Why Aren't Access to Public Records Free on the Internet?

By Ki West

Professional licenses such as for cosmetology can be looked up online.
i Hair stylist image by Nina Hergarten from Fotolia.com

Federal, state, local courts and government agencies have been making public records available on websites since 1995. Although this is a regular routine for many government agencies, some have only recently started this practice. According to Public Record Sources, the types of public records that can be located using free public record sites include civil records, criminal records, driving records, real estate records, public record vendors and record retrievers.

Free or Fee

There are two ways public records can be found on the Internet, including government agencies that include public record information on their websites for free or for a low cost. Another source is a commercial data compiler or information broker. These companies purchase public files from courts and government offices, then make them available often at a substantial cost to the consumer.

Public Records Online

All 50 states offer some kind of free public records access online. What can be accessed varies by state. Often personal sensitive data is omitted or not accessible. Generally, the following are among the types of records that can be accessed: real estate records, motor vehicle records, registered voter files, professional and business licenses, tax liens and judgments, bankruptcy files, criminal arrest and conviction records, warrants and civil court recordings. Many records are free. Although a small fee can be charged, it's often the same fee that would be charged if you visited the office in person. If a document isn't readily available online, it's likely that it has been deemed inaccessible online for personal or protection reasons such as identity theft.

Unofficial Websites

There are a lot of mock websites that aren't actually affiliated with any government agencies. They purposely set themselves up to look official. Sometimes, the site requires that you click a kind of agreement before you start a search. Sometimes, you might start a search and then it requires a substantial fee to access the requested information or for you to join as a member. You may not even realize that it isn't an official government website until you've wasted a bit of time. These sites can have legitimate, reliable information, but it's usually for a higher fee than most government agencies. When searching any site, even official government sites, be aware of the advertisement clicks. They are often placed strategically about the page, and you just might accidentally find yourself on a paid site.

Dockets and Court Cases

Records for bankruptcy, supreme, probate and other courts are available from most states and can often be viewed online. Usually the court cases are separated by county if applicable. The dockets for the completed case can be viewed and are often available many years back. Each state and county handles its own cases and the formats change as to what is available specifically.

Licensing Information

Statewide searches can reveal such documents as official state bar information; official state professional licensing board records; regulatory records for banks, credit unions, savings and loans; contractor licensing information; and official state professional licensing board records for insurance, cosmetology and more.

Business Searches

Information can be retrieved pertaining to corporations, limited liability companies and limited partnership. Article and annual statement reports are usually available in the original image format. This information generally includes the names of offices held at the company and who holds them. Each state has its own way of organizing searches.

Property Searches

Property searches can retrieve detailed information about a piece of property including how much the property sold for, tax information and the date the property was last sold. Real-estate websites such as Zillow provide instantaneous access to sales and pricing information for your neighborhood.