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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies


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Searching Secrets of Professional Cyber-Sleuths
By ,
May/June 2014 Issue

As law librarians for a large federal agency, we often function as investigators, finding and researching people and companies. Many of these would rather stay under the radar, which makes our work both challenging and rewarding.

Searching takes us far and wide in terms of sources consulted and diving deep into databases. This article outlines our top 10 tips for creative searching on people and companies. It provides sites and search strategies we have found to be critical for people and company research. Any examples cited are not related to any current or past litigation but do demonstrate how you might use these well-known resources in nontraditional ways.

While we make good use of the standard public records aggregators (Lexis, Westlaw, Accurint, CLEAR, and TLO), we also have found critical bread crumbs—leading to the whole loaf, so to speak—in unexpected places. In order to access the sites mentioned, as well as a wealth of other resources, visit our guide on Public Records Research Online, or How to Find Everything There Is to Know About “Mr./Ms. X.” It can be found on another recommended site, sponsored by LexisNexis ( ).


Use the Geographic Names Information System to pinpoint your person or company ( Developed by the  U.S. Geological Survey, this database could provide that “aha” moment in the beginning or middle of your research. It contains the federally recognized name of any geographical feature and defines the location of the feature by state, county, USGS topographic map, and geographic coordinates. We use it to find the county of a city or town as well as pinpoint a landmark or geographic feature. Examples include finding the location of a high school when provided only with the name and state, the longitude and latitude of a camp ground, location of a long defunct mine, and county of any town or place in the U.S.

The 1940 (and previous) Census records can identify family ties and background information ( Genealogists rejoiced when this data became available in spring 2012, but so should all people researchers. Data points to discover in these records include middle initials/names, family members, place of birth or previous address, and occupation. Often, the Census information does not answer our question, but it might give us that extra piece of information we need to get there.

Federal Election Commission’s donor database helps us locate the right person ( Any total annual personal federal campaign contributions of more than $200 must be reported to the Federal Election Commission. In addition to name, a contributor must record employer as well. Several times the ability to tie a person to an employer has helped us find the proverbial “needle in the haystack” when we were given a person to find with a common name and little data other than where he or she once worked. You can use the Advanced Search under Individual Search to enter any combination of name, geographic location, and employer. Suddenly, a name like “John Smith” becomes less of a challenge. You can also search by employer only, which could help you obtain names of current or past employees.


Another “Hail Mary” resource we use when traditional means of identifying contact information for people have failed is domain registry information. Domain name registries allow you to search a URL to see what company, person, or registrar is associated with that site. In one case, the results provided a company phone number that was not available in any of the other usual places. Another time, the registry record provided an email address for the company president, also impossible to find anywhere else.

One easy access point for this “Whois” data is Fagan Finder ( As an example, enter the URL for Government Info Pro ( and then choose Global Whois. From there, choose the Go Daddy link for complete details on an extensive record with contact information for the owner of the page. Coverage and depth of information provided will vary by source, so you might have to try different sites to get the information you need.

Similarly, the federal contractor database, or System for Award Management, might be the only source to tie a company operating in a foreign country with a U.S. person or company. The full record can provide foreign operations contacts, as well as local ones. Despite its catchy name, it is not the most intuitive database to search. From the homepage, click Search Records, then enter your search term in the box. Once your results come up, you can choose active or inactive records. Choose View Details for the record you would like to see, and then choose Entity Record on the left.


We can tie people to businesses using Dun’s Market Identifiers on Lexis ( This is one of the few fee-based sources we discuss in this article. Dun’s Market Identifiers is often helpful for finding an individual’s business affiliations in the U.S. or globally. Because the database is so large, it is especially useful in searching fairly uncommon names. It has a deeper list of employees than most databases, so you could find the office manager or webmaster at a small company, rather than just the top-level executives. When searching, be sure to compensate for a possible middle initial: first-name w/2 last-name. The file also includes branches and other small locations, and the individual company records often contain number of employees and sales by location.

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Bridget Gilhool is head librarian, Antitrust Library, at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Jennifer McMahan is deputy director, Library Staff, at the U.S. Department of Justice.


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