Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Private Investigator Basics: Records Research

There are three core competencies of private investigation: records research, interviews, and surveillance. Not every investigation is going to involve surveillance, and not every investigation is going to involve interviewing, but every investigation will have some form of records research. In fact, some investigations are just research. Records research is the locating of public and private records. The research is a tool for gathering information to support or oppose a point of view.

Records Research Basics Process

Every investigative assignment has its own nuances regarding research. Depending on the nature of the investigation you will be searching different databases, so investigators should constantly be learning about different database repositories.

Four Major Steps of Records Research:

Step 1: Determine the Client's Needs

Research is contingent upon what the client’s needs are,so the first question to ask is what is it that you are looking for? This will help you identify what the client wants you to research and helps you identify the scope of work.

A prudent private investigator will determine what the client will do with the information before they undertake any investigation. Never conduct research that could be used in an inappropriate manner against anybody.

Step 2: Develop an Investigative Plan

After we’ve determined the client’s needs, we put together an investigative plan that will identify specific investigative tasks and documents to look for. We'll also establish and include an operating budget and cost estimate with our investigative plan so that there’s accountability that will ensure that the investigation is done in an effective and efficient manner. Once we have put together the investigative plan, we’ll have an investigative proposal to present to the client, and we’ll know what the end result is going to be.

Step 3: Internet Research

A lot of records research usually begins with the Internet. The Internet has made it easier to begin an investigation. The research is easier, it’s a quick starting point to narrow the search, and private investigators become more effective and more efficient with use of the internet. We don’t want to be swimming in the ocean of information, nor do we want to be in the lake. We want to be in the pond.

Private investigators use the Internet to get leads on possible original records through contemporary providers of online public records databases. Once we find that the records exist, we'll go to the actual record-keeping database and get a copy of the original record.

Step 4: Obtaining Original Records

An original record is the document that contains the information that we may be looking for. Original documents are birth records, marriage records, business records, etc. The original records are not available on the Internet, but we may learn where to go for those original records during that search.

Original records are either at the city, county, state, national, and even international levels. Why do investigators need original records? If we are going to provide a written research report that will contain the results of our research, the best evidence is the original document. The record becomes a piece of the documentary evidence that may be used in litigation. You will need a certified copy of the record in question, otherwise it could be challenged.

Public verses Private

Depending on the state, public records include address information, birth and marriage records, and criminal records like divorce proceedings. Private records are something that private investigators have limited access to. In order to get an individual’s medical, tax, credit, prior employment, and educational records, a private investigator will need authorization in the form of a waiver from the individual.

Private records are non-original records, and the copies are stored in databases for retrieval and access later. These would be publications, subscription databases, and non-subscription databases.


Each of the three core competencies of private investigation plays a critical role in working through an investigation. As a valuable tool, records research helps investigators get more information and a clearer picture of the individual or situation they are investigating. Combining that knowledge with interviewing and the basics of surveillance helps investigators hone their skills and become more effective in the field.

Brian Blackwell Investigations | Seattle, WA