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You can live next to people for years and never get to know them. Who are they? What are they doing, just beyond that picket fence? They may look normal enough, but are your children safe around them? Do they have a malevolent past?

Whatever your motivation, there are many safe and legal ways to check on your neighbors, and with perfect anonymity. Here are some simple methods for finding public data, no private detective required.

Get names

Many of us can’t identify our neighbors by name. We’ve never been formally introduced.

Wonder no longer.

At the WhitePages site, you’ll have your neighbor’s name in seconds. The service is free and easy to use. Simply enter the street address, and you should be good to go.

Tip within a tip: Is your home Internet running slowly? Maybe it’s your neighbors. Go to http://tinyurl.com/mysezk8 to see if your neighbors are stealing your Internet connection.

With a WhitePages paid account, you can obtain more detailed reports, including mobile numbers, bankruptcy records, criminal records, and other data. I know what you’re thinking. “All I need is my neighbor’s street address? Could I run this background check on anybody?” As long as you know where a person lives, yes, you can.

Go to http://tinyurl.com/mmqljr6 to perform a reverse address search now. If for some reason you strike out here, many county tax assessor sites also provide homeowner information, too.

Run a check

As a society, we have to face an ugly truth. There are a lot of sex offenders out there. Unlike some criminals, convicted sex offenders live very public lives. No matter where they go, sex offender registries do their best to keep track of them, ensuring that their neighbors and coworkers can be vigilant.

To quickly browse these offenders, you can use a free service like Family Watchdog. Just enter an address or a ZIP code and Family Watchdog will generate an area map with markers representing mapped and unmapped offenders in that vicinity. You can then click each marker to view the offender’s photo and profile.

For a similar service, you can also try the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website to find convicted offenders around your area.

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Tip within a tip: SpotCrime provides a map of an area and pinpoints exactly where reported crimes took place. The information is gathered from police records and news items, and it’s impressively comprehensive. Go to http://tinyurl.com/lel3b54 to see how much crime happens in your neighborhood.

Go NextDoor

NextDoor is gaining popularity, especially in neighborhoods where residents don’t know each other well. The website connects neighbors online to share news, events, and recommendations, a sort of bulletin board for neighborhood chatter.

Many people use this site to discuss local goings-on, like trash pickup, PTA updates, and block parties. If your pet goes missing, you can instantly alert the whole area. More urgently, neighbors can warn each other about burglaries and vandalism.

Like any social media user, folks on NextDoor reveal a lot about their personalities. You will likely find your neighbors listed, and their interests, concerns, and grievances should become apparent. Go to http://tinyurl.com/mgngzmq to learn how to see what the neighbors are talking about on NextDoor.

Bonus idea: This only works for people who are financially involved in politics, but you can use the Federal Election Commission’s “Advance Transaction Query by Individual Contributor” to view political contributors in your neighborhood.

You can search by name, city, state and ZIP code to generate a list of contributors to local political committees. This should give you an idea of your neighborhood’s political landscape and what parties your neighbors might support. It might also help you avoid awkward conversations at backyard barbecues.