Managing Expectations with Public Records

by Erik Adams

Use Google to search for a phone number and often the top hits will be websites that offer to connect a phone number to a person’s name and a street address. Click through and you will probably see an offer to get a full report on that person, promising to include criminal background and other enticing information. I do a lot of this kind of research at my firm, using websites owned by Lexis, TransUnion, and others. And, thanks to Google, I often have to explain what kind of information is available and what is not, even though an advertisement suggests otherwise.

Teaser ads don’t bother to explain that at the federal level there are restrictions on the sharing of financial information imposed by Graham-Leach-Bliley and drivers license information by the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act. When I run a search, I am required to attest to the purpose of my research. Am I working with the permission of the consumer, or in relation to a civil matter? Is this related to vehicle theft, or an insurance investigation? The long and the short of it is that while I am allowed to look up information about a party opposite my firm’s client in a litigation, I can’t hunt down the current address of an old “significant other.”

Cheap or free websites also don’t bother to explain the differences in privacy laws at the state level. Several states have enacted laws that place further restrictions on access to information. For example, I can look up the vehicles registered to a resident of Texas, but not someone who lives in California. If you live in Florida and own a boat, that fact is publicly available. And so on.

And, of course, cheap public records searches don’t explain that sometimes data just isn’t available. For example, often data isn’t available electronically. One jurisdiction may have data about criminal cases publicly available but not arrests; another puts everything on display. In some jurisdictions you must pay a small fee to run a search; in others everything is available for free. (By the way: don’t get caught breaking traffic laws in San Bernardino County, California, if you value your privacy.)

So what is available? Most public records databases start with “credit headers”: the addresses and phone numbers that appear on a credit report. This is combined with government sources, including property records, voter registration, corporation filings, professional licenses, and court records.

Most databases will take that basic data and extrapolate other information. For example, if you own a house, and the title of that house is “husband and wife as joint tenants,” these databases know the name of your spouse. These reports will also list adults who lived in the same house as you. When I review this list, I can safely assume that the people you lived with who are 20 to 30 years older than you are your parents.

Data aggregators have also gotten extremely clever in finding sources of information. My favorite example of this is what one vendor called “the pizza database.” If you order a pizza, they ask for your phone number, which they can then use to look up your address. It turns out that your phone number and address goes into a shared database, and that database is available for sale to vendors like Lexis and TransUnion. You may think your cell phone number is private, but if you’ve ever given it to a restaurant so you can get your pizza in 30 minutes or less, it’s out there.

There is a lot of information available, but sometimes there just isn’t information to find. I was recently asked to track down a phone number for a person and just couldn’t find anything at all. They were young and didn’t have a long credit history, or own any property, or have any professional licenses. But the attorney had searched Google and was convinced that the information was out there, for only $7. I purchased the report, but it wasn’t any better than what I could get from the other sources. And that’s the problem when you’re arguing with companies that advertise on Google: it doesn’t matter what I say, Google says something better, and Google must be right.

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