Public Records: Types, Usage & your Rights in the US

There’s a lot you can learn about a person nowadays. You probably already know that there’s a lot of information you can get about a person through social media. But a lot of people are unaware that personal information is also stored in public records databases that can be accessed by anyone. All government bodies must keep databases of all documents that they receive, keep, and generate.

What are public records?

What are Public Records? Types and Uses

Good question. Technically, public records are any information that is created or acquired by a government body or officer that can be accessed by a member of the public. These records can be in any form – documents, emails, maps, films, photos, software, books, CDs, DVDs, etc. However, the type of records that fall under the Open Public Records Act will depend on the state. There are some records that are not accessible because they contain information that would constitute an invasion of a person’s privacy such as personnel records. They also may not be accessible due to public safety concerns or because the record is part of a current investigation. Take note that some public records such as birth and death records are only available to certain individuals who meet the eligibility requirements.

So, what information can you generally find in a public record? Individual public records typically include quite a bit of personal identifying information such as name, address, birth date, age, names of family members, marital status, past arrests, etc. Government and business public records, on the other hand, tend to be more statistical in nature such as business name, revenue, number of employees, business credit score, and payment history.

Types of Public Records

types of public records

There are many types of public records available. Typically, individual public records are those that revolve around the biggest events in a person’s life. These include:

  • Birth and death certificates.
  • Marriage certificates and divorce decrees.
  • Deeds, mortgages, and other records related to property.
  • Various licenses such as professional and business licenses.
  • Driving records.
  • Criminal records, including wants and warrants.
  • Sex offender records.
  • Court records.
  • Unclaimed property.
  • Missing persons.
  • Voter registration and election records

Government and corporate public records include:

  • Real estate appraisals
  • City Hall/Town Hall meetings
  • Voter records
  • Census records
  • Government spending reports
  • Legislation minutes
  • Consumer protection information
  • Liens, judgments, or bankruptcy filings
  • Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filings.

How useful are public records?

One of the major reasons why the Freedom of Information Act and other open public records acts were created was to ensure the government’s transparency and accountability. Public records allow us to learn about government operations and protect us from illicit government activities that are against the interest of the public. In short, public records are critical to guaranteeing the integrity of our political institutions. But that’s not all. There are several other uses for public records.

Verify Identity and Locate Individuals

locate individuals

Vital records – marriage, divorce, birth, and death records – are public records that you can use to obtain key information on citizens. You can use these to research their family tree and history, track down family members whom they have lost touch with. Public records can also serve to help individuals and organizations to locate owners of stolen property, find organ and tissue donors, and locate witnesses in civil or criminal matters. These can also be used by law enforcement agencies to identify and locate suspects. They can even help find deadbeat parents who are delinquent in child support payments as well as tax evaders.

For businesses, information contained in public records can help verify the identity of applicants for the company’s service (i.e. cable, credit card). It can be used to protect against identity theft and check fraud, get contact information on consumers with delinquent accounts, and find pension fund beneficiaries or heirs to estates. The government, on the other hand, can use public records to make sure that no unidentified residents are listed in the records or taking part in their social programs.

Verify and Facilitate Property Ownership

Almost all transactions that are related to real estate involve the use of some public record. Public records can be used by individuals or organizations to confirm the existence of property, its location, and boundaries. It can also be used to verify the owner of the property. In addition, public records can make financing the purchase of a property easier and faster.

Licensure Information

Public records can also be used to verify the qualifications of service providers and job applicants. You can check the licenses of medical professionals, lawyers, private investigators, contractors, and other types of professionals. You can also use public records to locate qualified specialists and submit complaints in case of unsatisfactory performance.

Target Interested Consumers

public records used in consumer research

Public records are commonly used by government agencies in generating statistics on births, deaths, property ownership, tax payments, voter registration rolls, military service, etc. Businesses can use this information gathered by governmental bodies to seek out potential customers. They can use it to find out where to open a business – if it’s a good fit with the locals. You can learn all about the market – what the residents’ professions are, their credit score, level of education, type of work, their routine or travel patterns, family size, financial health, and even buying habits. Because most public records can be accessed for free, this enables businesses to dramatically reduce their marketing costs as well as lessen the amount of unwanted or undelivered mail and, more importantly, the cost of the product or service. Because they’ll be able to target interested consumers directly, consumers feel a higher level of satisfaction.

Financial Decision-making

Public records can be used to analyze a consumer’s financial fitness. A person’s credit history can be used by future creditors on whether or not to approve a loan. Public records can also be used to verify information entered into a loan application as well as determine property ownership and value.

Protecting Public Health, Safety, and Property

Information found on public records can be used by law enforcement agencies to prevent, detect, and/or solve crimes. Public records can also be used by journalists and researchers to inform the public on matters that are of public importance such as locations of drug arrests or police performance in crime-infested neighborhoods. These records can also be used to compare communities and neighborhoods to make sure your family and children are safe from sex offenders or other criminals located in the area.

What’s in a background check?

doing a background check

When we think of a background check, we typically think of someone’s criminal history getting pulled up by the police. And, in a way, it is true. But there’s a lot more to a background check than just getting someone’s criminal records. It may also include your credit history, driving record, education, work history, medical history, professional licenses, and motor vehicle records. Some types of background checks will help determine your eligibility in purchasing a firearm while others may verify your employment eligibility (i.e. you’re authorized to work in the US). Basically, what information shows up on the background check will depend on the scope of your check and the reason why you are performing it in the first place.

There are different types of background checks that can be run on an individual. You can do a social security number trace which allows the searcher to view names and aliases connected with the social security number as well as his/her previous addresses and work history. Checking the sex offender registry will let you know if a person is a registered sex offender while the searching the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) will help you determine if a person is considered by the government as a threat to national security. Other types of background checks include education verification, driver’s license verification, healthcare sanctions reports, FBI fingerprint database, professional references, professional qualification verification, and national criminal record database.

Who can do a background check on you?

There’s a lot of information out there that you can access in order to learn all about a person. Not only are a lot of details readily available online (particularly social media), there are also quite a number of public record databases that you can search through. However, that doesn’t mean you should perform a background check on just anyone. There are some do’s and don’ts on background checks that you should keep in mind.

You may:

  • search for information on someone you’re dating
  • look for information on an old friend you lost touch with
  • check where your neighbor works
  • check what information is available about you
  • learn more about the family of your child’s best friend
  • locate the name of a friend’s first spouse
  • get information on potential roommates
  • perform research to learn about your ancestry by searching for individuals who have the same name

Basically, you can do a background check if you are doing so in a personal setting – for you and/or your family’s safety.

However, if you are going to perform a background check on a professional setting, then it’s a whole different ball game. If you plan to use a background check in order to make an important decision that will affect them and their future – job, house, loan, etc. – then the law (the Fair Credit Reporting Act) requires that you obtain their written permission first.

So, without written consent, you may not:

  • use public records to approve or reject a person’s job application
  • use public information as a substitute for an official criminal background check
  • use a background check to discriminate others based on the results
  • screen tenants using public records
  • deny an applicant due to their credit history