What's on your record? The answer's a click away

By Miriam Gottfried
Crain's Chicago Business
May 2007

Company offers background info online for $5

Determining someone's character used to involve an investment of time, perhaps a bit of risk and sometimes a healthy dose of gut instinct. Now, a new Illinois database is making it possible to scan a person's background, from bankruptcies to divorces to arrests, with a few clicks of a mouse and a payment of about $5.

Check Illinois, at consumer.public-record.com, is an online compilation of public records from 15 counties in the state, including Cook. The records are already available to the public - if you're willing to go to a courthouse to leaf through them.

"Over the years, we've gotten an average of 10 to 15 calls per day from people wanting to know the history of a property or wanting us to run a check on someone," says Jeff Metcalf, whose company, Record Information Services Inc., has been in the business of culling and repackaging public records for 16 years. "Let's face it: We've all had neighbors or people we work with where something doesn't feel quite right."

Until now, Kaneville-based Record Information Services has collected and organized public records primarily for government and corporate clients, including Crain's. Check Illinois is an extension of that business but is designed for users who might want to tap into it only occasionally.

Mr. Metcalf, Record Information Services' founder and CEO, envisions many potential users for the site: a dating service client checking out her next date, a parent verifying a baby sitter's history, or small business owners who don't want to spend the $50 or so on an employee background check. "People have the right to know who's taking care of their kids and who they're dating," he says. "It's about safety."

By entering a name into the site's search engine, a user can produce a list of records, including real estate transactions and tax liens, as well as DUI, misdemeanor and felony arrests. Users can buy any of the records for $4.95 apiece, vs. the $10 and $50 minimums charged by national search engines like People Finders and Intelius.

But Pam Dixon, executive director of the non-profit World Privacy Forum, a San Diego-based think tank that researches technology and privacy issues, says Check Illinois is treading on thin ice, particularly in the areas of arrest records, which are controversial when used in employer background checks.

She also worries that the service provides no protection against stalkers or perpetrators of domestic violence who might use it to track down victims.

"This may all be public information, but what we used to have with paper records was privacy by obscurity," Ms. Dixon says. "We need to exercise restraint on who gets easy access to this kind of information and what their purpose is."

Mr. Metcalf defends the service, saying Check Illinois doesn't include details like Social Security and driver's license numbers, even though they're available in public records.

"We don't want any type of compromising information to get into the wrong hands," he says. "This is not going to give you sex offenders in your neighborhood. This will just provide a quick snapshot."

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