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Tuesday, January 30, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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It's never been easier to be your own detective

Seattle Times staff reporter

What you can find


Among the public records available online: domestic-violence cases, traffic infractions, sex offenders' approximate addresses and the sales history of homes.

Is your dream date hiding a less-than-dreamy rap sheet?

Can you trust your new baby-sitter with the car keys -- or the kids?

More and more government agencies post public records online, making a startling amount of information available. With a little amateur sleuthing, you can peek into the backgrounds of the people you let into your life -- a nanny or housekeeper, an online acquaintance, a potential business partner -- and be reasonably satisfied they're not predators or crooks.

You may feel squeamish about digging up dirt on people -- and privacy advocates do worry about some methods people use to gather that dirt and its potential misuse.

Yet divorces, bankruptcies, many blogs, recent arrests and old convictions are publicly accessible and may reveal telling details you'd like to know before you hand over your house key to a handyman or in-home care provider.

Today we offer a tutorial on how to navigate public-records sites, as well as a list of online tools and tips compiled from private investigators and background screeners.

For little or no cost, you can find an array of public records online, including:

• Domestic-violence cases, traffic infractions, civil lawsuits and felony convictions from databases maintained by federal, state and municipal courts.

• Registered sex offenders, with photos and approximate addresses.

• A Washington State Patrol background check that includes recent arrests for crimes against persons, as well as convictions dating to 1974.

• Current and previous inmates in county jails and federal prisons.

• Liens, mortgages, marriages and property records, including the sales history and purchase price of a home.

Some things to know before you start snooping:

Garbage in, garbage out

A thorough background check starts with the person's correct name and date of birth. If it's a common name, a middle name or initial could be crucial.

"Almost everyone has a name twin," cautioned Christine Beck, a longtime private investigator in Seattle. Be careful not to jump to conclusions based on a casual Internet search. Making hiring or firing decisions based on a quickie background check, for example, may not only be unfair but could land you in legal hot water.

"The Internet is still sort of a junkyard highway, and to take that to the bank without checking further ... is scary," she said.

Be wary of shortcuts

Type "background search" into an Internet search engine, and you'll see scores of companies pledging "instant" or "nationwide" background checks.

Some simply regurgitate aging data bought from a private data broker, with no guarantee the data are kept current or verified for accuracy.

Others may charge $15 or more and provide nothing more than a list of local courthouses with instructions to go look up the records yourself, said Larry Lambeth, president of Employment Screening Services in Spokane and incoming co-chair of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners.

There's no substitute for looking at the files yourself, said John Hays, a Seattle private investigator.

"It's going to be labor-intensive. It takes work to dig this stuff up," Hays said.

Check yourself out

Why stop with your nanny or date? Some people are running background checks on themselves.

Some worry about identity theft and want to know their personal information isn't being misused. Others want to know what a potential employer would see with a background search, or look for damaging inaccuracies in their public records.

For a free self-checkup, order your credit reports annually.

You can get one free every 12 months from each of the three national credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). Go to: www.annualcreditreport.com.

At least one company now lets you vet yourself and share the results with potential dates, employers and others.

For $15 to $35 on average, MyBackgroundCheck.com conducts a background check on you. You then get a unique password that can be shared with landlords, employers or others you allow to view the results.

"Ten years ago, the only people who saw your background check were the police department or an employer," said Robert Mather, CEO of MyBackgroundCheck.com.

"Now people are adding this to their résumés or buying background checks because they want to show others on MySpace" and other social-networking sites that they are who they say they are, he said.

You can also ask potential baby-sitters, housekeepers or other service providers to get their own background checks and provide the results before you hire them.

For example, while you can't request another person's driving record, you can ask a prospective nanny to get a copy of her own driver's record from the state Department of Licensing.

It costs $5 and will show her history of moving violations and convictions, collisions and whether she's had a suspended driver's license -- so you'll know whether to trust her with the car keys. For more information: www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/drivingrecord.html.

Know when to get help

If your initial search raises red flags, it may be time to call in a professional investigator. The most comprehensive databases usually are reserved for professionals and companies that pay for access.

Most private investigators work mainly with corporate clients or attorneys. But some field occasional calls from ordinary folks wanting to check someone out.

Linda Montgomery, who owns one of the largest investigative agencies in the state, once was hired by a father who had a funny feeling about a man his daughter was dating. Montgomery learned the man's former wife had disappeared mysteriously, and he had a history of domestic violence.

"It's definitely not rocket science, but the big thing is, it's time-consuming and tedious," said Montgomery, whose agency is based in Ballard.

The cost of hiring a private investigator varies.

Lambeth, for example, charges $35 to $115 for a background check. For that, he provides verification of the person's Social Security number, criminal records dating back seven years, verified job references and educational degrees.

Montgomery's minimum charge is $500 for a background search that tracks where the search subject has lived and any criminal or civil cases, plus an Internet and publications search to see what's been written by or about the individual.

If your search subject has a common name or has moved a lot, it will cost more.

Depending on the kind of information you're seeking, you may be required to get your search subject's permission for a background check.

And if the answer is no, maybe that's enough of a red flag, Lambeth said.

"No way would I hire a baby-sitter without checking them out," he said. "We still want to be a trusting society. We want to go back to the days of handshakes, but you can't."

Jolayne Houtz: 206-464-3122 or jhoutz@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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