FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
I’ve been using public records searches for a long time—first as a private investigator, then as a police officer. Many cops are familiar with public records search tools, such as LexisNexis (and LexisNexis Accurint) and Thomson Reuters CLEAR. Others that are less known to cops include the consumer-oriented sites pipl, Spokeo and Intelius. All of these are essentially nationwide portals that make their money by aggregating and correlating the tens of thousands of public records databases available on the Internet and combining them with proprietary and other sources of information that aren’t so commonly accessible.
Some of the conveniences of the nationwide services include the fact that for a flat fee (or a fee-per-search), these services will access and check those tens of thousands of databases in a single search window. This is often convenient and sometimes infuriating: A quick search for me shows that I don’t have a weapons permit (CLEAR) or that I do in New York (LexisNexis Accurint). Turns out I have a permit in six states, but those guys are only getting a piece of the picture and displaying it in such an authoritative manner that investigators tend to believe that the picture is complete, despite warnings by the companies themselves that it isn’t.
The point: As an investigator, not only do you need to play with these tools regularly, but also regularly play them and other sources against one another to get the most complete picture of your target. One of my favorite resources as a private investigator was Skipsmasher. It’s fast and offers PIs, insurance and retail investigators and some law enforcement access to some of the freshest credit and telephone data around—and it is (for me) usually superior in a side-by-side comparison to CLEAR or Accurint.
A Free Investigative Tool
At this point in the conversation, the subject of cost comes up. Frankly, these things are expensive. We can argue the relative merits of each, and we can argue about the value of a piece of information—is it worth $5, $7 or more to get the address and phone number of the suspect or witness you’ve been after? But one thing we can agree on is that money spent on search tools is money not spent on other things.
When we discovered the data aggregation and search site TLO (“The Last One”), we were wary of two things. First, it was supposed to be better than anything Asher had sold to LexisNexis. Second, it was free to law enforcement in perpetuity.
You read that right. My biggest fear in writing that TLO is and (the company insists) will remain free to law enforcement is that somehow people conflate “free” with “not the best thing you can get.” Having used these kinds of tools for years, and having taken TLO out for some intensive and extensive use and testing, I can say that not only is TLO free, it’s among the best investigative tools in the world.
How they can make it free is something that worries many—it certainly worried me. So I did some digging, spoke extensively with the company and I’ve come to conclude that it’s free because, its owner, Hank Asher, wants to make it free. Whether he wants to do it to irritate LexisNexis or showcase his commitment to law enforcement at all levels, one thing is clear: He can afford to do it.
Ease of use is paramount to us—and TLO is easy. It allows you to customize your input fields (e.g. do you want a last-name box or a first-name box, or would you rather just type into a freeform field?), enter partial information (e.g. I know it’s a white guy around 42 named Bob in Park Slope or Carroll Gardens or Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn, in 2009). Returns routinely include information about neighbors (Asher once famously said it’s possible to live next to Mohammed Atta accidentally once, but not twice), businesses, cars and other property, all of which can be clicked on for further investigation. There’s also free chat and phone help available.
Is it perfect? Of course not. But it’s closer than any tool I’ve used to get right to who you’re after in the fewest possible clicks—and have I mentioned it’s free?
• Easy to use
• Customizable input fields
Approximate street price: Free