5 Websites for Sleuthing Out Story Information

Ed. Note: Last week, Stephanie shared her tips on getting sources (or in the case of PI work, targets) to open up. Now she’s sharing some of the online resources that PIs, reporters, and just about anyone else can use to track down important information. 

Licensed private investigators pay substantial fees to subscribe to a range of information databases including IRB and Merlin.

Unfortunately, access to IRB is restricted to PIs, members of law enforcement, and certain government entities. But the majority of the data comes from records that have been designated as public records in recent years, making them accessible to journalists as well as the general public … if only you know where to look.

Living in Florida, I’m spoiled by some of the nation’s most liberal public records accessibility laws. In most cases, I can spend one hour online and learn most of the information available in a restricted IRB report. Not only can I see who owns a particular business anywhere in Florida, but I can get a list of the company’s owners and officers and view the actual documents and signatures filed with the state.

If you’re ready to take your first step into the minefield of public records, let me first plant four red flags:

  1. Public records are big business, with many companies reaping profits by selling information that individuals can access on their home computers for free, if only they do their homework. These opportunistic corporations have become sophisticated at marketing, listing themselves high up in your search engine results so that you may not even see that the government-sponsored website appears farther down the list, making the job of a research technical writer that much harder.
  2. There is a frustrating lack of consistency in the URLs of public records databases from state to state. Case in point: if you’re a consumer reporter researching a business in your state, it makes sense to go to the Secretary of State website to find the business name, physical and mailing address, and the names and contact information for the top executives.In most states, a basic free search should confirm whether a business is licensed to operate in your state, the legal structure of the business, and whether there are any liens or judgments filed. So, if you’re in Florida, you go to www.sunbiz.com. In New York, the web address is http://www.dos.state.ny.us/. The Arizona Secretary of State’s web address is http://www.azsos.gov. Utah, Hawaii, and Alaska don’t even have a Secretary of State.
  3. Public records sites contain human errors, so it’s wise to confirm your data by visiting the courthouse in person, or at least calling the clerk of court to verify that your information is correct. If you publish incorrect information, you could face a professionally embarrassing correction in your publication or even legal action.
  4. A critically important exception to open records for reporters and investigators to understand is the federally-protected privacy of each individual’s personal health and medical records, including data reporting bill payments, which are protected under the Privacy Rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA.)

Reporters who publish protected information are subject to severe penalties. You can find a detailed explanation of the HIPAA restrictions by clicking on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

Now that I’ve shared my cautions, here are a few of the most helpful websites I’ve used, and they’re all cleared for use by journalists as well as members of the public. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, I’ve found websites with .gov or .edu in their URLs to provide the most reliable information.

  1. Law and Legal Information
    This is the place to go to look up whether an individual or a business is involved in any current or previous lawsuits at the federal level. Special sections on criminal and family law offer background, and a lawyer directory helps you locate legal specialists to interview.
  2. Class action lawsuit database
    Justia.com reports on pending class action lawsuits and on settlements for completed cases, including settlements from the Bank of America’s overdraft fee action, the Sprint telephone solicitation lawsuit, and the Apple iTunes card case. This site is searchable by company name or state.
  3. Find federal prison inmates
    Here you can enter the name of a criminal convicted in a federal case and find out where he/she is incarcerated. You’ll also find the contact information for federal prisons and how to approach the administration and inmate to request an interview.
  4. Search for sex offenders
    This site, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice, is the nearest we have to a national sex offender database, although this is strictly a portal for sex offender sites maintained by all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and participating tribes. The site advises users to check their state’s internet sites to verify the information provided here.
  5. Track election contributions
    This page allows you to type in an individual’s name to retrieve information on his/her campaign contributions. With the next national election less than a year away, this is a good one to bookmark.

The information I’ve shared from my experience as a Florida licensed private investigator intern has been critically important as I research my articles and equally crucial in my personal life. I’ve saved myself from renting to deadbeats and dating drunks, and I’ve tipped off my friends with children about the location of registered sex offenders in their part of town. I’m hoping this information will help you become a better journalist and a safer individual as well.

Image courtesy of posterize / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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