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Digging Up the Dirt

By scouring the public record, deal-makers can play detective, too.

Recently, one of my clients was asked to sign the kind of contract that gives Hollywood movie producers a bad name. It was ludicrously over-reaching and filled with a genre of legalese that was more likely to create a nuisance lawsuit than a motion picture.

Out of curiosity, I typed the producer's name into an Internet search engine. Before you could say "I'll see you in court," I learned the producer had sued at least one celebrity in exactly the same kind of deal! Obviously, I had one word of advice for my client: "Run."

There is an unbelievable amount of information available in the public record, and every day, more and more of it becomes easily accessible through the Net. Because it's generally performed without the other side's knowledge, this kind of background check can be a fantastic way to learn about a person's or outfit's true character and competence.

A person's identity can be double-checked through birth certificates, death records, marriage licenses, divorce records, voter registrations and motor vehicle and immigration records. For this purpose, a full name, birth date and Social Security number are your best identifiers. If someone's got assets, there should be evidence of them in the public record-owners of real estate, boats, planes and cars are almost always required to file something.

Besides revealing a criminal history, court records may also document substantial judgments, tax liens, wage garnishments and notices of pending lawsuits. Court files of your target's bankruptcy, divorce or probate proceedings may prove a treasure trove of intimate financial details. Filings with the SEC or analogous state agencies may contain financial data about the top officers, directors and owners of publicly held companies. At times, the information available on government workers and officials, or general labor statistics, may also come in handy. And of course, there are always basic trade directories, sales and marketing materials, Web sites and newspapers and magazines.

You can do some of this snooping yourself, especially through the many companies offering online access to databases such as Dataland, Docusearch and Publicdata.com. But, a professional will probably serve you better. You could go a variety of routes, from the private investigator, who may provide all sorts of detective-type services, to the information broker, who's more research-oriented and often has a degree in library science, to the public records researcher.

The average deal-maker would sooner spend $25,000 to have a lawyer prepare the perfect contract than $1,000 to find out whether the other side is too crooked or incompetent to honor it.

After all, who you're dealing with is often as important as (or even more important than) what you're dealing for. Remember these words from mystery writer Raymond Chandler: "It is not a fragrant world."


A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power.

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This article was originally published in the September 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Digging Up the Dirt.

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