Everyone has skeletons in the closet. Whether it’s embarrassing Facebook photos or the complete criminal record of your sister’s new boyfriend, the internet is a treasure trove of background information. And while there are many fee-based services, it’s possible to learn quite a bit about someone from public records or through content found on online social networks.
While your initial impulse might be to run a check on somebody else, perhaps you should scan your own background first. The information you find could be preventing you from landing a good job or even buying a car or home. You’ll be able to check your credit report and insurance information for inaccuracies. You’ll also see what potential landlords, employers, or anyone else can find out about you if they decide to do a little detective work of their own.
Either way, here’s how to run a comprehensive background check without dropping a dime.
Using search engines
The first place you should start is a web search. Google can easily pull up a ton of information, assuming you know the person’s name or any relevant information pertaining to him or her. The results can function as a starting point from which to branch out.
Isolate search terms by putting the name in quotation marks in the search bar. Searching “John Smith” will yield the first and last name in that order and filter out any results that don’t match your exact specifications. Keep in mind that searching for a person’s name will bring up results for anyone with that name, so use additional terms to limit your results, such as a city of residence, a job, or any education info you know. The more specific the search terms, the more relevant your search will be.
Using social networks
Social networks offer an entirely different breed of data. While search engines may find information someone else published online about a given person, social networks provide content that is controlled and voluntarily shared by the user. They may not always offer the most concrete information, but they can provide insight on people nonetheless. Here are the basic places to start.
Facebook is your best bet when it comes to digging up dirt. If a given profile is public, you can search for it by name and affiliated email address, and further narrow your search by using a person’s location, education, and workplace. If a Facebook profile is set to private, however, it will not appear in search results. Varying levels of privacy for different Facebook features means that some information may be public while some will be hidden.
If you’re frustrated by Facebook’s search interface, you can also use Google to search within Facebook’s web domain. Typing “site:Facebook.com ‘John Smith’“ will pull up content from John Smiths across Facebook, even from private profiles if they’ve posted to a public Facebook group.
Boasting nearly 660 million users and counting, LinkedIn is a fantastic source for professional networking and background checks, assuming users provide accurate information about themselves. In terms of a background check, this will only help you learn about a person’s work history — it won’t provide much in the way of personal information since that’s rarely how people use LinkedIn.
Twitter is not quite as refined as some of the other social networking sites when it comes to revealing background information, but it’s potentially useful all the same. You can search by username or tweets, but the site lacks the more in-depth filtering mechanisms that make Facebook a standout. Twitter is also generally more useful for discovering a person’s tastes and interests as opposed to the basics, such as his or her contact information. Again, using the domain search option in Google as we previously suggested for Facebook could help you to uncover some useful information.
Instagram is the place to look at someone’s life through photos. If you type in their name to the search engine you will be able to find their profile. If the profile is public you’re in, but if it’s private there isn’t much more you can learn from the person. In a public profile, you can look at their photos and photos that they are tagged in. You can also see who they follow and who follows them. It doesn’t give too much actual information, but you can definitely infer things from what you are seeing in their pictures.
Discovering contact information
Profile pictures — especially those in which someone holds their camera up to a mirror and snaps a picture — may abound, but they likely aren’t what you’re looking for. Sometimes a simple phone number or street address is a more helpful data point. These websites are definitely worth a look, even if they do sometimes have a price tag associated with them.
Backgroundchecks.org, from Truthfinder, is a simple portal that will auto-search a variety of other, more complicated databases for you and compile the information in one spot so you can see it all. This can cover addresses, phone numbers, criminal records, bankruptcy information, family history, and more. It’s also pretty smart — the service will narrow down who you’re looking for by asking questions about specific cities of residence, age, and more. However, the service is a little gimmicky, tries to upsell, and the barrage of questions can become tiresome. Fortunately, everything is totally free.
We’re not going to lie, this service can get a little creepy. It can dig up what streets you’ve lived on for most of your life, the high school you attended, your job, your social media accounts, and quite a bit more, all for free. The site also presents a Google-like list of links to articles or pages that might relate to you, along with pictures of you from other sites that you didn’t even realize were on the internet.
The caveat is that you do have to pay for a subscription to use it. However, you can request a free trial for a one-time search, which is all that many may need for a quick check.
