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Online Guide to Public Records

By June Campbell
Note: This article pertains to US record searches only.

Are you interested in whether your business colleague contributed to the presidential campaign? Wondering who owns the abandoned lot on the other side of town? Or on a more persona note, are you trying to trace your family tree and can't remember Great-Aunt Susie's third husband?

You might find your answers through an online public records search. Due diligence applies, as the data at some sites can be outdated or inaccurate. The sites below are good bets, but the list is by no means inclusive.

PACER

Public Access to Court Electronic Records is a government site that provides electronic access to case and docket information from Federal Appellate, District and Bankruptcy courts, and from the U.S. PartyCase Index. Most of PACER's records are available on the Internet, but a few must be dialed directly via communication software and a modem. Most jurisdictions offer toll-free numbers for modem dialing.

PACER provides an array of information, including a listing of all parties involved in a case, compilations of case related information, dates of events recorded in a case record, a claims registry and more. Criminal court records are not available through PACER.

PACER registration is free, but a service fee applies. Effective 2005, Web searches are levied at a rate of eight cents per search page, including pages telling you there are no results. Dial up PACER systems charge sixty cents per minute. You pay nothing until you accrue over $10 in a calendar year. Accumulated fees of under $10 are erased at years end.

U.S. Search

This highly rated search site uses patented technology to access billions of public records. Search categories include private investigative services, criminal records searches, background searches, financial services, home and family, real estate reports, business searches and court records.

To expand upon just a few of the uses you might make of this site, you could find out if a home contractor has liens, judgments and bankruptcies before contracting with him or her. You could do a background check on a child care provider before trusting your children to his or her care. You could find your old military buddies, locate your lost sweetheart, find out if Cousin Bruno is out of prison yet, look up the status of a civil lawsuit filed against your former boss -- and various other tidbits of information. Additionally, you can search your own public records to help protect yourself against identity theft.

To protect individuals from identify theft, U.S. Search does not provide social security numbers, date of birth, credit history, and employment records, nor to they offer bank account information or other private financial information.

U.S. Search is a fee-based site. Searches range from about $3 to $300, depending on the complexity of the search that you choose.

Search Systems

Search Systems aims to be the Internet's primary source for free public records. Site access is free, although some of the linked sites may charge a user fee. Yahoo Internet Life and PCWorld magazines rated this site as among the most useful on the Web.

Search Systems categorizes its links by nation, state, and international databases. You can search for adoption records, birth, death and marriage records, campaign contributions, copyright and trademark information, foreclosures, and a seemingly endless list of other documents.

Public Record Finder.com

Public Record Finder is another directory with multiple links to web sites offering public record searches. Since no fees apply, the site is financed through advertising revenues. The owners do not guarantee the accuracy of records found at the linked sites and do not provide assistance to those who cannot find the information they want. Nevertheless, their link selection is worth checking out.

Yahoo Real Estate

In addition to the usual searches for listings, real estate agents, etc., you can also run a search of thousands of real estate documents to learn the prices that buyers are paying in your neighborhood. According to site information, this sales data lets you analyze the value of your home or other homes. The results include price, square footage, bedrooms and the year built (if available). The School Search tool gives you information about schools in a specified neighborhood.

GPO Access

"The U.S. Government Printing Office disseminates official information from all three branches of the Federal Government," says the Web site, adding that their mission is to keep America informed. The site provides electronic access to documents from a number of government branches, agencies and databanks. For example, you can access Congressional reports and records, public and private laws, Federal laws, Presidential documents, and other related materials. Additionally, the GPO makes publications from three levels of government available for free public use in Federal depository libraries throughout the United States. The Access site contains links to the libraries and in some cases, to their collections.

EDGAR

Operated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system (EDGAR) is an online database containing registration statements, periodic reports and other forms filed by foreign and domestic companies. Companies are required by law to submit these records, which you can access and download free of charge. If you're considering buying shares in a company, you might want to check out the compulsory annual report on Form 10-K or 10-KSB, which contains much of the same information as the annual report issued to shareholders.

Electronic Reading Room

Courtesy of the IRS, the Electronic Reading Room makes an array of public records available for download. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires the IRS (and other government agencies) to make certain documents publicly available. The IRS records include final opinions made in case adjudication, statements of policy and interpretation not published in the Public Register, administrative manuals, copies of records previously released under the FOIA and others.

Local Public Sites

Lastly, check your local public web sites if you're looking for information specific to your city, county or state.

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