If you've spent much time on the Internet, you've probably received a junk e-mail or two offering you the chance to buy a book or register at a Web site that would let you in on the secrets of how to obtain personal information about others on the Net.
Usually it's dressed up as a chance to get the information for background employment checks or to learn the kind of personal information that others can find out about you using the Net. But the real appeal is to the human urge to snoop - to learn how much your neighbors paid for their house, find out if your best friend ever filed for bankruptcy, or just to check out your daughter's new boyfriend . . . the one who always looked a little shifty.
Let's spend today snooping on the snoopers and see just what's available on the Web and how it is used. The first lesson to learn is that personal information is available on the Net. The second lesson is that much of it is the same sort of information you could obtain free at government offices. The Net just makes snooping easier.
Most sites that offer personal information do so as a business. You pay for what you get. For today we'll ignore those sites and concentrate on the places where you can get information free.
We'll start at a site that does charge but offers users a chance to get a free taste. It calls itself KnowX, "Your Courthouse on the Web," and can be found at www.knowx.com. If you confine your searches to the off-peak hours - before 11 a.m. or after 6 p.m. - you'll be able to search several categories, including real estate property records, death records and telephone numbers, at no charge. In some cases, if KnowX finds specific records, you'll be told the actual transcript of the record can only be obtained by paying a fee (sometimes as little as 95 cents or as much as about $7 a record).
A site like KnowX is the place to find out about liens, bankruptcy filings, lawsuits and death records. But some of the most interesting tidbits aren't as official. That's why any snooping should include a good search of the Web. After all, now that almost everyone has a Web site and uses that site to publish the most boring and sometimes intimate details of their life, it's an obvious place to look.
When you're searching for information about a person who isn't famous, stay away from the Yahoo! search engine. It is indexed according to topic and doesn't actually search the text of each Web page. Instead, use a search engine such as AltaVista at http://altavista.digital.com.
Let's say you're looking for information about me. Take a tip from a good fisherman and cast a wide net first. Simply enter my name. With AltaVista use a + symbol in fach search word; otherwise you'd get hits for all pages that contain references to "Bill" or to "Husted," when what you really want is all pages that contain references to "Bill Husted." Once you've gotten a sampling from the broad search, you can narrow it, perhaps using the name of the city where I work and the newspaper "Atlanta" and "Constitution."
Next try searching the newsgroups - that's where people post messages about a broad variety of topics - using a search engine called DejaNews at www.dejanews.com/. Since the newsgroups are chatty places, you'll often find out what most reporters already know - people love to talk about themselves.
Finally, you can check out telephone numbers and addresses at the excellent Switchboard site (http://www.switchboard .com/). You can also get e-mail addresses from the same site.
None of these sites will turn you into an international super spy. But if you search for information about yourself, you will undoubtedly discover an astonishing amount of information and come to realize the information superhighway is a two-way street.
Pub Date: 7/27/98