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Free public records searches may end up costing time and money

Jeremy Byellin

Whether investigating a party or witness in anticipation of trial, attempting to verify an individual’s identity, or simply conducting exploratory research before initiating a legal action, public records serve an absolutely vital role.

As the name suggests, “public records” are indeed accessible to the public. But does that mean that it’s the most prudent course of action to obtain the records sought by using only those resources freely available?

Quite often, public records obtained through the open web may have attendant flaws that could end up costing money in the long run, while eating up more of your valuable time in the process.

To be more specific, there are five prominent flaws with relying on free sources for your public records inquiries.

1.        They may be incomplete

Although some free websites can boast the provision of some public records information on an individual, very few, if any, can offer a comprehensive public records search that captures data from multiple sources. In other words, you may not be seeing the whole picture in your investigations.

Admittedly, there may be instances in which only a slice of the total public records pie is necessary; far more often than not, however, public records searches must be thorough to ensure that no important detail is overlooked.

For example, a free criminal records search may not be able to access all jurisdictions, and thus may fail to produce a potentially significant conviction about the person being investigated. Thus, it would be too easy to miss a criminal conviction that would be immensely relevant to your overall investigation.

2.      Free resources are not centralized

All other concerns aside, while it may be possible to access all available public records databases using free search platforms, it is virtually impossible to retrieve all available records using only one free platform. In fact, given how many different public records databases are in existence, it may not even be possible to limit the number of platforms to less than five.

Imagine visiting one website for a criminal records search on an individual, another for utility records, another for real estate records, and yet another for DMV records. Now, imagine having to visit a plethora of jurisdiction-specific websites for each type of those records. Suddenly, you may find yourself accessing dozens – if not hundreds – to guarantee that your search is sufficiently inclusive.

After all, while public records are indeed publicly available, there isn’t a free centralized database wherein all such records are maintained. So to get a full look at what public records have to say about an individual, you may be forced to spend a prohibitively long time combing through an unreasonably large number of search platforms.

Once again, there is no guarantee that there isn’t some stray database that went unnoticed in your endeavors – and that an important detail therein went overlooked.

Even ignoring all other flaws with relying on free public records resources, their lack of centralization should be a sufficient deterrent.

3.        There is little guarantee of accuracy

Even if one were to miraculously conduct a comprehensive free public records search in a relatively short time, how would the researcher know whether what was found is even accurate?

Of course, the question of a platform’s accuracy does not pertain to primary sources such as a county registrar’s website or a court records database maintained by the court itself; rather, accuracy concerns arise with secondary sources — that is, those websites that compile information from multiple primary sources.

Often, those secondary source websites want to entice users to pay for premium search services and may hint to have relevant information about the subject in question. The free, “hint” information may or may not be accurate, but to find out, the user will likely have to pay a fee.

In short, you typically get what you pay for when you rely solely on free information.

4.        Too many false positives and false negatives

Many search engine capabilities are evaluated by the rate at which they return “false positives” and “false negatives.”

False positives are those search results returned by the search engine that are not relevant to what the user was searching for. A common example in public records searches is information about an individual with the same or similar name as the intended subject.

False negatives are instances where a search engine fails to return data relevant to the user’s search, despite this information being available. This typically happens in public records context where a search engine fails to find alternate spellings of an individual’s name.

False negatives may be particularly prevalent in primary source searches where only exact matches are returned, while false positives may be more common in secondary source searches, where providers err on the side of offering too much information (perhaps to entice users to pay for premium services).

While no search engine can boast a zero rate of false positives and false negatives, the problem with free platforms is that they often have markedly higher rates. And the higher the rates, the more likely that vital information is overlooked or that time is wasted sifting through irrelevant results.

5.        The information may be out of date

Whereas primary sources of public records are typically updated routinely, outdated information is another problem that afflicts free secondary public records search platforms.

The issue goes beyond simply not having the most up-to-date records about an individual — as critical a flaw as this is. Instead, many free services will list outdated information alongside current data and fail to distinguish between the two. This is understandably quite confusing, and often forces the user to undertake additional searches on other platforms to verify which entry is the most current.

Furthermore, many websites may still list criminal records that have been expunged without noting as much. Although knowledge of such records may be valuable in some ways, expunged criminal records are, strictly speaking, erased from public records and treated as though they never existed. Therefore, it may be very difficult to use any such data in a number of settings.

With public records searches being the pursuit of cold, hard facts about an individual, the accuracy and exhaustiveness of these searches are paramount. These five flaws demonstrate why reliance on free online public records resources, which are typically lacking in accuracy, exhaustiveness, or both, is best avoided.

Indeed, legal professionals struggling with public records research may be at a disadvantage if they don’t have the most relevant, accurate, and up-to-date information – and that itself might be the most expensive lesson that free research can teach.

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