example of this would be your driver’s license information and history. Although the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act limits access to the personal identifiable information contained in these records (i.e., full name, date of birth, address, social security number, and driver’s license number), the law does not restrict access to the current status, citations, accidents, and suspensions contained in a driving record. Of course, individual states can further limit access to this information as they deem appropriate.

While access to public records can vary depending on the state and the reason for request, the information contained in such filings is essential to any investigation. They can help with identification and verification of a subject’s personal data and background, as well as unearth new areas of research to explore for pertinent information. Whether you are the subject of a background investigation or are conducting one, it is important to know what records are publically available and how the information contained within can be legally accessed and used.

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Melissa Whelan

Managing Director at Whelan & Whelan, LLC
Melissa A. Whelan is a small business owner, professional investigator, and the Managing Director of Whelan & Whelan, LLC, a comprehensive consulting firm specializing in background checks, business intelligence, attorney support, social media investigations, and business consulting. She can be reached via email at melissa@whelanandwhelan.com.