Bamboozled: How you can sleuth for public records

 

blueWhen Bamboozled writes about a business, we include all kinds of public data.

Complaints reported to Consumer Affairs and the Better Business Bureau. Lawsuits filed against the company or proprietor, and how many resulted in judgments or were dismissed. Arrest records. Bankruptcies. And more.

There were plenty of public records in the recent Bamboozled column about a deck contractor.

And in comments on that story on NJ.com, readers da5050guy and phiremin had a suggestion: to spotlight the public records anyone can search.

We thought it was a great idea, and we had the perfect expert: Vinessa Erminio, New Jersey Advance Media’s crack researcher, and a personal hero of Bamboozled’s.

Before we get to those public databases, note that there are plenty of pay options offered by private companies. Some are affordable, but others are prohibitively expensive for the average consumer. We’re going to stick to the free or low-cost public databases.

Erminio was happy to share some of her research skills, and some of what she called “the most accessible and reliable” resources for everyday consumers.

“There are always, always exceptions to every public records rule,” she said. “None of these sites are 100 percent accurate or complete, and they all have disclaimers saying so.”

Let’s get started, courtesy of Erminio.

LAWSUITS, JUDGMENTS AND BANKRUPTCIES

??????????????????New Jersey Superior Court lawsuit filings and judgments are searchable for free. On the site menu, go to Online Resources and select Civil Case Public Access. Then search by party name or case number.

“You cannot retrieve case documents online, but you can find the names of the parties and the outcome of each case,” she said. “For judgments, you can find the amount of the judgment and whether it has been paid.”

To get case documents, such as the complaint or the judge’s orders, you have to head to the courthouse, Erminio said.

But there are some items you won’t be able to get your hands on.

Confidential records, such as child abuse cases, are not available in the database, she said.

New Jersey municipal court cases are not available online, but you can contact the municipal court directly.

Bankruptcies are another story. These are filed in federal courts, not the superior courts.

You can purchase copies of bankruptcy case documents for 10 cents a page online from PACER, the federal court public access service, Erminio said. Anyone can register and search for cases. PACER also includes civil and criminal cases filed in any U.S. district or appellate court, she said.

If you want out-of-state information, what you can find will depend on the state. Erminio recommends you start with the state’s court website to see what’s offered.

“Some states have a unified search for all county courts like New Jersey,” she said. “In others, you must search each county court individually, and some don’t provide any online records at all.”

For links to all the U.S. state court sites, go to the National Center for State Courts.

RESEARCH ON A BUSINESS

To check if a business is required to be licensed or registered, check the Division of Consumer Affairs License Verification System. Some are issued in the business name, individual owner or employee, Erminio said, so check for all.

You can also get the lowdown on what kind of profession requires a license or registration.

Then call Consumer Affairs at (973) 504-6200 and visit the Better Business Bureau to learn if a company has any complaints.

To learn who owns a New Jersey corporation, try the state’s Business Records Service website.

“This service is not free – fees range from 10 cents per page for document copies, to $6.25 for a business entity status report,” Erminio said.

Then use a search engine such as Google to see if a business or proprietor is listed on a complaint chat board or was the subject of a newspaper article.

CRIMINAL RECORDS

Criminal history records compiled by the New Jersey State Police are only available to authorized agencies and not the general public, Erminio said.

But some criminal information is available from the state courts and county police.

About half of the counties in New Jersey offer searchable inmate databases, so check your county’s police website, Erminio said.

The state’s Sex Offender Registry is searchable at the New Jersey State Police website.

The New Jersey Courts website has a criminal conviction database. On the site menu, go to Online Resources and select Criminal Conviction Information.

“This database only contains records on defendants who were convicted of a crime in Superior Court,” Erminio said. “If the case was dismissed, is not yet completed, or was held in another type of court, such as municipal court, it will not appear in the database.”

The Department of Corrections offers a free offender search. Offenders are removed from the database one year after they are released, Erminio said.

PROPERTY AND PHONE NUMBERS

State property records, including ownership, tax assessments and sales, are searchable online. The New Jersey Association of County Tax Boards has a free statewide database.

Most counties also maintain property databases. Some have deeds, mortgage records and other documents, Erminio said, so check your county clerk’s website.

Landline phone numbers, unless the number is unlisted, are usually available on free databases such as YellowPages.com or Switchboard.com. You can also try reverse phone searches, or entering the person’s name in a search engine, and you could find a listing with a number.

Cell phone numbers are tougher to find, Erminio said.

“Depending on the carrier, they may or may not be listed in publicly available databases,” she said.

OTHER RECORDS

You can access many other kinds of documents from government agencies with an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request.

What you’ll be able to get will depend on the details and scope of your request, Erminio said.

The OPRA website has guidelines for submitting requests and offers tips for determining which state agency holds the records you seek.

If you want data on public employee salaries, pensions and government spending, try data.nj.gov, which is a searchable site.

And you can check the New Jersey Law Enforcement Commission website for searchable campaign finance data.

WHAT YOU CAN’T GET

Income tax records are generally unavailable on both the state and federal level.

“The one exception is IRS Form 990s, which are tax forms filed by many nonprofit corporations,” Erminio said. “Several websites, such as GuideStar.org and FoundationCenter.org, offer free access to Form 990s.”

You can also learn whether or not an entity has filed with the IRS as a nonprofit.

You can’t get another person’s driving record in New Jersey, but you can order your own for a fee. You can often order online, but certain requests must be made by mail. Learn more at the Motor Vehicle Commission website.

Also for a fee, you can get accident reports for non-toll road crashes in New Jersey, Erminio said. Details on how to order a toll road’s report are available on the same site.

Credit information is also not public record. You may obtain your own credit reports annually for free from annualcreditreport.com.

Also online, you can’t find handgun permits, medical records, and vital records such as birth, marriage and death certificates, Erminio said.

A FEW FINAL TIPS

Whenever you do a search, pay special attention to the instructions.

That’s because some sites allow you to search for partial names, while others do not, Erminio said.

“Even if you know the exact spelling of a person’s name, try searching variations of it,” she said, such as Vinessa/Vanessa or Steve/Steven/Stephen.

For names with apostrophes or multiple words, she said you should try all possible variations, such as O’Brien/OBrien/O Brien or DeMarco/De Marco.

Erminio also said there are many people and corporations with similar names, so having an address or date of birth can help ensure you have the correct one.

“Also, keep in mind that most online records from the courts and other government sites are considered unofficial and are provided for informational purposes only,” she said. “All of the websites I’ve mentioned could possibly have incorrect or incomplete data. It’s best to contact the courthouse or agency that maintains the database if you have any questions about the records you find.”

Staff researcher Vinessa Erminio contributed heavily and with gusto to this report.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.

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