When it comes to contact information, the official White Pages website is hit-or-miss. The site gives you the option to search listed people by name, address, or phone number, but the information is often out-of-date or requires a minimal fee to view through an associated website like Spokeo. You also can’t view financial background details, work history, and the like without paying a fee. You can view their address, around what age they are, and close relatives.
Similar to WhitePages, ZabaSearch offers a fairly good index of people. View address history, relatives, past and present places of work, and schools attended. ZabaSearch might be a good alternative if WhitePages doesn’t have the person you’re looking for.
Though this website is made for creating family trees, the free information that they offer can give you an insight into the person you are researching. The site offers billions of historical records including census records, birth records, death records, marriage and divorce records, living people records, and military records. Sometimes it will even show possible relatives to make charting connections easier. It may take some work to really put together the information you want, but everything is free and easy to use.
Using criminal databases
Criminal background searches are often some of the most revealing and most warranted. You may not care about the financial background of a middle-school janitor, but you probably do care about his criminal background. The same goes for that babysitter you just hired for the weekends and that electrician working in your home. Thankfully, peoplefinders allows you to perform criminal background checks online.
The service may cost you a bit of money to view the results, but it’s easy to navigate and allows you to look up criminal offenders by name, location, age, and an assortment of other metrics. It’s also fairly extensive, outlining everything from violent crimes and sex-related offenses to behavioral issues, and minor traffic violations. You can sign up for a free trial if you only have one quick search in mind; otherwise, info will cost you $25 per month.
Family Watchdog is a free website that helps locate registered sex offenders in your area. You can type in your address, city/state, or zip code and the site will pull up a map of the nearby offenders. The website gives information about the offender including their basic information, addresses, charges, markings, and aliases.
Using public records
Needless to say, the internet has made access to public records a lot easier. While some information is still kept confidential for one reason or another, there are many organizations and government websites that compile and make public records readily available.
PACER is the official federal collection of court documents, and the best option if you want to go straight to the source and see all the legal documents yourself.
The service does include fees, but the trick is that these fees are exempted in a wide variety of circumstances. If your account incurs less than $30 of fees in a quarter, all the fees are waived — and since most fees are only 10 cents per document, it’s easy to stay within that boundary even with semi-frequent search (PACER is also totally free if you use courthouse public-access terminals).
However, PACER also has a steeper learning curve than most of our services. It contains so much legal information that learning how to properly search and dig through it can take some time. You do also learn how to dig through the details and find complete information on the legal matters you are interested in, though, so that has its upsides.
Searchsystems.net serves as an impressive and reliable starting point if you’re looking for background information in the realm of national or international public records. With access to more than 70,000 public records databases, the site allows you to search for different types of public information, such as birth and campaign finance records, before directing you to the appropriate website that contains the records. The site is free and easy to use but merely serves as a gateway to other public records sites.
NETROnline.com is more difficult to navigate than SearchSystems, but provides a bit more control when it comes to obtaining public records. The site serves as a direct portal to official county and state record databases and even carries out criminal background checks for a small fee. It’s a particularly well-suited option for investigating property or environmental background.
Viewing financial history
We all know your credit can make or break your financial desires. Most credit report websites offer reports for a small fee, or even free depending on your situation.
Innovis is one of the more trustworthy credit report sites. And it offers one free credit report per year if you meet certain requirements. Otherwise, the cost to view the report varies between $3 and $11.50 depending on where you live.
You are legally entitled to receive one free credit report every 12 months from each of the large, nationwide consumer reporting companies, including TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. Some people are even entitled to more if they qualify under state law.
Looking up web domains or IP addresses
It’s easier than you might think to figure out who owns a domain because the bulk domain registration data is publicly available — you guessed it — online. Whether you’re trying to purchase a domain name from someone else or simply trying to satisfy your own curiosity, there is a website to make your job easier.
Domaintools Whois (as well as every major registrar) allows you to type in a domain name or IP address in the search bar and find out who owns that domain. What’s nice about this service is that in the search results for any particular domain, Domaintools will also help you figure out what other domains a particular person or organization might be associated with. Keep in mind that some domain information is private — after all, some hosting companies offer this service to their customers — so you may not be able to see all domain facets, and might be presented with contact info for a third-party intermediary.