NEW YORK – Husband acting peculiar lately? Daughter dating a fishy-looking fellow? Thanks to Web sites that allow anyone to play detective, your days of wondering "what if" are over.
More and more Americans are embracing their curiosity and using online snooping sites like CrimeTime.com, to gather information that was once only available at the local courthouse.
"It's opening people's eyes to what's always been available," said Lance Ulanoff, 39, executive editor of PC Magazine's Web site. "It is just easier [to use the Internet] than traveling to the library or archives of a newspaper."
Information ranging from criminal records and nursing home inspections to unsolved crimes and CDC reports of cruise liners, are literally at the tips of your fingers.
With a few clicks, you can find the address of a long lost love, do a reverse phone book check to see if an organization is legit or find out if your nanny has a less than perfect past. More personal information, such as credit reports, can be accessed for a price.
"The Internet is the ultimate tool," said Dale Dorning, a professional private eye and founder of Cincinnati, Ohio-based Precision Investigation & Consulting.
Though Dorning, who has been in the business for over 20 years, won't reveal which sites he favors, he said he's a fan of the search engine Google.
Other search engines, such as Yahoo, offer free "people searches" that access addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. For a small sum -- ranging from $9.95 to $59.95 -- a wider range of information such as criminal history and background checks are available.
"You'd be surprised what's out there," said Todd Pick, 27, of Lynbrook, N.Y., an avid Google-er. "I was recently looking for someone I went to school with and I did a Yahoo search and found that you could purchase information. I wouldn't do that. I would probably just call her family."
But Web sites definitely tempt people's prying eyes.
"Let me show you how to 'tap into' everything on everyone. The complete scoop on your enemies, employees, boss or anyone else … and that includes yourself," boasts the site for Hi Tek Info, a company known for selling books like Spying on Your Spouse: A Guide for Anyone Who Suspects a Partner Is Cheating and Be Your Own Dick: Private Investigating Made Easy.
"Technology is the enabler, the driver of desires," said Ulanoff, who recently played digital detective for a practical reason: researching real estate sites that shed light on the age and condition of a house while he was house-hunting.
For those wanting to be fully immersed in the detective persona, supplies such as pens that write upside down, fingerprint lifting tape, ultra lightweight micro cassette recorders and narcotics ID kits are also easy to obtain.
ChiefSupply.com sells everything from NIK's Cocaine I.D. Swabs for $52.99, which identify traces of the drug, to Emi's Aquanauts pocket light, $9.99, with a high-pressure Xenon gas lamp that's 300 percent brighter than the average mini-flashlight. And there are step-by-step descriptions on how novice detectives can use their new gadgets wisely.
Still, not everyone's pleased with the fact of the free flow of such seemingly private information.
"As a private person, I don't think just anybody should have access to personal information," said 31-year-old Elizabeth Maglietta of Queens, N.Y.
Privacy concerns have always been a major factor in regards to the Internet. Fear of identity theft, stalking and financial fraud top the list of dangers cited by privacy groups.
"There is no one monitoring the access. If only law enforcement and private investigators had access, then they could filter who gets it. They could act as gatekeepers and protect the public at large," said Dorning.
However, despite the possibility of negative outcomes, some feel having information readily available is beneficial.
"I think on the whole, access to information is a good and positive thing," said 39-year-old Stephen Cooke, of New York, a father of two who uses Web sites like Friendsreunited.CO.UK to locate long lost pals in his native England.
And according to Cooke, investigative sites and surveillance software serve an ulterior purpose: to fulfill a life-long dream.
"Any Englishman is tempted to play Sherlock Holmes," he said. "Especially with the technology at hand."