"There's no such thing as sort of a nationwide criminal records search," Willingham said. "A lot of these databases will claim to have records that cover the entire nation, but the reality is that something like 70 or 80 percent of criminal records are not available online."
But you can do your own nationwide search of the federal courts, where some of the most serious criminal cases are tried. Most federal court records — particularly from cases in the past 20 years — are available online through a government database known as Pacer, for public access to court electronic records.
"Pacer is a phenomenal source, partly because you can access court documents directly from there," Willingham said.
The first step is to set up a Pacer account online. The service is not free, but it is not expensive either — just 10 cents per page, with a maximum of $3 per document. And if your charges do not exceed $15 in a quarter, you won't get billed at all.
In addition to criminal cases, Pacer allows you to search civil cases. That can uncover disputes your subject might have had with previous business partners. It will also show whether your subject has had trouble with regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, which bring charges in civil rather than criminal courts.
Federal court is also where all bankruptcy proceedings take place — business and personal — so you can use Pacer to see if your subject or any of his companies ever went bankrupt, who his creditors were and how things turned out.
You might be surprised to know how many jobs require a license in many states.
Even if the job has nothing to do with the reason you and your new business partner are getting together, you can learn a lot from his or her history with state regulators. Maybe he was a barber, a contractor, or an auto mechanic. Wouldn't it be good to know how he got along with his customers? Check with your state's office of professional regulation or secretary of state's office to get started. And if the subject is involved in a profession, there is a treasure trove of information available.
"As an investment professional you need to be licensed," Willingham said. "A private investigator needs to be licensed, doctors, lawyers, and each state has boards that regulate these licenses. So that would be one of the first things I would check on somebody's background is to verify that one, that they have a license, and two, whether any of these licenses have any regulatory actions, complaints filed against them."
In the case of an attorney, be sure to check with the bar association in the state where he or she is licensed. The American Bar Association has an online directory of state chapters where you can see if the attorney is operating in good standing.
For a financial professional, check out the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's (FINRA) online Broker Check, which will give you the person's employment and disciplinary history.
Give me the news
There was a time when private investigators looking for dirt on a subject would have to go to the local newspaper, trying to get an overworked employee to let them search through back issues for bad publicity.
Nowadays, of course, there is Google. But Willingham says that should just be your starting point.
Some newspapers will let your search their entire archives online for free, or for just the cost of a subscription. There are also paid databases such as LexisNexis, but they can be expensive. So Willingham suggests a seemingly old school approach: going to the library.
"A lot of times you'll find local libraries will have access to historical newspaper databases, so you can go down to your local library and in many cases you can log in through your local library and get that information," he said. "So it's a great source of information that should not be missed."
And while you are online at the library or at home, do not forget social media, where pretty much everyone — intentionally or otherwise — reveals things about themselves.
"In some cases, they're posting things to make themselves look bigger and grander than they really are. For example, an investment professional might be posting pictures of their beautiful house, or their beautiful cars, to kind of show the public that they are very wealthy or they have an enormous amount of wealth to give the impression that they have a lot of things," Willingham said. "Obviously you want to look for the red flags. If they're saying horrible things about certain groups of people or types of people, if they are sort of flashing their wealth, that's something that I certainly would be concerned about."