PUBLIC RECORDS ONLINE
The wealth of information available on the
Internet includes public records. But there's a big catch: a lot of it is not
available online. We can expect more records to appear online as the Internet
becomes more tightly woven into the fabric of everyday life. But, for now,
journalists and others seeking information on a property assessment, a
conviction or a death may still have to make trips down to city hall or the
That said, it doesn’t hurt to see what's
available online. Use a search engine such as Yahoo! to find government sources
of public records on the Internet or obtain the addresses from official sources
-- then check them out (Hint: make sure you bookmark useful Web site addresses
so you don't have to hunt them down all over again.).
In some cases, you'll find abstracts or
indexes of public records online, meaning you'll still have to obtain a hard
copy of the full record. Still, an index can help you track down that key piece
Don't give up on electronic records if
they're not on a Web site. You may be able to persuade a county clerk or other
official to e-mail you a record if you can help him or her put their hands on
it. And don't forget fax machines.
In addition to free, public sources, there
are a number of commercial sources of public records that charge a fee for
their services. Are they worth it? If you have to pay a big fee for something
you could obtain easily by crossing the street and walking into the courthouse,
maybe not. On the other hand, a commercial service may offer quick access to a
record that may not be available any other way, and for a reasonable fee your
editor will gladly pay. It's a case-by-case decision.
For more on getting at public records online,
read Chapter 7 of Alan M. Schlein's excellent book, "Find It Online, The
Complete Guide to Online Research" (3rd Edition, Facts on
Demand Press, August 2002,
Here are some public records Web sites, many
of them suggested by "Find It Online" (thanks to Alan for graciously
allowing me to use them) or by other computer-assisted reporting experts.
Publications Inc. (http://www.brbpub.com) -- Very useful and free. Links to free public
records sites, as well as local and national records retrieval companies.
A good place to start.
Systems (http://www.searchsystems.net/) -- Another good launching pad. Guide to more
than 11,240 free searchable public records databases, categorized by
state. Also offers links to nationwide databases.
- LEXIS-NEXIS (http://www.lexis-nexis.com)
-- The journalists' stand-by for archived stories also provides access to
state government records and civil court records, among other things.
- AutoTrackXP (http://www.autotrack.com/)
-- Access to more than 4 billion public records, including names and
addresses, vehicle registrations, drivers license information, business
reports, corporate and business information, booking and arrest
information, criminal records, trademarks, bankruptcies, phone numbers,
liens and judgments, property ownership and professional licenses.
- DataQuick (http://www.dataquick.com) -- Sells real estate information online.
- IQ Data
Systems (http://www.iqdata.com) -- Real estate information, as well as full
document retrieval from every U.S. jurisdiction, including secretaries of
state, county criminal, civil and tax lien judgments; and U.S. district
courts and federal bankruptcy courts.
- International Association of Assessing Officers (http://www.iaao.org) -- No online real estate records but may help
you find somebody who can find what you're looking for. And it's free.
Network (http://www.vitalchek.com) -- Can
obtain certified copies of birth certificates, death certificates,
marriage certificates and other vital records in 48 states as well as
British Columbia. An index showing which records are available is free,
but you have to pay a fee for the actual record. The site also provides
phone numbers for obtaining vital records from other Canadian provinces,
Mexico and the United Kingdom/
- Vital Records Information, United States (http://vitalrec.com) -- Provides free pointers to sources of vital
information, broken down by state and county.
- Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com) -- This valuable resource includes a database
of the Social Security Death Index. Once you track someone down using the
index -- they have to be dead -- the site enables you to generate a letter
that you can send to the Social Security Administration requesting a copy
of that person's Social Security application, which may contain useful
Information Services Inc. (http://www.pfcinformation.com) -- Services include asset and liability
searches, profiles of businesses and individuals and public record
retrieval. Company President Lynn Peterson wrote part of the chapter on
public records online in Alan Schlein's book.
There are other information services. For
example, for civil court records, in addition to LEXIS-NEXIS (http://www.lexis-nexis.com), you can use KnowX
(http://www.knowx.com); and ChoicePoint (http://www.choicepointonline.com/cdb/). These services provide other information as well.