A number of years ago, I learned the value of a good ten-minute online background check when my website - noncommercial at the time, then hosted with a small company in Fort Myers, Florida - suddenly went dark, and stayed dark for a week.
Emails to the support department went unanswered. Phone calls went to an answering machine, unanswered. Finally, after doing some digging around online, I uncovered an old archived version of the company's website that listed the owner's AIM screenname - a piece of information long since taken off the page - and through that was able to talk to someone about the problem.
Turned out (as I discovered, reading through the old versions of the site) that the owner of the "business" was a high school kid reselling hosting space from his parents' home. The data center had gone offline for some reason and he chose to deal with the problem by ignoring all his customers while he tried to get things working again.
Needless to say, I was hosting with a different company not long after that; I've been happily with them ever since. I just wished I'd have done the background check long before and saved myself that week of frustration and downtime.
These days, whenever I hear from a new prospective client, I like to find out a bit about them before returning the call. Not everyone is who they appear to be, and we do live in a world full of hucksters; if I'm dealing with a credibility risk (can't pay, isn't honest, etc.) I'd like to know that fact as soon as possible.
Most of my projects from new clients aren't large enough to justify pulling a credit history or doing a formal background check. For those situations, I do a quick lookaround on the Web, starting with whatever information I have. It takes about ten minutes, but you'd be amazed what I find using only publicly available, free, common and completely open resources on the Web.
Need to do a ten minute background on a prospect (or vendor)? Here's how.
Start with what you have.
When a prospect contacts you about their needs, they obviously want you to contact them back. That gives you a name, phone number (don't forget Caller ID records), an email address, or all three. If the inquiry came via email, you might have full contact information (address, cell phone and fax numbers, etc.) in the email signature. Always start with what you already have.
Email, Domain Name, and Website.
If you have the prospect's email address, you potentially have a wealth of background to work with, starting with the domain name (everything in the email address following the "@" sign). Most businesses with an established web presence are on dedicated domains (i.e., they own their own domain names, such as "ibm.com" or "bestbuy.com"), which often gives you a direct line to their home website.
But what about the emails that aren't on dedicated domains? For me, I've found that most of the time - though not always - service inquiries coming from AOL, Adelphia, Comcast, RoadRunner, etc. email addresses are trouble; they're typically small businesses who want everything for nothing, who represent too much educating time on my part to be profitable. (Obviously, that's going to differ from one market to the next, and an AOL address shouldn't be seen automatically as a reason to blacklist: one inquiry I received last year on an AOL address came from the president of a major energy company.) An email from an established and dedicated domain always carries more weight with me.
Every once in a while I receive an inquiry from a free Web mail service such as Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, etc. That's a dead giveaway - I've never received a professional inquiry from one of those email services where there wasn't a nutjob on the other end. If you're in business, considering how cheap domain and web hosting is today, there's no excuse these days for using Hotmail for your professional correspondence.
Once you have a dedicated domain name in hand, the next step is to pull a Whois record on it (such as on Internic's website). Whois is basically a global directory of domain name registry information, a giant distributed database that maintains vital domain name data such as inception date, current expiration date and ownership information. Often the Whois registration will include names, addresses and phone numbers; some of that information may be outdated, wrong, or hidden through a third-party service, but usually a Whois search will turn up useful clues.
Finally, don't forget to visit the prospect's website itself. Most business websites contain all the vital information you need to take your background check the rest of the way home.
By now, you should have at least one phone number, an address or five, maybe a few names, some domain registry data. Well armed, it's time to hit Google.
Start with the phone numbers - simply plug a phone number, including area code, into Google and do a search. If the number is listed, the results will include a reverse directory lookup that includes name and address. Most established businesspeople would rather have major surgery than change their phone numbers, and so hold on to the same number for years; if your prospect has been around for a while, you should get plenty of Web hits (including Excel spreadsheets that weren't intended, and probably aren't known, to be public) relating to your subject of interest.
If the number turns up nothing, search for "area code ###", replacing "###" with the area code on the number. That will tell you where they are. Sometimes a crossreference between the name and city yields gold.
Next, do similar searches for names and addresses. Be sure to include quotation marks around your search terms to isolate your results to full phrases rather than individual words.
Finally, search for the domain name, leaving off any prefix ("ftp", "www", etc.). The results will include exactly one listing - the website in question - but below that you will have the option to find web pages that contain the domain name as a term. Do it, and you should get plenty of references: websites, directories, media articles, etc. If they've been in business for at least a couple of years, there should be plenty out there to read.
Also, don't forget Google Cache. Data often survives, cached in Google, for many months after it's been taken off the live website.
The Internet Archive.
Did you know that, unless you've taken specific steps to prevent it, someone out there has archived every version of your business website since 1999? Did you know that anyone and everyone can look it up?
Welcome to the Internet Archive, current archiver of over 55 billion website pages.
Very, very few businesses even know that these guys exist. IA sends its web crawlers - essentially the same technology Google uses - out over the Web, except instead of simply indexing pages, the Internet Archive saves copies of the pages it finds. If you have a website address in hand (and if the website owner hasn't prevented it), you can get a complete record of every version and every iteration of that website, going back to the last decade.
Just visit the Archive and look for the "Internet Archive Wayback Machine". It's right there on the front page. Then plug the website address into the search bar and click "Take Me Back"; if the records are there (and they usually are), you'll get the full search results indexed by change dates. Click on a date and you'll see that website as it was when IA visited on that date. Doesn't cost a dime or require any sort of registration.
Internet Archive is probably the least known and yet most powerful Internet research tool on the Web today. If your subject has ever posted relevant information to his or her website - email address, phone numbers, past marketing strategies, IM names, anything - it's likely sitting in IA's databases, even if it hasn't been on the live website for years.
About Privacy And Credibility
If you're in business today, I tend to believe that you shouldn't expect a whole lot of privacy regarding who you are and what you do. Too many people are posing as something they're not; I'm taking as much of a chance on you as you are on me. Leaving a trail to follow makes it that much easier to verify, and finally trust. As long as that trail is public, legal, easy to follow and helps me run my business more effectively, I'm going to take advantage of it.
There is, however, a lesson here for people who aren't aware of the very real problem of identity theft. It's not a joke, and not a media myth: it's very, very real and often very, very preventable.
Nothing I've written here requires anything more than a few minutes and a Web browser. Home address? Probably out there. With a phone number, almost anything is ultimately possible. Just imagine what can be done with all that data in tandem with your credit record. Or driving record. Or the public records available at your local City Hall. If you think your life isn't being broadcast globally, you may be right - or wrong.
Each passing day brings less privacy, but more verifiability. That's not a bad thing - it just means that the world is getting smaller. However, while you're taking a break between doing backgrounds on your prospects, don't forget to do one on yourself from time to time. You might well be surprised at what's out there for me to read.