" rel="attachment wp-att-2132Ed. note: Wrapping up her three-part series on investigative reporting, Stephanie shares several more useful websites. For more tips, read 1 on interview techniques and 2 with the first five recommended websites.  Here are five free unrestricted … "/>

5 More Websites for Better Online Research

Ed. note: Wrapping up her three-part series on investigative reporting, Stephanie shares several more useful websites. For more tips, read part 1 on interview techniques and part 2 with the first five recommended websites

Here are five free unrestricted websites you can use to develop story pitches and improve your internet research. I’ve added a sixth site as a bonus…a legitimate free site that may put some money in your pocket.

  1. Uncover past disciplinary actions taken against an investment broker or firm.The BrokerCheck database is maintained by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA,) formerly known as the National Association of Securities Dealers. As the industry’s self-regulatory organization, FINRA oversees more than 4,400 brokerage firms and 635-thousand registered securities representatives. Once you enter the name of a firm or an individual, if a disciplinary action shows up, you can click on a link to view and print the full report.While FINRA is committed to full disclosure, I do find it interesting, that BrokerCheck is so buried in its website that it’s not even listed on the site map. So be sure to bookmark this site for researching background on an investment “professional” when you need a story source, or when you want to investigate the disciplinary history of someone who wants to invest your cash for you.
  2. Find out if your area hospitals and clinics make the grade. The Joint Commission, formerly known as the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO,) provides a searchable database revealing performance grades for hospitals, surgery centers, clinics, home health services, and other healthcare organizations seeking the prestigious joint commission accreditation, a rigorous inspection and evaluation process. You can enter the name of a facility in your area and see whether it’s achieved full accreditation status. Clicking your way around the site will reveal the full printable report with details including compliance with National Patient Safety Goals.On this site, I found that a local hospital running full-page ads claiming to be #1 in Florida for cardiac care was graded by the Joint Commission as performing well below national standards. The Joint Commission QualityCheck page is well hidden within the agency’s website, so be sure to bookmark this page to access it when you need it.One caution: websites that claim to identify “Top Doctors” or “Best Hospitals” are suspect because, if you read the fine print, you’ll see that the disclaimer runs from your nose to your navel. It’s best to avoid referencing these phony accolades in your articles to avoid awarding an eager source more credibility than they’ve earned.
  3. Warn your readers about scams before they get burnedThis is the link to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, where you’ll find current information on trends such as job scame, medical identity theft, and abusive debt collectors. You can sign up for e-mail alerts too.
  4. Hunt down unique gifts at a U.S. Marshal Auction. Property for sale on this site includes vehicles, homes, jewelry, and designer clothing and shoes classified as forfeited assets. Today’s listing includes a 14-room townhouse at 770 Park Avenue in NYC and a 1967 Special Construction Ford Shelby GT 500E Mustang.Online bidding is frequently allowed, and you can sign up for e-mail notifications of upcoming auctions, which could lead you to some quirky story ideas.
  5. Prepare your readers for the next big oneHere you can register to be notified by email about topics covered in the upcoming issue of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. I’ve signed up to receive each issue’s Table of Contents in advance because it produces fascinating pitch ideas for stories. Besides, if you are fluent in this specialty (especially investigative article writers), you’ll save yourself hours of backgrounding if the future hits the fan.
  6. Find money you didn’t know you hadI’ve saved the best for last! This website is affiliated with the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, whose members’ mission is to reunite you with your missing money for free.From the home page, you can enter your name and state. Once you click, you’ll learn if the authority for unclaimed funds in your state…typically the state treasury or department of revenue…is holding any unclaimed funds in your name. You can search for family members and friends too. I found a $1,200 unclaimed North Carolina state tax refund, a $522 Minnesota property tax refund that had been mailed to the wrong address, and utility refunds in my name in Florida.Other types of checks that might be waiting for you to claim include stock dividends, insurance payments, investment proceeds, or settlements from lawsuits. Even if you’ve lived at the same address for years, clerical errors may have resulted in your check being returned as undeliverable.If you do find money that belongs to you, simply follow the link to the authority in your state that administers these funds. The website typically allows you to download and print the form you’ll need to mail in to your state office, along with proof of your identity, and your check will be on its way to you. Beware of competing sites that charge a fee to provide this information to you. Knowledge leads to both power and profit in this case. Happy hunting!

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan /