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Efficiently Using Online Databases in an Investigation

When conducting a background check, the main interest of the case is with the client, this rings true for any job. However, the investigator has an equally weighted responsibility to the subject as well. We hosted a webinar discussing background checks where an investigator told a story of an innocent woman losing her job due to an investigator reporting a false criminal record to her employer. After further research, the investigator discovered that the birth date on the record didn’t match the subject’s, nor did the social security number.

This error was found in an online database, and the necessary research to validate the document was not conducted. Every piece of information handed over to a client must be thoroughly checked for the benefit of the client, the investigator, and the subject. These are errors can easily be avoided with diligent research and meticulous attention to detail when reviewing documents.

Video: Using Online Databases in an Investigation

Our webinar guests included Brian Willingham of Diligentia Group and Pamela Hay of Broad Range Investigation. Willingham has been an investigator for more than 11 years and has conducted thousands of background checks. Hay is a professor at Boston University and has top secret clearance with the government to conduct civil background checks. Both investigators agreed that online databases are a valuable resource in a background check, as long as the investigator is using them correctly.

You actually need to pull these records, look at the files, review the documents, and make sure it is the subject of your investigation -- before providing any information to the client.

Investigator Pam Hay

Hay normally starts her investigation with an online-database search. “I think it’s a great place to start,” she says, “but you need to go over the report with a fine-tooth comb in order to ascertain the validity of the document and how accurate the information is.” Online database information is manually entered, leaving room for human error. So although it is a good place to start, there are a few more steps required to confirm whether the record is legitimate. 

Willingham suggests multi-sourcing documents as a method to confirm the legitimacy of a file. 

“There are tons of errors in databases,” Willingham says, “one thing that I typically recommend to avoid errors is to multi-source your information.” Investigators can do this a couple of ways: Start by using a variety of online-based and investigative-based databases, as well as sourced material. Investigators can verify address history against the subject’s full name, search the subject with a middle initial, confirm work history against address history, etc. When the investigator can confirm that one piece of information is factual, he or she can begin to validate documents by checking what they know is true, and learning more about the subject from there. 


Both investigators explain that the validity of records in online databases need to be checked by pulling the original documents.

When the files match up, it’s a good idea to go on-site to a court to look for similar or the same documents. Files like criminal records and bankruptcy records usually have a social security number or a drivers license number, and once an identification number is confirmed the investigation will move a lot faster. However, it is essential for the investigator to take the necessary precautions in determining the subject’s correct identification number for the background check to move forward.

Willingham also suggests searching state agencies. In New York, for example, there is an office of court administration where investigators can complete a statewide criminal check. When the information checks out manually, and across multiple documents, investigators can begin revealing information to the client and delving deeper into the investigation. 

There are tons of errors in databases. One thing that I typically recommend to avoid errors is to multi-source your information.

Brian Willingham

Hay utilizes online databases to plan out her investigation. “Again, I think it’s a great place to start,” she says, “in order to plan the mission of your investigation and how much work has to be done.” By setting up a plan of how the investigator is going to find and verify information, he or she can be certain that the concluding information is true. This way, neither the investigator nor the subject is at risk of losing his or her job, reputation, or worse. Hay continues to stress the importance of checking the validity of the documents, “You actually need to pull these records, look at the files, review the documents, and make sure it is the subject of your investigation -- before providing any information to the client.”


About the Participants

Brian Willingham is a New York Private Investigator and the President of Diligentia Group. He is also #2 on the PInow list of Top Private Investigator Blogs.

Pamela Hay is a criminal defense investigator and president of Broad Range Investigations. She also teaches investigative research at Boston University.

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