Click here for an on-line reunion

We’re all accustomed to the challenge of searching the Web. But sometimes the adventure isn’t what you find, it’s whom you find.

Ben Nichols lost contact with his cousin Sam Ankerson 12 years ago. Sam dropped out of college in 1987 and joined the U.S. Navy. During his first tour in the Mediterranean, Sam went ashore in Rabat, Morocco, and never returned.

Ben received a postcard from Sam three days after he ditched the Navy, in which he hinted that he would be out of contact for long periods of time. But Ben never anticipated a 12-year hiatus in their relationship.

Fast forward to 1998. Frustrated with dead-end leads and fruitless inquiries, Ben decided to take his search to the Web. “Nobody had any information on Sam’s whereabouts, including his immediate family,” Nichols explained, “so I tried the Internet.” And that’s when he struck gold.

Using a known alias for his cousin, Ben tracked down Sam in southern Florida through, a public records search service. Sam was alive and well, painting boats in Vero Beach. provides access to four U.S. public record databases: Residence Directory, Death Records, Home Value and Ownership, and Home Buyers and Sellers.

While many general searches are free, specific database queries vary in price from US$0.95 to $15 per search. You can search bankruptcy records, aircraft ownership files, foreclosures, professional licenses, sales tax permits, and fictitious business registrations. also conducts company research and background checks. Its Background Finder will uncover lawsuits, tax liens, or judgments, officials say. even promises to track deadbeat parents.

Routine personal searches don’t always require public record access and scrutinizing background checks. Traditional tracking tools often produce successful results.

Most of the major portals offer people finders, including from Lycos Inc., AnyWho Directories from AT&T Corp. (which also powers Excite’s people finder), Yahoo Inc.’s People Search, and Netscape Communications Corp.’s People Finder supported by InfoSpace.

Independent Web search companies conduct more targeted hunts. Three of the best are Database America,, and Switchboard. applies the “six degrees of separation” theory that only a half dozen steps connect you to anyone else. Registered members form communities by adding personal acquaintances to their contact list.

And since communities are organic, you stand a good chance of finding unlisted names. You can search the family tree by hobbies, occupations, skills and geographies.

For international people searches, Populus is a good bet. Using Populus, you can look up personal listings in any country on earth. Populus also processes phonetic queries.

But it’s not all fun and games. People searching and information retrieval on the Web can be a dark and dangerous business. For the right price, anyone can access your most personal information. Background Information Searches, one of many controversial Web sites hawking personal information, offers more than innocuous people searches.

For US$25, you can submit a name and address or previous address and Background Information Searches will deliver a Social Security number. Background Information Searches will also dig through credit files, trace vehicle records, and conduct asset searches.

The site posts a disclaimer that urges “responsible access and appropriate use” and asks why you want the information; the site also claims to verify applications’ accuracy before taking a search job.

Background Information Searches straddles the line between public access and privacy protection. As the Internet matures and powerful personal tracking tools proliferate, privacy issues come into play.

“Privacy is a gray area when it comes to information access on the Internet,” said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology. “And the grayest areas often concern public records issues.”

Schwartz points to an instance in South Carolina where the state sold photos of every licensed driver and 4200 photos of children as young as 10 to Image Data. Image Data is developing an experimental fraud-prevention system designed to deter criminals from accessing credit card accounts. Colorado and Florida also sold DMV photos and information to Image Data.

Adding fuel to the fire, word leaked out that Image Data had ties to the U.S. Secret Service as well as financial support from Congress. Officials from Florida and South Carolina claimed they were misled and have since tried to abjure the deal.

“While public records are generally available, the lines become blurred in cases like this where public records are tied to other information,” Schwartz said. “It can move into a situation where it becomes a direct violation of someone’s privacy.”