Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Paper Trail: A Guide to Backgrounding People

You'll be surprised at what you can find that's readily available: news clips, business directories, phone and criss-cross directors. You'll find much of that and more online from your local university library. Google, Lexis-Nexis, social networking sites -- of that can help, but don't overlook public records when you're investigating an individual. Not all of them are online, but many are.

Here are some public records that may prove helpful:

BIRTH RECORDS (Montana makes them available 30 years after a birth.)

SCHOOL RECORDS (Dates attended, degrees conferred, theses written, dissertations. No grades. No school disciplinary action.)

PROPERTY RECORDS (Counties have this stuff: Who owns what, property assessments, taxes paid and unpaid, improvements, even a map.)

MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE RECORDS (You can see a marriage license but not the application. Divorces are civil actions.)

BANKRUPTCIES (Individuals have to file with a U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Lots of detail here about what people own and owe.)

DRIVERS' LICENSES, OTHER LICENSES (Hunting, fishing, etc. You may not get to see the application but you should be able to find out if a person is licensed for these activities. It will cost you a couple of bucks, but you can check with the Montana Highway Patrol to see if someone has speeding tickets.)

PROFESSIONAL LICENSES (Most states keep these records for doctors, nurses, lawyers, public school teachers, pilots, cosmetologists -- anyone who needs a license to do their job. You can find out what the qualifications are for different jobs, or if someone is, in fact, licensed.)

COURT RECORDS (Criminal and civil histories -- convictions, judgments, complaints, depositions, affadavits for probable cause, affadavits for warrants, etc. Sometimes private records -- health, income, etc -- will show in a civil or criminal court case if they are offered in evidence. Much of this is on file at the court house, although some things are online. Check out Missoula District Court dockets.)

PRISON RECORDS (Who's there? Why? In Montana, you can find that stuff on CONWEB. Yep. That's what they call it.)

MILITARY RECORDS (It's not online, and it takes a while, but you can verify of service, rank, medals and commendations.)

CONCEALED WEAPONS PERMITS (Check with the Sheriff's Department.)

LENDING INFORMATION (UCC filings document some loans. Check with the county clerk and recorder, Secretary of State.)

PUBLIC EMPLOYEE SALARIES (Check with the human services officer in the agency that employs them.)

VOTER REGISTRATION INFO (You can find out if someone voted but not how they voted.)

VOTING RECORDS (Local government minutes, legislative and congressional journals, vote-tracking sites, Project Vote Smart, etc.)

CAMPAIGN CASH (Check the Federal Election Commission's database for donations to candidates for federal office. Another place to go for federal campaign cash is opensecrets.org . For campaign finance infomation on local legislators, check with the county election officials. For statewide candidates, cheick with the Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices. For contributions from previous Montana election cycles, check http://www.followthemoney.org/)


For state-by-state laws on access to public records, check with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.


Take the Net Tour offered by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

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