How You Can Run a Free Background Check on Anyone

Find out if your next blind date has a record, how much your boss paid for his house and more.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife came to me and told me that the father of one of my son’s classmates from last year’s kindergarten roster called and said he wanted to take the boys out for a fun evening of putt-putt. I have never met the guy, and I’m generally suspicious of people, particularly of anyone who comes into contact with my children, and particularly of men who do so. I asked her for his full name and some other key information so that I could run a background check on him. This is a fairly routine procedure for me, and running a free background check on someone—whether it’s a classmate’s parent, a potential lover, or a handyman who your neighbor recommends—is easier than you’d think.

Now, I know that you’re probably thinking that as a reporter for Philadelphia magazine and, I have some fancy-schmancy research tool that allows me to find everything on everyone. Well, unless you have an office at the Department of Homeland Security, there is no such tool. You can’t find everything on everyone, but you can find a lot.

I do have access to certain paid services (reporters commonly use LexisNexis and Accurint, among others), but you don’t need these to get the job done. They just make the task a little easier. Besides, I’m sure it’s against some policy for me to use these company resources for my own reconnaissance purposes, and I would never violate a company policy, although I must admit to having saved a former colleague’s sister the trouble of sharing a house with an ex-con who had a pretty troublesome history.

If you’re dealing with a name like Brian Jackson or something similarly common, a middle name, birth date and street address will probably be required, so that you can be sure that the results pertain to your Brian Jackson and not some other. Most of the records that you’re dealing with will contain a birth date or street address, or both. These details might be easier to come by in casual conversation than you think. Or, if the subject of your suspicion is the guy you just started dating, something tells me you can probably figure out a way to sneak a peek at his driver’s license. After all, he’s looking in your medicine cabinet.

For criminal checks, more and more states and municipalities are offering free public access to their records. In Pennsylvania, criminal cases (from DUI to murder), summary offenses (like carrying an open container of alcohol or peeing in public), and even moving violations are accessible (for free!) via the appropriately named Unified Judicial System. There’s no account to register for. You don’t have to log in to anything. Just click on the Docket Sheets tab and search both the Common Pleas Courts and Magisterial District Court using the “Participant Name” search option. Entering a birth date for your “participant” is optional, though if you have one, you can literally be finished with your searches in under a minute or two.

If you get any hits, you’ll be able to pull up documents that will indicate case disposition, i.e. how much time the guy picking you up at 7 p.m. tonight spent in jail for that assault a few years back, or whether or not your new next door neighbor pleaded guilty to that burglary and check fraud case. I’m not trying to make you paranoid, but if either of these things were true, wouldn’t you want to know? Someone out there is probably going to make the “you need to learn to trust people” argument, but folks with criminal backgrounds don’t exactly tend to be forthcoming with details on their past.

Outside of Pennsylvania, public access to criminal records varies. You may be able to pull the records up online, or you may have to physically go to a government office to find them. If you know that your subject used to live in another city, call the municipal or county court clerk or prothonotary there, who may or may not be happy to help you. Either way, that’s their job. These are public documents, after all.

States also offer sex offender registries online (here are links for New Jersey and Pennsylvania), and you’d be a fool to not run a name check there. But be forewarned, these registries also allow you to do a geographic search, i.e. without naming a name, by zip code or address, so if you run one to see who is living nearby, be prepared to move. For instance, there are 52 registered sex offenders listed in the Northern Liberties 19123 zip code alone. How much did you pay for that condo again?

Civil cases, which may include divorces, ladies, but also more mundane items like car accidents and nonpayment of debt, are relatively easy to come by here in Pennsylvania, although you’ll have to check with each county directly. There’s no unified, statewide system, but it’s usually as simple as going to each county’s civil court’s public access site. Chester is the only county in the five-county area that makes you register and pay to do civil case searches (lame) via the Internet. Bucks, Philadelphia, Delaware and Montgomery counties all offer free online public searches and are (relatively) easy to use. (I’ve linked to the public access sites for the counties, so just click on the county name to start your search.) Be on the lookout for judgments or liens.

Financial information is a bit trickier to come by. If the person you’re looking up owns his home, you can almost always find out when he bought it, how much he paid for it, and whether or not he’s current on his taxes without much effort. Depending on your personality, you might also find it fun to see how much your newly divorced boss just dropped on his new bachelor pad.

In Philadelphia, you can find plenty of real estate information via the Office of Property Assessment. Just pop in an address. In Montgomery County, you’ll find similar details through the county’s Land Services site, which, unlike Philadelphia, requires you to register for a (free) account, but, also unlike Philadelphia, allows you to search by name as opposed to address. Keeping up with the Joneses, indeed.

Bankruptcies are handled by Federal Court, so you can either head to your regional branch to search court records (6th and Market in Philadelphia), or you can sign up for an account with PACER, a database of all federal cases, bankruptcies included. There’s a nominal fee associated with searches, but if you find a file you want to take a look at, PACER maintains PDFs of most of the documents out there, and unlike with state or city level criminal or civil cases, you can search PACER nationwide for your candidate. It’s a powerful tool.

In case you’re wondering about the father of my son’s classmate, the dad has a very common name, and there are literally dozens of criminals in the Pennsylvania database who share it. So my wife asked him for an address. A common enough request among parents, right? For all he knew, maybe she wanted to send his son a party invitation. All dad would give her was a P.O. Box. Nasty porn habit? Running from collectors? Who knows? All I know is that I don’t see any putt-putt trips in their immediate future.