Need help finding Mr. Right-the CORRECT Mr. Right-when searching in public and court records online?

 Here are some tips to maximize your efficiency and retrieve more accurate search results so he won’t be so elusive!   Due to advances in technology and demand for public and court records, there are multiple sources online to locate individuals  and companies. You can literally profile an individual from cradle to grave-birth record to death notice-as well as determine marital status, criminal history, credit worthiness, professional standing or suspension, even political party affiliation!  Similarly, with a company you can determine ownership, professional hierarchy within the organization, publicly or privately held status, assets, solvency, and compliance with legal and regulatory industry standards.  And with both you can identify their past and pending litigation, settlements, and sanctions.

Whether you launch your search on a  free website, like our CourtReference  or  OnlineSearches for public records, or you select a subscription or  fee-based records site, you will encounter an initial search menu that will help you narrow the scope of your inquiry.  This threshold menu may ask for the name of the subject or company, the address or jurisdiction, a document number, and a date or timeline. The more specific information you have assembled in advance, the more precise your results will be.

Before you initiate any request, however, be sure to read the instructions on the website!  Avail yourself to any customer support resources, and seek assistance if you have search logic or content/coverage questions.  Preparation and familiarity with the site’s sources and search engine functionality will maximize your efficiency, save you time, and reduce searching fees.

There are many common mistakes record searchers make, from selecting an overly-broad or narrow database source to simple spelling errors or incomplete data entries.  Review the tips and strategies below to improve your research skills and retrieve better search results.



Name searching can be vexing, regardless of the source that you are searching in (marriage, property, criminal, or court records). Check the instructional details on the site.   Does the menu or search template restrict by first and last name only? Can you add a middle name or middle initial, if available?  Does the search engine only locate exact spelling matches, or can it search for derivative names (i.e., searching for “Elizabeth” would also find “Beth” or “Liz” or “Betty”)?  Since official records typically use proper names, search the most formal name variant, unless you are confident that the “Billy” in question is actually listed as Billy on his  legal documents.

Some sites allow the use of wildcard symbols (! ? * %) to find variations of  names, as well as Boolean search operators (“or” “and” “and not”) to refine a search.

Wildcard examples (these characters or symbols vary by database):

An ! or ? may be used as a search term extender:  Hunt! will find Hunt, Hunter, or Huntsman.  An % or * may be used as a substitute for a single letter within a name: Lars%n will find Larsen or Larson Springst**n will find Springsteen or Springstein.

Boolean search operators, (named for George Boole, a mathematician who created Boolean logic), create associative relationships between fields, or for our purposes, terms.  Common operators include: “or” “and”  “and not” 

Boolean examples (these operators can vary by database too):

Use “or” to search for alternative terms:  Bill or Will or Willy or William searches for all four name variations;  Denver or Aspen searches either city name;  Coke or Pepsi  searches either company name.

Use “and” to join two terms:  Gates and Microsoft requires both terms appear.

Use “and not” to eliminate a term: Washington and not D. C. will search for Washington but not Washington, D.C.

Using wildcard symbols and Boolean operators can significantly improve the quality of your search results, but they are not available or universal on all record websites.  Check the site instructions to determine if you are limited to exact spelling matches.   If you are, try to independently confirm the exact spelling of the subject name.  Your results will be inaccurate if you search for the surname or company name Gray instead of Grey when looking for Joel Grey or Grey Goose Vodka!

Another issue that emerges with name searching is running a common surname like Smith or Jones.  How can you confirm you’ve located the correct Mary Smith within an answer set of 5,000 Mary Smiths?  First, how narrow was your source selection? Did you run a state-wide search? Can you further restrict by county or city, primary or expanded zip code?  If your initial search was too narrow, can you expand your range of location or jurisdiction?

