A couple years ago, news researcher Cathy Knapp was having coffee with a friend who had just started dating a man she’d met at a restaurant. He looked great on paper—owner of a small business and two nice homes, divorced with no children. But, the friend was worried the man might be too old for her, so Knapp—who knows how to dig into people’s backgrounds using public records—volunteered to find out his age.
Not long after, Knapp texted her friend with what she’d discovered.
“I have good news and bad news for you,” she wrote. “The good news is, he’s not too old for you. The bad news is, he has multiple DUIs and a charge for resisting arrest, which is a felony.”
Anyone who participates in the wild world of modern dating knows the “facts” that people share (or don’t share) about themselves can take on a sort of free-range quality. Some people dabble in truthiness; others wear pants that are permanently on inferno-level fire. Unfortunately, no public database of “confirmed sociopaths” exists, and Google and social media can only reveal so much about a person. But Indiana public records—free or inexpensive, and easily accessible—can be useful starting points in learning about someone’s background.
Knapp, a member of Indy Maven, spent 40 years as a researcher at IndyStar and now works for WFIU public radio and WTIU public TV in Bloomington. She’s even helped people who hired unsuccessful private investigators. (To get a sense of the power of the work she does, read, “I’m Brent Jones. I’m the kid who doesn’t exist,” by the late columnist Matthew Tully.) As Valentine’s Day approaches, we asked her to share some great online resources for doing your best dating “due diligence.” But first, some advice:
—The more information you can bring to your search, the better. Full names, maiden names, birth dates, phone numbers, home addresses, and e-mail addresses can help track people—and also ensure you’re searching for the right person. If you search “Amanda Kingsbury” in an Indiana court records database, you’ll find nine results. Only two of those are actually me (yep, I’m the one who got the No-Turn-On-Red ticket in 2008).
—Never assume the info you find is 100% correct, or that it tells the whole story. “I find outdated, inaccurate information periodically,” Knapp says. “Information is sometimes only as good as the paper it’s on.”
—Newspaper archives can be very valuable, but overlooked, tools. “That’s another reason you should support your local newspaper,” Knapp says.
—To check federal cases, the average citizen would have to visit a federal government office and pay a fee for assistance. “That’s serious business—when you get to federal court,” Knapp says.
—Information is power, so use that power for good—not to make snap judgments or embarrass someone, but more so to protect yourself. Be extremely careful about confronting anyone with the information you find; the best course of action might be to make a quick, gracious exit. Knapp’s friend, for example, told DUI/Resisting Arrest Guy that she was considering getting back with her ex-husband.
—“My parting advice to Maven sisters is, trust but verify,” Knapp says.
“Anyone who exists in the wild world of modern dating knows the “facts” that people share (or don’t share) about themselves can take on a sort of free-range quality. Some people dabble in ‘truthiness’; others wear pants that are permanently on inferno-level fire.”
You want to know: Is the person married? Divorced?
News flash: Some married people lie about their marital status, often because they feel entitled to have their main cake at home while also eating extra cake on the side. Then there are those who omit an “I do” or two when disclosing their history of wedded bliss. These links can possibly help you figure out a person’s marital status, but because they’re Indiana-specific, they won’t reveal info on a current resident who got married or divorced in a different state.
Where to search: Use this free link to look at Indiana marriage records from 1993 to the present. Or search for divorce records. (“Caution: Just because someone filed for divorce, doesn’t mean the divorce happened,” Knapp says. “The case may be closed, but the two parties may have reconciled.”)
Knapp also suggests checking the Ancestry database for marriage records (free to use at the Indiana State Library and some, but not all, public library branches). Local newspapers sometimes run marriage announcements, or Knapp says, the name of the person you’re searching might appear online in an obituary as a survivor and reveal the parenthetical spouse.
You want to know: Do they have kids?
A friend of mine who is a paralegal once went on a date with a man who said he didn’t have kids. Not only did she find out that he had kids, but he also owed back child support to his ex-wife.
Way back in 2013 (a year after Tinder launched), a survey found that one in three online-dating dads lied about having kids—with the vast majority of those claiming they didn’t have any spawn, when they actually did. (These were mostly young dads under the age of 30, who feared rejection from a date.) Unless a person is proudly posting photos of his or her kids on social media, it’s not easy to determine someone’s parental status.
Where to search: “This is a tough one,” Knapp says. “If you know the ex-spouse’s name, you can look at birth records that some local newspapers run. Or, if you find a divorce filing, sometimes you’ll see where the court ordered the parents to attend a family mediation program because of a child or children.”
You want to know: Have they ever filed for bankruptcy? Been sued?
People hit financial rock-bottom for many reasons that aren’t their fault—they had healthcare costs due to a serious illness, they hired Bernie Madoff to manage their investment portfolio, they took a big, bold entrepreneurial risk. And then there are those who suck dangerously at all money matters, and whose credit score is perpetually lower than the number of days in a year.
A bankruptcy doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, but it’s a good starting point for a discussion if you’re planning, for example, on applying for a mortgage together. A personal bankruptcy is technically a public record, but you have to visit a federal government office for that information. But you can check online to see if a person has sued someone or been sued—and what the outcome was.
Where to search: You can find info on non-confidential cases from Indiana courts that use the state’s Odyssey case-management system. These include small claims, civil torts, collections, evictions, mortgage foreclosures, and other cases.
You want to know: Do they own the business or real estate they claim to own?
My paralegal friend, who lives in a different state, also went on a date with a well-dressed guy who claimed he owned two downtown condos and a house in a ritzy suburb. Turns out, nope—he was just trying to inflate his material worth, which a quick search of the county recorder’s database revealed. He also said he owned a business, and that was a solid piece of fiction as well. (The lesson here: Don’t mess with paralegals. They know how to find stuff.)
Where to search: In Indiana, Knapp says, some counties offer better property-record search tools than others. The Marion County Assessor’s Office makes it easy, letting you search by owner, address, or parcel. (They charge a small fee if you want to purchase property record information to learn more.) If you’re looking to see if a person owns, or has owned, a business in Indiana, you can do an Indiana Secretary of State business search. Enter the business name, registered agent name, or other details such as a business ID; there’s also an advanced-search capability.
You want to know: Is the person a serial killer?
Statistics are on your side here: Fewer than one percent of murders each year are committed by serial killers, the FBI reports. But if you want to know if the person you’re interested in has, for example, been recently arrested for multiple DUIs, or arson, or burglary—or simply has a renegade habit of driving without their seatbelt on—then you can search court cases from Indiana’s Odyssey case-management system.
Where else to search: If it was a high-profile arrest, a news outlet might have reported it—and that article (and mug shot) might surface on Google. Knapp says Marion County will let you search police records dating back to 2000, but each report costs $6. And remember: Being arrested on suspicion of committing a crime is not the same as being charged with a crime. (And those charges could be dropped for various reasons.)
One especially important resource is the FBI Sex Offender Registry. Just last month, the U.S. House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on economic and consumer policy announced an investigation into Tinder, Grindr, and Bumble for allegedly allowing convicted sex offenders to use their services.
The national registry, coordinated by the Department of Justice, allows you to search the latest information from all 50 states. “You can also search your neighborhood to see if any registered sex offenders live nearby,” Knapp says.
Amanda Kingsbury once used Google’s Advanced Patent Search to verify that a guy she was dating had patents in his name, as claimed. He did, in fact, have several.