I frequently get asked about commercially available investigative databases such as Intelius, Spokeo, and BeenVerified. The truth is that I have never used them, so I could never really give an intelligent answer. The professional databases that I rely on that are most comparable to Intelius, Spokeo, and BeenVerified can only be accessed by licensed private investigators, so I never had the need to review these other sites.
Disclosure: In case this is not abundantly clear, I was not paid to write this article and do not earn a cent by using any of these services. I paid $264.43 out of my own pocket to run all of the searches described below.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty details, there were a few things that I was hoping to learn, and there are a few things to keep in mind as you read this review.
First, from my own personal experiences, I know that there are hundreds of databases out there. These three are some of the most popular, and therefore the only three that I decided to spend my money on.
Many of these websites make boastful claims about how much information they can obtain and how accurate they are. They brag about having nationwide access to information such as criminal records, marriage records, death records, address history, etc. For the most part, they are full of hot air. I know this because I have been in this business for almost 20 years and know that there is an abundance of information that is not digitized — “620 million court records searched” is worth almost nothing if you consider that there are billions of criminal cases out there. And the addresses and phone numbers identified for these individuals are not always accurate either, even in the professional-grade databases.
Second, I was not looking to use the cheapest services. As a private investigator, I value completeness and accuracy far more than price considerations. If you are looking for the cheapest database, this is not the place for you. Price, of course, is always a factor; I don’t want to get ripped off, but this did not affect my decision-making. Considering I spent close to $300 of my own money just to write this blog post, I hope that will sink in a bit.
Lastly, I was looking for transparency. Many databases make outrageous claims about “national criminal checks” (which do not exist), “100% accuracy,” or “guaranteed results.” Or they just bury disclaimers. I’ve been doing this a long time, and there is no such thing as 100% accuracy or guaranteed results. And there are so many limitations to databases too numerous to count. So I was looking for a database that was clear about what and where they search, and the information they have.
In order to determine the best of these databases, I did a few things: I ran a “comprehensive” database search on two different people to determine whether they had accurate information about addresses, criminal history, etc. One of those people was yours truly, Brian Willingham, and the other was a known convict who currently lives in New York and has a criminal history that includes a DWI, sexual abuse, endangering the welfare of a child, criminal possession of a controlled substance, and misdemeanor loitering.
Not someone you would want to hang around with.
Each of these databases was reviewed for transparency, accuracy, and ease of use, among other things.
Keep in mind that this is a very small sample size, so your results may vary.
This one got off to a bad start.
First, they offered a $39.95 “background check” (discounted from $49.95), which was for their “Premium Plus” report. This was the only option I had to purchase a background check report, and gave me a voucher for one background check report.
After digging around the website, however, I learned that this also signed me up for monthly access. After futzing around with the website for 10 minutes, I was finally able to cancel the monthly membership. According to the email I received, I will be charged a $7.95 fee regardless. Nothing is more frustrating than being pegged with a bunch of fine-print fees.
Either way, this is off to a terrible start.
After that frustrating start, I got down to business and ordered a background check report on myself, which included, among other things: contact information, state criminal check, and “marriage & divorce.” I also purchased the add-on records for “current phone & address check,” federal criminal records check, nationwide criminal records check, and nationwide civil court records check for an additional $64.80, bringing my total bill to $104.75.
The accuracy results of the report were mixed. The “confirmed address” they had for me was for somewhere that I haven’t lived since 2002. All four of the phone numbers they had for me were associated with me at one point, and two of them are current and active. Interestingly, one of the numbers was from when I was a kid, and it was a number I haven’t used since 1992. They had my wife, brother, and father as relatives, and even had photos of my father and wife from Facebook. They also found no criminal records, judgments, liens, or bankruptcies, which is correct, as I do not have any of these. They did find a few federal criminal records in Texas, but I’ve never lived there.
Here’s where I got a bit frustrated. This report has tons of disclaimers about how it includes the “most comprehensive online results possible.” None of that was really made apparent on the initial search screen. From my personal experience, I know it’s true that in most states, marriage and divorce records are not publicly available. In the report they state that marriage and divorce records are provided online for California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and Utah. I’ve never lived in any one of those states, so that was pretty useless. I’m sure in the fine print on the original search page there was some information relating to the fact that 39 of the 50 states have no records, but does anyone actually read the disclaimers?
They also found no civil court records in searching over “80 million court records,” and no criminal records searching over “250 million criminal records.” I know for a fact that there are other people named Brian Willingham in other states who have been sued dozens of times and have criminal charges. But this report claims there were “no records found.”
I then did a comprehensive background report on a known criminal who has a lengthy criminal history in New York. In New York, they had no records found. No felonies found. No misdemeanors found. In essence: 250 million criminal records and nothing found for a known convict.
They also found no civil records for the known criminal, despite his being involved in several civil cases as well.
Spokeo got off to a much smoother start. Signing up and searching the website was much more fluid and transparent. The charge would be $0.95 cents upfront, with a seven-day trial, and $19.95 after that. On a side note, I find it ridiculous that all of these sites rope you into a monthly fee. They just hope you forget that you signed up and charge you a fee in perpetuity. But at least for this site, it’s not buried in some fine print like it was with Intelius. And I didn’t need to spend 10 minutes searching around to cancel the trial subscription like I did with Intelius either.
