It shouldn’t come as a surprise that everyone has skeletons in their closet. Whether it is those classic Facebook photos of underage drinking in college (sorry ma) or the complete criminal record of your sister’s new boyfriend, the internet is a virtual graveyard of background information. While some of it takes a tad bit of snooping to obtain, much of it is readily available through public records or broadcast to the world voluntarily through online social networks.
Falsifying or a misrepresenting your information can prevent you from getting that dream job, buying that swanky car you’ve always wanted or taking out a mortgage on your first home. That being said, the first person you should run a background check on is yourself. Doing so will allow you to check your credit report and insurance information for inaccuracies and let you see your Social Security earnings among other things. Plus, double-checking your records will give you a better idea of what potential landlords, employers, or anyone else might see about you if they decide to do a little detective work of their own.
Here’s our how-to guide to running a comprehensive background check, from finances to felonies, with or without dropping a dime.
Updated on 12-13-2013 by Thor Benson: This article has been updated since it was originally published to include additional services.
Using search engines
The first place you should start is your favorite search engine. Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines are a treasure trove of information if you know your target’s name or any relevant information pertaining to him or her. The websites provide a broad starting point from which to branch out and the advanced search options will help you narrow your search results and pinpoint the information you seek.
For example, you can isolate search terms to a particular order by simply putting a name in quotation marks in the search bar. Searching “John Smith” will search the first and last name in that particular order and filter out any results that don’t match your exact specifications. Also try throwing in any relevant information you may know about your target such as his or her city of residence, job occupation, or education following the quotation marks to greater limit your search results.
Using social networks
Social Networks offer an entirely different breed of information. While search engines may frequently find information someone else published online about your target, social networks provide content that is controlled and voluntarily shared by the user. They may not always offer a ton of concrete information since they are user-generated, but they can provide insight on your target nonetheless. Here are a few of the basics.
Facebook: The social networking giant is probably your best bet when it comes to digging up dirt on a particular someone. If a given profile is public, you can search it by name and affiliated email address, and further hone in using your target’s location, education, and workplace. If a Facebook profile is set to private however, it will not appear in the Facebook search results. Varying levels of privacy for different Facebook features means that some information may be public while some will be hidden.
[Tip: Google allows you to search for a name within a specified website or domain, even if a profile is set to private on a social network. For example, if John Smith’s Facebook profile is set to private, then you could type site:Facebook.com “John Smith” to see any activity Smith carried out on a public page or group.]
LinkedIn: Boasting more than 175 million users and counting, LinkedIn is a fantastic source for professional networking and background checks — assuming users provide accurate information about themselves. The website is a great place to inspect job resumes and check out an individual’s work experience, but offers little in the way of interests or personal information.
Twitter: The website 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 your target’s personal tastes and interests opposed to the basics like his or her contact information.
We all know those stereotypical profile pictures can be absolutely infatuating — especially those in which someone holds their camera up to a mirror and snaps a picture — but they may not be exactly what you’re looking for. Sometimes a simple phone number or street address will do just fine. These websites are definitely worth a look, even if they do sometimes have a price tag.
Pipl: This one can get a little creepy. It can show you what streets you’ve lived on for most of your lifespan, schools you’ve attended back to high school, your job, social media accounts, age, and quite a bit more, for free. This one also gives a google-like list of links to articles or pages that might be related to you, not to mention it seems to be able to find pictures of you from other sites that you didn’t even realize were on the internet.
Spokeo: This one does a pretty good job at collecting from a wide range of sources, including social media, government census, and mailing lists. You can find out what street someone lives on, how much their house is worth, and their gender, for free. If you’re willing to shell out some dough, you can get their marital status, family tree, education, occupation, and more. This one is pretty good at finding the right people based on our tests.
WhitePages: When it comes to contact information, WhitePages.com is hit-or-miss. The website 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, work history and the like without paying the fee. Either way, it can’t hurt to check the website as some information is accurate and free. Be sure to check out the WhitePages app available for iPhone, Android, Blackberry and WP7.
YellowPages: The website essentially uses the white pages directory when searching for background information on a particular person. However, the premium version does include some bonus features, such as social network and property lookup, that can come in handy when running a full background check on your target.
ZabaSearch: Similar to WhitePages.com, ZabaSearch offers a fairly good index of people at a price. You can search by name and location with relative ease, but finding the information for free depends on whether the contact info is listed. Premium services also include an option for both reverse phone and Social Security lookups. ZabaSearch might be a good alternative to try if WhitePages doesn’t have the person you’re looking for.
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 new babysitter you just hired for the weekends and that electrician working in your home. Check out these online tools for viewing criminal backgrounds on pretty much anybody.
CriminalSearches: CriminalSearches.com is the go-to spot for online criminal background checks, despite the fact it may cost you a bit of money to view the results. The site is straightforward, easy to navigate, and allows you to look up criminal offenders by their name, location, age, birthdate, and other search options. Plus, it’s fairly extensive, revealing everything from violent crimes and sex-related offensives to behavioral issues and minor traffic violations.
Using public records
Needless to say the Internet has made access to public records a bit 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.
SearchSystems: Searchsystems.net serves as an impressive and reliable starting point if you are looking for some background information in the realm of national or international public records. With access to more than 36,000 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: 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 small fee.
We all know your credit can make or break your financial desires. Most credit report websites offer reports for a small fee or even completely free depending on your situation.
Innovis: Innovis is one of the more trustworthy credit report websites out there. The cost hovers around $10 depending on where you live, but some states and territories offer a free credit check once a year. There is also an option to bypass the fee if you are unemployed, receive welfare assistance or believe your file contains inaccurate or fraudulent information.
Annual Credit Report: There isn’t much variation between Annual Credit Report and Innovis. You are legally entitled to receive one free credit report every 12 months from each of the large, nationwide consumer reporting companies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), or more often if quality under state law.
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 publically 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.
Who Is Source: Who Is Source is a straightforward, minimalist and to the point. You simply type in a domain name or IP address in the search bar and the let the database scouring commence. There is even an option for finding every domain name owned by a specific company or individual by searching their email address or company name. Keep in mind though that not all domain information is retrievable and some webhosting companies offer private domain registration that shields personal information from the public eye.
Prefer other methods for running an online background check on yourself or someone else? Let us know in the comments below.
This article was originally published on Jan. 1, 2013.