By Rachel Kronenfeld, Hg’s Manager of Investigations
In 2020, we have no shortage of online resources for locating people and companies. In the past decade, most states and counties have adopted online databases for anyone to access public records. For over a decade, social media users have been oversharing personal information on company platforms. While some fee-based resources have been around since the 1970s, other major players launched only in the past decade. These fee-based resources now have thousands of competitors—all with reliable information and sometimes available for free.
In this 2-part blog series, we explore the best of the best search engines to locate people and companies. This week, we review company search engines.
Business registration information in the U.S. is publicly accessible online and can be found through the Secretary of State website or similar dot-gov websites. However, it’s not always an easy hunt. You’ll first need to know where the business is located, if it has additional offices, if it is registered in one or more states—or even in another country.
Below are free—yes, free—company search engine resources that have search options similar to fee-based databases to help you find the leads you are looking for. In fact, with so many available sources, always use more than one resource, when possible, to cross-check information. Don’t limit your research to one favorite source.
Not only a company search engine for United States companies, OpenCorporates also covers 130 jurisdictions across the globe. All jurisdictions covered are transparent on its website. Self-proclaimed as the largest open database of companies in the world, it has over 182 million companies and 229 million officers in its archive. OpenCorporates belongs on this top list because its information comes directly from the official source itself—OpenCorporates provides a direct link to the original source. The website also has some powerful search features. It’s possible to search by company name, as well as by officer name, across the entire archive. Searches can be narrowed by country or business type.
ProPublica is a nonprofit news source produced by investigative journalists. Folded within ProPublica’s website is its Nonprofit Explorer interactive database. This database consists of three million tax returns, IRS data released since 2013, and over 14 million tax filing documents dating back to 2001. The Nonprofit Explorer has two great features: Free access to Form 990 PDFs and the ability to search by officer name. Form 990s are one of the richest resources for nonprofit information. This Internal Revenue Service (IRS) federal form must be filed annually by tax exempt organizations, with exceptions for some organizations including churches. Form 990s contain information such as but not limited to a summary of the organization, employees and volunteers, expenses, and assets. Nonprofit Explorer also allows a search by officer name or full text. The first fee-based database that comes to mind when searching for nonprofit information is likely GuideStar. However, GuideStar does not have the capability to search by officer name, nor does it offer up Form 900s for free.
The SEC’s EDGAR System
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR) online database provides free public access of all submissions and forms required to be filed for public companies. EDGAR has about 3,000 filings per day, 40,000 new filers per year, and filings date back to as early as 1994. EDGAR’s search tools offer several options for searching such as by company or fund name and full text. While the searched-for company may not be public, there are still ways EDGAR may be useful to you. Try using Google-type operators to do a site search (i.e., site:sec.gov “abc company”), which will return mentions of that company within public company filings. Your company does not need to be public to be mentioned in connection to a public company. Companies outside the U.S. could be mentioned as well.
Bizapedia and corporationwiki
First, a disclaimer: Information found within these business directories is not always accurate and should never be a standalone source of information. Both companies allow individuals who claim the business to edit the business information, which has led to tainted information—not to mention a number of complaints to the Better Business Bureau (BBB). However, the original unclaimed and unedited information is still derived from public records, such as the Secretary of State. With business information for both active and inactive companies aggregated nationwide, these sources can still be considered leads to answering those questions about where a business might be located, registered, and the principals involved. A nationwide business directory is not the only reason Bizapedia and corporationwiki make the top list. They also have a people search, which will return names and addresses of company officers, managers, members, or other roles which are specified in business filings. Corporationwiki has a network visualizer, which connects companies and key people to one another. We have noticed Bizapedia sometimes has older addresses for companies and principals, or former company names, which may be of value to you. So, if you find a lead through one of these directories, you can then verify the information through the .gov or State source itself. If the data does not match up, the business listing may have been edited.
Disproportionate but well-defined
There is a plethora of online resources for finding people and companies; the above list is by no means an exhaustive one. However, it aims to prove that not all sources should be considered equal. It is important to understand where information is coming from, its limitations, and all the search options available to get the best results. So, in 2020, we encourage you to spend some time getting to know the resources you have been collecting over the past decade— and their competitors even more so.
Are you an analyst or investigator looking for advanced training on online open source tools and techniques? Hg’s webinar series, where you can attend live and recorded sessions and receive CEUs to beef up your OSINT skills.
Rachel Kronenfeld joined Hetherington Group in 2016 and is Hg’s Manager of Investigations and lead investigator. As a skilled and diverse analyst, she monitors current events and information on the Internet, identifies security threats, and conducts online risk assessment analyses for Hg’s clients. Ms. Kronenfeld conducts trainings for investigators and is a contributing writer to Hg’s newsletter, Data2Know. Her professional research specialty is Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques.