When you're considering dealing with a stranger -- whether it's a potential tenant, new hire or online date -- you might want to get all the information you can on that person's background. You can call your local police agency or sheriff's department's non-emergency number and ask if they will run a one-time criminal check for free--if they have time and manpower, and if you request politely, they might. Or you can pay an agency to run comprehensive background checks for a fee. But thanks to the Internet, other ways of finding information about a person are available.
Begin with the name. Using a search engine such as Google, do a search under the person's name, including both the full first name and any common shorter versions (i.e., look under both "Thomas Jones" and "Tom Jones). Jot down any associated phone numbers, addresses, businesses or locations. Use all major search engines because sometimes Yahoo will include information that Google does not.
Narrow your search by doing a second search including information you know or have learnt from the original searches. Search under the name and city or the name and business. Also do a search on just the phone number, which will turn up things like classified ads that might not include the person's name. Using a reverse phone listing site, such as Switchboard.com, you can get an address associated with a listed phone number.
Find the newspapers closest to the person's known addresses and search through the paper's online archives for stories mentioning that name. Also do archive searches on any addresses, phone numbers or businesses you have discovered in connection with the name. Many newspapers limit free archive searches to the past few weeks, but this search might turn up something recent. Sometimes a site will show you the first few lines of an older story, which might give you enough information to decide whether to pay to read it.
Search public records on websites for nearby counties, using the name and address. Property records for the address will tell you who owns the building in which the person lives. States vary on their access to criminal records, but all will allow you to run the name through the listings of registered sex offenders and current inmates. National and state sex-offender registries and inmate locators are available online.
Search for the name within businesses or organisations. If you have discovered that the person you're investigating holds a Realtor's license, for example, search for the name in websites for local real estate businesses.
Do an image-only search in Google Images to see if there is an online photo of the person. While in Google, search for the name and address separately in Google News to see if they've been featured in recent news stories. If you have an address, Google maps may allow you to actually look at the house, which may tell you what kind of neighbourhood the person lives in.
Search online-only communities such as Facebook, MySpace, ZabaSearch, Zoominfo, Linked-in, Twello (for Twitter users), and AOL. Because many people don't reveal their full names in some social networks, you might have to search under just the first name, the first name and city, or under other clues you have uncovered from earlier searches. Many people use the same word elements in multiple screen names; if you discover the person uses a screen name with the word "wolf" in it on AOL, there's a good chance the MySpace page also includes that word or pictures of a wolf. Social-network site pages often include photos and lists of friends, which can lead you to more information.
Run your own name and contact information through this process to see what other people can find out for free about you.
Not everything you read on the Internet is true; get independent confirmation from a second source whenever possible.