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Finding FREE public information during an investigation Part II

14 June 2011

If you need to find free, public information there are many options available. Let’s take a look at some more ways to collect data.

[Click here to see Part I in this series.]

Please note that all tips in this article relate to legally and publicly available information. You are not being encouraged to conduct investigations of any kind. In Texas and in most, if not all, states, investigators must be licensed. The following links are provided for informational purposes only and are available to anyone.

I use Harris County as an example because it’s the jurisdiction with which I am most familiar. But you should be able to Google your own state or county for the same type of information. Great thing about the Internet age is that almost everything is online nowadays, including public records!

By visiting the Harris County Appraisal District’s website, you can search for property records by name, address, or other identifying information. HCAD’s responsibility is to determine the market value of each of the more than 1.7 million taxable properties in Harris County. (You can also file a protest online if you disagree with their appraisal of your property value!) These records can tell you how much a particular piece of property is worth, how much (if any) in improvements have been made, who is listed as the property owner, a legal description of the property, year home was built, square footage, etc.

HCAD provides business and mineral information as well.

Additionally, you can find this same type of information at the Harris County Tax Assessor Collector’s web site. By clicking “property tax” tab, you are given a whole menu of searchable options from which to choose.

Vehicle registration information is another valuable source. This can also be found at the Harris County Tax Assessor Collector’s web site. Generally, by providing a license plate number, you can obtain the vehicle owner’s name, VIN number, description of the vehicle, and any possible liens recorded against the vehicle (in some cases, there may be a nominal fee associated with this service).

Thinking about buying a used boat? You can query for boat and outboard motor registration/lien information here.

Speaking of liens, want to find out if there’s a lien against a particular person or business? You can locate various federal and state liens in the county where the lien is recorded. This information provides the name and address of the debtor, type of lien, and amount (see Part I for how to locate civil records).

If you see the phrase “lis pendens,” you know there is extant a pending lawsuit involving that particular piece of property. Normally the cause/case number is also provided which you can then use to search for that particular case to ascertain exactly what the lawsuit is about.

You can find voter registration information at this link (please note that birthdates and Social Security numbers are rightfully no longer provided in an effort to prevent identity theft). This is one way to find an address or name of an individual.

All of this type of information should be publicly available online for any county in the nation. Simply Google the county in which you’re interested followed by the type of office who handles the function, for example “Fort Bend County Tax Assessor Collector.”

You can also search for professional licenses of individuals, for e.g. a medical or law license. There are many professions which must be licensed so an individual’s professional licensing information is just another valuable source for data collection.

To find licensure information, for example, on doctors in Texas, go here. This database allows you to view information about physicians, physician assistants, and acupuncturists licensed by the State of Texas, as well as individuals holding a temporary physician or physician assistant license, or current physician-in-training permits. This is true for all states.

Thinking about moving to a particular area or wish to see the actual crime reports statistics for your current area? Simply go here and follow the directions. Or go to your local police’s website–you should be able to access arrest reports and/or call reports to a particular zip code.

Need to dig up some information on a particular corporation? In Texas, go here. Nationwide, you should generally be able to get this information from your state’s secretary of state’s web-site in its corporations section.

The Texas Secretary of State’s UCC Section can also reveal a wealth of information. The Uniform Commercial Code Section’s purpose is to review all documents for statutory compliance. UCC documents are processed in a timely manner, recorded, filed, and made available to the public upon request.

The Uniform Commercial Code Section (UCC) is the central filing office for certain financing statements and other documents provided for under the Uniform Commercial Code since 1966. Types of documents available are:

• Financing Statement, Transmitting Utility, Manufactured-Home Transaction, and Public-Finance Transaction [Texas Business and Commerce Code (UCC), Title 1, Chapter 9];
• Utility Security Instrument [Texas Business and Commerce Code, Title 8, Chapter 261];
• Notice of Federal Lien [Texas Property Code, Title 3, Chapter 14];
• Restitution Lien [Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Part 1, Chapter 42, Article 42.22];
• Agricultural Chemical and Seed Liens [Texas Agriculture Code, Title 5, Chapter 128];
• Liens for Animal Feed [Texas Agriculture Code, Title 6, Chapter 188];
• Aircraft Maintenance Lien [Texas Property Code; Title 5, Chapter 70, Sections 70.3031-70.307];
• Contract Agricultural Lien [Texas Property Code, Title 5, Chapter 70, Sections 70.401-70.410];
• Transition Property Notice [Texas Utilities Code, Title 2, Chapter 39, Section 39.309]; and
• Judicial Finding of Fact [Texas Government Code, Title 2, Chapter 51, Sections 51.901-51.905].

**Please note you may be required to register an account with a secretary of state’s website and pay a nominal fee to search its databases.

Nationally, all companies, foreign and domestic, are required to file registration statements, periodic reports, and other forms electronically through the Securities and Exchange Commission. Its database, EDGAR, is accessible by anyone — you can access and download this information for free. Here you’ll find links to a complete list of filings available through EDGAR and instructions for searching the EDGAR database.

One more tip: Many companies try to charge you for this information when it’s already available to you for free—you just have to know where to look!

I explain how to make a Freedom of Information Act request in an upcoming post.

Meantime, don’t see what you need? Shoot me an email and ask!

 Please see Part I in this series–click on icon at left.

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Sami K. Hartsfield, ACP is a freelance writer and NALA Advanced Certified Paralegal living in downtown Houston. She has worked as a law firm Webmaster, law firm social media marketer, and ghostwriter for personal injury law firms. She holds a degree in paralegal studies with a 4.0 GPA and a bachelor of science degree in political science, graduating summa cum laude. Sami interned with Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals under Chief Justice Adele Hedges, and completed the University of Houston Law Center’s Summer 2008 Prelaw Institute with a 4.0. A glutton for acquiring new knowldedge, in addition to her national advanced paralegal certification, she has earned six specialty certifications since 2007: Discovery; Trial Practice; Contracts Management; Social Security Disability Law; and Entity & Individual Medical Liability. You can find her on Facebook and e-mail her with questions, comments, or ideas at

Sami Hartsfield


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