After purchasing the results, I also paid $19.95 to “unlock” personal and historical records (e.g., marriage, divorce, and census) as well as court records, for a total of $39.90. The final report was much cleaner and simpler to read than the Intelius report was, and they even offered a downloadable PDF version that looks clean and simple. They did, however, charge an extra $0.50 for that service, which seems a bit petty.
The accuracy results, similar to Intelius, were mixed. They got my current address right (Intelius did not); they had my month and year of birth right (Intelius had the entire birthdate); and they picked out who my wife is pretty easily. They also had some details about my house, which was not in the Intelius report.
The report, however, found no social networks for me (I’m pretty prominent on social media; just Google my name), no information on my work data (Intelius had my current and former employer); and its “620 million court records” found no records under my name. As noted above, there are plenty of Brian Willinghams who have both civil and criminal records, and for many of them, there is no way of knowing whether they are me without physically going to the court and reviewing the records. Therefore, it is pretty inconceivable to not have found anything.
I ended up clicking through to my wife’s report as well (which didn’t cost me anything additional). Her report had a number of other historical addresses and other information, including my personal email address, through which more than a dozen social media profiles were identified for me, including my LinkedIn and Twitter accounts as well as my business’ Facebook page.
I then did a comprehensive background report on a known criminal. They found no records in New York, in Nassau County (where all of the known criminal cases were filed), or nationwide. In essence: 620 million court records and nothing found. This made me wonder where they were looking in New York and Nassau County.
You have to access the relevant information in order to get the relevant results.
As far as website transparency and usability, BeenVerified, right off the bat, was the most robust. It’s much better than the 2000s-looking Intelius or the scant Spokeo home page, which didn’t provide much in the way of details.
After entering in all of the information, the website brought me through numerous prompts. All in all, it took about five minutes to compile the report scanning social media, court records, etc. I think it was a bit of a dog-and-pony show, but they did end up giving some tidbits of information that were useful about what they were searching. It was only when that was completed that they told you about the $26.89 per-month membership fee for “unlimited background reports” and “unlimited contact information,” among other things. I had to pay another approximately $14 to unlock premium data, including criminal records.
Overall, the report was pretty robust, easy to read, and surprisingly transparent. They did not have my full date of birth or any current phone numbers, but they did have all of my family members, including some distant step-family members linked to me, my current address, some historical addresses that were not on any of the other reports, three photos of me, and email addresses linked to me, with the date that they were linked to my name.
I deeply appreciate their transparency with regard to things such as criminal records, educational background, and marriage records.
For criminal records, they found no records, but added the caveat that “records may exist that cannot be accessed digitally.” This was the first website that really nailed this. The reality is that most criminal records in the United States are NOT available digitally.
While Intelius just said “no records available for education,” BeenVerified couldn’t find any either, but provided a thoughtful explanation.
The reality is that you can easily find this information on my LinkedIn profile, but they at least provided some explanation as to what they did.
The same thing occurred for marriage and divorce records. They didn’t find any records, but they took the time to provide a detailed explanation that not all records are available and that you may be able to find these records using alternative methods. The truth is that you will never find my marriage record, because those records are not public in the state that I got married in.
BeenVerified also found a few things that no other report found. They had a record of a private investigator license in California, which I had many moons ago, and it also linked me to corporate records in New York for Diligentia Group. These are both publicly available records, but neither of the other two reports referenced them.
The report also said I was a licensed lawyer in New York, which is not the case.
I also appreciate the fact that you can easily run searches not just by a person’s name, but also by their username, phone, address, or email. You might be able to do that on Spokeo and Intelius, but it was not nearly as prominent. I utilize these types of searches on a daily basis for my work and they could certainly come in handy for others.
After running my report, BeenVerified was the clear favorite.
I then tried to run a search on the known New York criminal. His name was not even in the database. They found no records of him. Poof. Like a ghost.
Which brings me to another fascinating thing that most people don’t know: you can personally opt out of these websites. BeenVerified offers a pretty simple way to remove yourself from the database. So in this case, the known criminal likely did not want anyone to see that he had an extensive criminal history, and had himself removed.
The fact of the matter is, however, that it’s pretty easy to find the criminal history; it is public record, after all. You just need to know where to look.
Overall, none of them were perfect, though I liked BeenVerified the best out of the three. It got some things wrong and didn’t have any phone numbers for me, but this resource was the most transparent of the three, and had the most robust data. It was also reasonably valued compared to the others (Intelius cost more than twice as much).
If you were looking only for contact information, Intelius was much better than the other two for phone numbers.
Spokeo had the prettiest report, if that is the sort of thing that makes you happy.
Keep in mind, however, that all of these databases access only information that is digitally stored in whatever database they are searching. So it doesn’t matter if they are searching 620 million criminal records; if the criminal records from New York (where the person has lived) are not in their database, they are worth absolutely zilch.
Speaking of that, none of the reports included the criminal records for the known criminal from New York.
That’s a huge concern.
Frankly, I was not surprised at all, since all of these websites make all kinds of lofty promises with huge disclaimers in fine print. The reason that they didn’t find the records is that New York criminal records check can only be done through the New York Office of Court Administration. Unlike some states, where criminal data is widely distributed, it’s not in New York. It costs $95 to run the search.
But none of these websites made any mention of that little detail. So, unless you are a professional who actually knows what he or she is doing, you may have been totally duped into thinking that this person had no criminal history.
The bottom line is that these websites absolutely do have a place if you want to do a bit of poking around, but they are NOT comprehensive, NOT 100% accurate, and can’t really be relied upon entirely.
So, if you have something serious you are investigating, call a professional.
You can thank me later.