Business

Searching For Those All-important People In Your Life Was Once A Job For Professionals

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Wayne Hale was just a baby on the day in 1950 when his mother tried to escape from the beatings she suffered at home. But her husband, Hale’s father, caught up with her, put a gun to her head, and took young Wayne from her arms. “I never thought I’d get to say the word mom, because I wasn’t allowed to say it while I was growing up,” recalls the 48-year-old South Carolina man, who spent much of his adulthood in a fruitless search to locate his mother. During his darkest days, Hale thought perhaps his father had killed her.

For years after Hale’s traumatic episode, a California woman named Kathy Chester had an abiding curiosity about an old photo of a baby. At first, Chester’s mother said the baby was a family friend. Eventually Chester learned it was an older half-brother. “Nobody wanted to say much to me or admit he existed,” she says. Over the years she pieced together a name and a birth date but had no luck finding him through conventional means. Then the 40-year-old beauty-shop owner bought a computer for her business. Last summer she spotted an Internet ad for a search service, 1-800-U.S.Search, and decided to try it. Within 30 minutes, she had a name and an address. Chester needed two months to get up the courage to write the man and discover if he was her brother. Hale called her immediately after getting the letter. Later Hale spoke to his long-lost mother on the telephone for more than nine hours, the two trying to catch up with each other after a lifetime apart.

Public-record databases have been available to attorneys, licensed investigators, and corporate executives for several years through such companies as Information America, Lexis-Nexis, and CDB InfoTek. But before the Internet came along, such people as Wayne Hale and Kathy Chester didn’t have easy, affordable access to that kind of detailed data. Now such services as KnowX.com (owned by Information America, which has sold database info to corporations for many years), 1-800-U.S. Search, US Public Info, and PeopleFinder.com are making it possible for consumers to search property, court, marriage, death, and other records to find old flames, lost buddies, and deadbeat parents for as little as $10.

Net searches aren’t sure things, but they’re not bad either, according to Rob Miller, the dapper owner of Confi-chek, a database firm headquartered in Sacramento, California. Miller, a former investigator for Intel and a gumshoe himself, says online search services are actually cutting into the business of private eyes. “Investigators,” he explains, “often use the same databases that consumers now have access to.”

Not that it’s easy for consumers to know the exact contents of the databases they’re searching, or the number of records available. General descriptions sometimes indicate whether the service searches property records, phone listings, or death records–but there’s no way for users to know, for example, if the data is spotty or missing for a particular county. Also in dispute is the number of records available to search, since there’s no independent entity that can verify the companies’ claims about having access to millions of records. Finally, few online search services actually own the databases they query. Most seem to access data belonging to other companies, which adds time and cost to the process. That may not be a problem if the services employ skilled searchers, but one entrepreneur we spoke to launched a business after reading a single book on the topic.