How much do you really know about the people around you? You might have a pretty good sense of the background of a sibling, spouse or that friend you've had forever, but that's usually about it.
That's really not many people. And behind the friendly smiles of the potential friend, roommates, business partners, neighbors and romantic partners you meet regularly could be all kinds of dirt waiting to get on you.
Fortunately, the Internet makes it simple to dig up that dirt so you know the real story before you get in over your head. And you can do it for little to no money.
Before we continue, we should point out a tricky fact of digging up dirt. If you are performing a paid background check as a landlord or employer, or for credit, medical or insurance reasons, you can't use just any service.
Know the law
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have to use a Consumer Reporting Agency. A CRA has to maintain certain standards for data protection and dispute resolution.
If you do reject a potential tenant or employee (even a semi-informal employee like a baby sitter) based on a background check from a company that isn't a CRA, you could wind up in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission.
You can find a fairly complete list of CRAs here. The list is helpfully divided into categories such as credit reporting, employment history, insurance, renting and so on. Note that you can request and dispute the information that these CRAs have stored for you, so you don't fail a background check yourself.
For checking on potential roommates or romantic partners, however, you can use just about any service or (legal) method. Let's look at how to go about it.
1. The basics
If you're doing a casual search on someone, the place to start is Google. Just type in the person's name - inside quotation marks, like "Kim Komando" - to see what's there. If there are too many results, you can also add the name of the city where they live or where they work.
Another way to narrow it down in Google is to switch over to the Images tab and find their picture. That will usually link you to one of their social media profiles.
You can also type their name into Facebook and find them there. Of course, if they're smart, they'll have their profile locked down so strangers can't see anything - make sure you do, too. Still, you can see their username in the Web address bar. For example, in the address https://www.facebook.com/kimkomando, "kimkomando" is the username.
Many people don't use their real names when setting up social media accounts on Twitter, Pinterest, blogs, forums or other places, but they often use the same username. If you get to one of their social profiles, or any other profile, find their username on the site, or grab it from the Web address bar.
Then search for that username in Google and you'll be surprised what you can discover. If you have their email address, you can also do a Google search for that to see where it shows up.
2. Information from around the Web in one spot
If you want to take things up a notch, try a people search site like PeekYou. It scours more than 60 sites ranging from social media to news sites. Instead of locking in on keywords like the popular search engines, PeekYou looks for links likely to be associated with people you're looking for.
When it finds information, PeekYou indexes all the links in one place for easy browsing. You can quickly see an overview of just about anyone. Search your friends - or for yourself - by full name or username. You'll be surprised at what you find!
Don't want people looking you up? Here's how to remove your name from many online directories and people search sites.
It's an easy way to get someone's social media profiles, but if you want more in-depth information, you may have to pay a fee.
You aren't limited to searching by name or username, either. PeekYou actually has a whole range of search categories like Interests, Work, School, City, Phone and Email.
As with any of these sites, however, always take the information with a grain of salt. People search sites can accidentally combine separate people into one profile. You might also just be looking at the wrong person's information.
3. Check out your neighbors
You won't always know the name of the person you're researching. It might be a neighbor you haven't met, but that looks kind of shady. White Pages Neighbors combines the phone book with modern social-networking technology so you can see who your neighbors are and learn more about them in a flash!
Want to meet your neighbors in person? The White Pages Neighbors also doubles as a party invitation site! You can coordinate block parties with ease. To get started, all you have to do is enter your address. Then, the site will pull up a map of your block and you can click on houses to see publicly-available information about your neighbors.
Now, this isn't a license to stalk your neighbors. Be sure to use this information responsibly. Some of the links available on the site may take you out to third-party websites, so exercise caution if you're going to another site.
4. Find out where photos were taken
If you've ever poked around on photo-sharing site Instagram, no doubt you've come across some interesting images. Now you can learn more about where those photos were taken with The Beat.
Again, this site raises certain privacy issues. The site takes public Instagram photos that have geotags and combines that data with the corresponding Google Street View location. You can see what photos were taken in your neighborhood or search by hashtag to find related posts.
Hashtag is another word for the number sign (#). Social media websites use it to categorize photos and posts and make them easy to find. For instance, if I want to find photos in my hometown on Instagram, I could search for #Phoenix and might find photos from people I know.
Be aware that other people can do the same to you with the photos you've voluntarily published on social networking sites.
5. See if that person is a sex offender
This is the scary one, but sometimes your gut about someone being "off" is right. Plus, it's a fact that one or more convicted sex offenders could easily be living in your area.
With the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website, simply enter your ZIP code and run a search to see a list of convicted offenders. Click on a name to see a picture of the person and look at their home and work addresses. In some cases, you'll also see a risk level.
You will also be able to see nearby day cares and schools, so you can put a safe distance between your family and the offenders.
If you have children, visit this site. It will help you spot the dangers and avoid the unthinkable.