What is the record type? If it is a marriage or divorce record, you may be able to add the surname of the spouse, or a wife’s maiden name. If you are looking at a criminal record, do you have a ballpark timeline for the date of the offense, or the approximate age of the offender? If looking at a judgment or lien record, do you have the option of adding the name of the creditor or lien-holder? Again, the more detail and confining terms you can include at the outset, the easier it will be to eliminate extraneous or incorrect records.

With company names, you may encounter similar issues.  Searching for the company GAP may retrieve other companies with “gap” in the name.  Does the site offer searching by ticker symbol, tax identification number, or classification type (i.e., clothing instead of food retailer)?  If you are looking for merger information or corporate sanctions resulting from a regulatory violation, do you know the approximate dates these activities took place? When your company search renders too many results, determine if you can restrict by a specific subsidiary location instead of retrieving all location records.

Another tip for successful name searching is awareness of family naming conventions.  In the US, your subject may be a Sr., a  Jr.,     a II (second) or a III (third).  With Spanish surnames, you may encounter a first name followed by two surnames-the first being the father’s family name, the second, the mother’s family name.  Arabic names commonly use two or three word names, even four in official or legal records.  If searching for subjects or companies with foreign names, investigate the cultural norms, such as use of multiple surnames, hyphenation, and characters like the tilde (~).



Are there other strategies you can use to improve your records searching? Absolutely.  First, does the search menu or template ask for a record number or identifier?  Simple as it sounds, check your entry before sending it off.  Did you enter the letter “O” instead of the number “0” ?  Does your entry exceed the spaces allotted for a record number? Or is it under-inclusive? If you are looking for a criminal record by number, drop the generic identifier (i.e., UCR for uniform crime record) unless directed otherwise by the site instructions.

If you are searching an address, use the street name and house or building number.  If the site allows the use of wildcards, search: 20* Westlake to retrieve 200 through 209 Westlake (if you are not sure of the exact address but know it is a 3 character address number within that range, or you are looking for all residents of a particular block or building).  As a general rule, drop off directional signals with address searching (North, South, East, West, and abbreviated combinations thereof) unless absolutely essential to your search. Many court and public records do not use the postal standard abbreviations; a designation like N. or No.  may represent an apartment, suite, or unit number instead.  Further, the placement of the directional signal may be incorrect-North 201 Westlake is not the equivalent of 201 Westlake North, and you may retrieve the wrong property record. Likewise, avoid using address descriptors like street, road, avenue, boulevard, place, drive, or lane, or their common abbreviations.  These markers can frequently change, and are often incorrectly designated on an official record.  Less is often better on an address search; use the street name and house or building number. If you want to find an apartment or unit number or letter, search it as a free-standing term (i.e, “C” or “12”) or simply locate it in your resultant answer set.

When searching by phone number, drop the area code, as these can change with some frequency.  Eliminate dashes and hyphens unless directed by the site instructions.  This applies to not only to phone numbers, but to social security numbers, and many record types with numerical identifiers.  Just leave spaces where appropriate (again, best to consult the record examples or online instructions).

When entering dates, follow the requested format.   If you do not have an exact date, see if you can enter a date range.  Some records only offer a month/year format; do not deviate from the record display given or you may retrieve false hits.


Not sure you’ve found the correct “Mr. Right” despite your best efforts? If the filtering tips above haven’t helped, or the sources you are using allow for only exact spelling matches, chances are you may have to sift through a rather large answer set.  Try to match as many data points as possible with the information you do have ( age range, birth location, or court venue) to confirm the identity of the person or company you are seeking.

If your knowledge of the subject is limited, consider other resources available to obtain additional refining terms for your search.  Online you can access news articles, blogs, social media accounts, professional associations, and events that the individual or company may participate in.  Perhaps the event or case you are seeking to confirm is still pending or an appeal, and a final disposition is not recorded yet.  Or it is finalized, but the records have not been updated yet.

Regardless, even if an entity or individual is trying to remain “off the grid”,  it’s likely a digital footprint has been left somewhere.  Best of luck finding the right “Mr. Right”, regardless of record type!

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