Is digging up your ancestry online worth it?

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by Candice Choi
AP Personal Finance Writer

NEW YORK (AP)—Genealogy is hot again.

Shows such as “Faces of America” on PBS and “Who Do You Think You Are?” on NBC are renewing the country’s fascination with family histories. And unlike when the TV series “Roots” aired in the 1970s, consumers now have numerous tools to dig up their ancestral pasts.

Websites that enable you to research your family tree or submit to DNA testing can be costly, however, and the results likely won’t be as dramatic as shown on TV.

It should also be noted that services can be limited depending on your family heritage.

Here’s a look at what two major sites offer.

Ancestry.com

How It Works: A monthly subscription gives you access to four billion public records, including Census records from 1790 to 1930.

To help wade through the database, start by filling in a family tree with whatever information you have. If you punch in a grandparent’s name and approximate date of birth, for example, the site turns up public records that may be matches.

When testing the site, a colleague with a common Irish last name quickly uncovered new information on her family. Within a few minutes, she found a photo of her grandmother that a relative had uploaded, as well as a Census record on her maternal grandfather.

Users can make family trees public too, so those created by others will turn up in a search if you share a common relative.

It should be noted that the site has considerable records for African-Americans, including documents from the Freedman’s Bank and Freedmen’s Bureau, which were set up for freed slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Records from before then are much sparser, however.

Cost: $19.95 a month or $155 a year for U.S. records. If you also want access to records from outside the U.S., it’s $29.95 a month or $299 a year.

It’s free to set up a family tree and add your own photos and documents. If you cancel a paid subscription, access to the site’s documents is cut off, but you keep your family tree and any information uploaded.

AfricanAncestry.com

How It Works: As the name implies, the site is tailored to African-Americans. Its database includes 25,000 DNA samples from the African continent, with an emphasis on the Western and Central regions where the slave trades drew from.

Individuals can test their maternal or paternal DNA to see if either comes from African ancestry. If so, the test tells you the present day countries and ethnic groups that are a match. About 65 percent of those who get their paternal lineages tested find they are from African ancestry, while 92 percent of maternal lineages trace back to Africa.

Results include a printout of your DNA sequence, an African country reference guide and an online account so you can connect with other members.

The company guarantees your privacy; cheek swabs sent to labs contain no personal identification information.

Cost: $349 for either a maternal or paternal lineage test, or $300 each if you get both. The site runs specials throughout the year too.

(If you have a consumer question or comment, e-mail Candice Choi at cchoi@ap.org.)

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