The internet has made it much easier to get information about practically anyone. Sites like Spokeo make it scarily easy to find information about your.
Unfortunately, sometimes this information is used illegally, such as for blackmail, identity theft and other crimes. Knowing what's legal and what's not when it comes to poking around in someone's background and personal information is the best protection for both the investigator and you.
Common Legal Investigations
Investigations into a person's history are common. For example,
- Many employers do background checks on job applicants
- Landlords run checks on potential renters
- Police officers investigate the backgrounds of crime suspects
The law requires some investigations. For instance, the Brady Bill requires an investigation or background check on most people who want to buy a gun.
Usually these investigations are legal, but sometimes they go too far and break the law.
Common Sources of Information
The most common information source is public records. Many public records are created by the federal or a state government, such as driving records, criminal records and real estate records, just to name a few. Many of these records can be accessed for free or just a small fee.
Companies and organizations also create public records. Think of every newspaper and magazine you've seen, as well as the biographical and other information given about top employees and executives.
Public records aren't the only data source. A private investigator may be hired to track the comings and goings of a spouse, or check out employee work habits or insurance policy claimants.
Credit reports are also a rich data source. They're not only used by banks and lenders, but by employers using credit histories to learn about job applicants.
Stepping Over the Line
How far can you go when looking for information? It's illegal to investigate someone for an illegal purpose, such as to commit a crime or to invade the other person's privacy rights. Know that your credit report is a private record even though it contains public information, like your name and address. Others can legally view it only with your permission. Keep in mind also it's a federal crime to get a credit report under false pretenses (by lying, that is) or to use information in the report improperly.
Even the police can cross the line by conducting illegal searches and seizures. As a general rule, the police may search a person's whereabouts (car, house, boat, etc.) only if they have a warrant and probable cause to suspect a crime has happened, or they actually saw the crime happen.
Be aware of who may be looking at your personal information, and whether their searches are legal. An improper search may amount to a crime, or a civil lawsuit may bring you relief.
Because of the terrible results it may have, identity theft has been a federal crime since 1998. Each state also has laws dealing with it. If you think your identity has been stolen, contact your local police department immediately. Also, contact your banks, creditors and the major credit bureaus. Finally, look into placing a fraud alert on your credit reports, and consider filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
If you're the victim of an illegal search by law enforcement, talk your lawyer about asking for a court order suppressing the evidence seized by the police. For example, if the police search your car without probable cause and seize illegal drugs found in the trunk, you may ask the court to bar the prosecution from using that evidence against you in court.
Most states allow people who've been illegally investigated to file lawsuits, too. These lawsuits are "civil," or non-criminal, and you need to know exactly who conducted the illegal investigation. If you suffered some financial loss, such as money taken from a bank account or large credit card bills, the person responsible for the loss may have to repay you. And, regardless of your financial loss, you may get an award of money damages to compensate for the illegal activity.
There's a wealth of information about all us stored in all types of places, much of it's right at our fingertips and just a few mouse-clicks away. If you think you've been illegally investigated by a company, the police or another individual, it's best to talk to your lawyer as soon as possible.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I believe that someone has stolen my identity and is using it. Should I change my bank accounts and credit cards?
- If my identity is stolen, what is the best way to notify my creditors?
- The police searched my house and found an illegal substance. I swear it's not mine. Can it be used against me in court?