Pat Stith The News & Observer

Backgrounding Individuals

This is not a list.

What each of us needs is a mind-set -- not a list -- a mind-set that says, the information I need is out there somewhere, and I am going to find it. What we're trying to do here is encourage that mind-set. With that caveat, let's assume we're trying to background an individual. What information might we be able find?

From the phone book [or CD-ROM directory] we may get a tentative address, phone number and sometimes, an occupation, A city directory may give us a second look at their name, their spouse's name, and both occupations. We may be able to identify' their neighbors up and down the street. A crisscross reference directory might tell us how long they've lived at that address and give us directions to their house. Employers will usually verify a person's employment, how long they've worked there and, sometimes, give you a salary range.

And why don't we check the clips, in our own newspaper and across the country.

From their driver license record we could get a name, address, and date of birth. And their description -- the color of their eyes and hair, their height and, perhaps, weight. And their driving record, the tickets they have received and the accidents in which they've been involved. With that information we can locate the actual citations and accident reports. From those records we can find out whose car they were driving. License restrictions may give us an indication of health problems. And, of course, the charges could indicate a drinking problem.

While we're at the division of motor vehicles we can look at their vehicle registration papers. We can find out when and where they bought their car or truck, who financed it, and the name of their insurance company. We can get the tag number. We can even find out how many miles their vehicle had been driven when they bought it. At the Board of Elections we can look at his or her voter registration. We can find out what political party they belong to, how often they vote, their date of birth, and where they were born.

At the Clerk of Court's office, we can look at criminal charges and dispositions, when he or she went to jail, how long they stayed there, and who bonded them out. [We ought to check in U. S. District Court too, for federal charges.] We can examine mental warrants. We can check for civil suits involving him or his wife and children, or his company. And we can look at divorce papers.

We can call the state Department of Corrections' central records section to find out if he's ever served time in a state prison. They could tell us the crime, the sentence, the sentencing court, the time served, the parole date, and other data. Maybe they've been a victim of crime. We may be able to find out if their house has been burglarized and, perhaps, what they said when they called 911.

At the Tax Collector's Office, we could look at her personal and business property tax listings. We could see how much tax she pays and whether she pays on time. We can find out if under some special provision of the law, she has managed to avoid some taxes. We could get a map of the property she owns. We could find out when it was built, and how it is heated. [Does the head of the power company heat with gas?) We can get the number of square feet in the house and get a layout of the rooms. This also is a good place to get an unlisted phone number.

If they don't live too close to the seat of government, we can find out which agencies have contacted them by phone, by examining records of long distance government calls.

Later, when we go over to city hall, we can find out how much water he uses. That would be important if we were trying to find out if a candidate for city council actually lived inside the city limits, as he claimed. How could he live there and use no water? While we're there, we might as well check to see if he owns a pet, and see whether he calls his dog Spot or Devil.

At the Register of Deeds we can find out what property he owns in the county. We can get the names of the buyers and sellers, the sales price, and how much of that price was financed. Also, we can find out about liens against his business or personal belongings. If he's doing business under an assumed name, we can get that name.

We can find out if he has mortgaged his property -- or his furniture.

We can look at his company's incorporation papers. They would tell us when his or her company was incorporated, and the name and address of the registered agent. They also may tell us the names of the company's incorporators, directors, officers, and, perhaps, the name of the attorney who drew up the papers. We can look at his local business license. We may get a Dun & Bradstreet report on his company, which would give us sales figures, number of employees, names of executives, and more. if stock in the company is publicly traded, we could find out who owns significant portions of stock, and how much key officers are paid.

Is she wealthy? Or famous? We can go on-line and find out if she has a beach place in Florida. We can look her up in various Who's Who publications.

If he is associated with a non-profit, tax-exempt foundation we can look at its federal tax returns. That may give us his salary. if he is involved in soliciting charitable contributions, we can look at the annual audit and at records of each fund raiser.

We can examine his political contributions and military discharge record. And we can find out what he did [or didn't do] to earn the medals he wears.

We can look at building permits for her home or business and the building inspection reports on her property, together with any zoning changes.

If he's moved recently, the U.S. Post Office will give us the forwarding address he left so Mom's letters don't get lost.

We can find out if she owns a boat or a plane, and get descriptions. We can look at the repair records on the plane. We can find out if she's a licensed pilot and what kind of license she holds. If we see her in an airplane and can get the "N" number off the wing, we can find out who owns it.

We can find out how much money his Papa left him and whether he actually graduated from the college he claims, the year and what degree he has. If he has an advanced degree, his thesis also will be a public record. And don't forget the college [and high school] yearbooks.

We can find out whether he has a pistol permit.

If he's ever gone through bankruptcy, those records will be open to us. Or if he's failed to pay his debt to the IRS, we can get a copy of the lien.

If he's a state employee, we can get his salary. We can find out how long he has worked for the state and exactly what he's supposed to be doing. We can examine his phone records, his travel records and, if he's a top official, his ethics statement. We may be able to track his movement around the state, arid the nation, by obtaining records of calls made on his state telephone credit card. We can even find out if the public has complained about the way he drives his state car. And we can look at the audit report on his unit.

There's much more on record if the person works for a firm regulated by the state or federal government, including bondsmen, day care operators, rest and nursing home operators, cemeterians, funeral home directors, private detectives, charity fund operators, automobile dealers, highway contractors, insurance agents, mobile home hailers, or builders of low income government subsidized housing.

If she is an attorney we may be able to get background from the Martindale-Hubbell Law directory, including the names and biographical sketches of her law partners and her firm's major clients.

In some states we can check worker compensation claims, and in some, including my own, welfare payments.

Does his firm sell to the city or state? Then we can find out what he sells and at what price, and whether he won the contract competitively or whether it was sole sourced.

If he's obtained an SBA loan, or tried to, we can get those documents. We can check with the State Clearinghouse to find out if the agency he works for has obtained a federal grant, or tried to get one.

We can see how many parking tickets he's been given, and whether he paid them.

We may be able to find out when and where he had his car inspected, and how many service stations he went to before somebody finally passed it.

We might be able to get the traffic count in front of his house, the pollution level in the creek behind it, and the safety rating on the bridge at the end of his street.

We might get a topo map of her property and maps of storm sewer line into her plant. Depending on the nature of her business, there are OSHA violation reports, fire inspection reports, beer and wine licenses, employee political action fund reports. We also can find out whether her company guards have been deputized.

We can see his birth certificate, marriage certificate, death certificate, and we can read his will. And, if he died in an accident or was killed or committed suicide, we can get a copy of his autopsy report.

Is that everything? Of course not. Each of you, from your own experience, could add to these suggestions.