What I can learn about you
Bismarck Tribune, Keith Darnay, July 28, 2008
You don't know me, but I know a lot about you.
I've got your number.
Your phone number, that is. And your street address. Your e-mail
address. Your age.
I know the value of your house, your property taxes and your property
assessments. I know what your home looks like outside and, under the right
circumstances, I also know what the inside looks like. I know how to get
to where you live from anywhere in the country.
I know if you've had any trouble with the law. I know if you filed bankruptcy
or have any outstanding liens.
I know your personal interests, hobbies and some of the people you associate
with at work or at play. I know the names of your family members and where they
live or have lived.
It didn't take much effort or time on my part to find what I know about you.
I got it all online. And most of it for free.
Does that bother you?
This is nothing new. Public records have been available to anyone who wants
to access them long before the Internet arrived. Businesses and "interested
individuals" routinely buy lists compiled from public records that track and
detail your credit history, certain financial dealings, legal entanglements,
martial status, home ownership, property taxes and more.
And to keep this all in perspective, there's a lot of information you can
learn about anyone without the help of the Net simply by looking in the phonebook
or asking a few innocent questions.
But in the pre-Internet days, that usually meant physically going to various
towns and various locations in town to compile the information. Or spending money
to buy lists of specific, often hard to get information. Or investing the time to
correspond by mail with distant agencies and build relationships with key people
in key offices with access to key data.
Not anymore. In the Digital Age, it's easy to collect a lot of public information
in a short period of time using a computer, the Internet and a few resources and
Which seems great if you need to know information about potential employees. Or
to learn a little about people and businesses you're about to deal with financially.
Or to get a general sense about a new acquaintance or the person you're dating.
Or if you're just a snoopy person.
But for everything you can learn about a person online, someone somewhere also can
learn about you.
Which doesn't seem so great from that perspective.
It's surprisingly easy (perhaps disturbingly easy) to find free information about
people online. And, if you're willing to spend a little money, you can find out a
How easy? Simply type in a person's name within quotes into any search engine. Go
to MySpace (www.myspace.com) or Facebook (www.facebook.com) or any other popular
social networking site and type in a person's name. Doing just these basic searches
can turn up a wealth of personal information - most of it generated by the person
Just recently, PeopleFinders (www.peoplefinders.com) unveiled a series of free
services that allow you to quickly check for criminal record summaries of anyone
as well as build an interesting map of your neighborhood based on criminal public
1) Go to Criminal Searches (www.criminalsearches.com) to search available criminal
records on someone in all 50 states. The site doesn't guarantee accuracy. The fine
print at the bottom of the page notes the data "is collected electronically and
errors do occur." It is presented "as is."
2) Go to Neighborhood Watch (www.criminalsearches.com/neighborhood/) to build a
map of your neighborhood that identifies people and addresses around you tied
to criminal public record information. Again, the data is presented "as is" and
can be incorrect in some instances. Some of the data may be years old and not
necessarily a reflection of current criminal activity in your neighborhood. Also,
some states include minor traffic offenses in the data that is presented. Which
means on the neighborhood map, information on someone who got a ticket for a broken
headlight may show up with information on a convicted sex offender or violent
The PeopleFinders site offers several fee-based services that, based on the
payment level, provides you with various public record information on an
individual: Age, possible address, phone numbers, bankruptcies, tax liens and
judgments, property ownership, aliases and maiden names and more. Other sites
such as Intelius (www.intelius.com) provide similar fee-based services.
A lot of this kind of information is available for a lot less or free on
many local, county and state government Web sites across the country.
If you're willing to invest a little Web time, you can quickly find all
kinds of interesting information. Easy to find data includes:
1) Phone numbers. Among the best online telephone databases in terms
of depth and current information are Dex (www.dexknows.com), Switchboard
(www.switchboard.com) and AnyWho (www.anywho.com).
2) Street addresses. Again, Dex, Switchboard and AnyWho are excellent
3) E-mail addresses. A good starting point is Yahoo! People Search
Freeality Web site (www.freeality.com/findemt.htm) offers metasearch,
which allows you to look for someone's e-mail address in several search
engines at once.
4) Driving/direction maps. Once you know an address, you can generate
driving directions and maps on how to get there. MapQuest (www.mapquest.com)
and Yahoo! Maps (http://maps.yahoo.com).
yahoo.com) are among the most popular services.
5) Aerial photos of where you live. The GoogleEarth application
(http://earth.google.com) is the most
popular in terms of finding aerial and, in some cases, street level images of
just about any location on the planet. You also can use TerraServer
(http://terraserver.homeadvisor.msn.com) and TerraFly
6) Comments you've posted online. If you've ever posted a message to any
newsgroup over the past 20 or so years, a record of your digital thoughts can
easily be found. Go to the Google Groups Web site
(http://groups.google.com), which is,
essentially, a searchable collection of every posting to every newsgroup.
Other interesting and specialized free resources include:
North Dakota Courts
Quickly and easily search records from criminal, traffic, civil and, in some
instances, municipal court cases. Different counties provide different levels of
information; that is, records provided by one county may go back only a few
years while another county's data may go back a decade. There's a link that
details what's provided by each county.
N.D. Public Death Index
Search public death records in the state by name. Any death in the last 12
months isn't included. From the N.D. Department of Health.
Burleigh County Property
If you know the specific street address, you can get information on who owns
the property, the taxable value, property taxes, special assessments.
Clandestine Drug Lab
Intermittently updated list, by county and street address, of some locations
in North Dakota where law enforcement agencies reported they found "chemicals
or other items that indicated the presence of either clandestine drug laboratories
(Keith Darnay is the webmaster and designer for
bismarcktribune.com. His Web site,
featuring this column going back to 1995, is at www.darnay.com.iec.)