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Technology

Google is never enough

Why public records searchers shouldn’t rely on Google alone

Searching to uncover specific information on a single individual among the 330 million people living in the United States is no small task. Whether an investigative team is trying to check out a potential trial witness, vet a loan applicant, or prepare for a fraud investigation on behalf of a government agency or insurance company, investigators need answers quickly.

Often, however, searchers of public records come up against a common question: Why wouldn’t I just search the subject’s name online and be done with it?

Powerful, but for a different purpose

Online search engines can be productive when answering a question about a new restaurant, movie, recipe, or travel destination; however, data experts warn that the very strengths that are built into public search engines make them unwieldy, time-consuming, and too often inaccurate for the specialized needs of law enforcement, corporate risk managers, government fraud investigators, and other investigative searchers.

Thomson Reuters’ Eric Gerhard, who has spent years working in the public records information technology and services industry, recognizes this acute problem. “If you search online, even for my relatively unique name, you receive 44 million results,” says Gerhard. “Sure, there may be valuable information buried in there about me. The challenge is that there are literally billions of pages of information on the internet, however, and searchers need to be confident that they’ve reached the end of their search. How can you accomplish that if you enter a name in your search, and it returns 1,000 pages of results? By relying solely on online searches, you could keep on clicking deeper and deeper, page after page.”

One of the biggest advantages online search engines do offer for everyday use is that a search for the exact same term can generate different results, based on each separate user’s past search history. That benefit, unfortunately, is also the biggest disadvantage for investigators and other professional data searchers. Because search engines monitor and track your searches to deliver personalized search results, that means that two different investigators at the same agency or institution who are investigating the same person might get very different search results. Such user-centric adaptability is not a function that benefits investigators in their records searches.

Not every record is available online

Additionally, as far-reaching as search engines may be, there are large swaths of data that they still don’t access and make available to searchers. “Public records services have information on watercraft, airplanes, and vehicle ownership,” says Gerhard. “And the availability of that data through a search engine all depends upon whether the subject you’re investigating lives in California with its strict rules on data or in another state that might make more data publicly available.”

Through some data services, searchers can go far beyond what may be shown on the average online search results page. For example, data services can uncover whether an individual operates a marijuana-related business if they possess a license to sell or grow, and if it’s for recreational or medicinal use in nature. Public records services can also access deep web data, which includes websites that aren’t indexed by popular search engines, such as wedding registries or donation sites.

Yet, what if the individual being investigated was arrested just an hour earlier? “The advantage that searchers using a more premium search service such as Thomson Reuters PeopleMap have over those simply relying on public online searches, is the ability to access ‘live gateway data,’ such as real-time incarceration and arrest records from 2,500 agencies,” adds Gerhard. “So, you can view that data about an individual within 15 minutes of his or her arrest.”

Leveraging more sophisticated search tools

Obviously, online public record searches can be valuable for investigators and other data searchers, if recognized as a limited step that needs to be used in concert with other data sources. For example, Thomson Reuters CLEAR has a mapping tool that’s capable of revealing every address at which the subject has lived. Then, investigators can zoom into that address with public mapping platforms and see a car in that parking area. If you’re in vehicle recovery, that type of functionality is priceless.

For most investigators, it’s vital to understand where the data — from a home address, a place of employment, or a professional license — comes from. “If you search for my name on a database system such as CLEAR, you not only get my addresses, you get that information from multiple, corroborating sources, and the service tells you what those sources are,” says Gerhard.

Ultimately, search engines are designed to deliver the single best answer to a search query. However, investigative solutions such as CLEAR and PeopleMap are designed to pull multiple sources of data together from various transparent sources, and then, with a click of a button, show how they’re connected — for example, are these two people married? Do they share multiple phone numbers and live at the same residence?

Investigators need control

When it comes to investigators and other professional searchers, their success depends on that they — not a public search engine — have the power to determine what records and sources a data search reveals to them. And because no algorithm can replace the insights of a professional data searcher or seasoned investigator, it is urgent to pair that expertise with advanced investigative solutions.

These solutions — uniquely designed for that purpose and which can zero in on the results that are most valuable to investigators, quickly and transparently — can make the difference between a successful, focused search that yields key results and falling down an internet rabbit hole of extraneous information.

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