Last year, people curious about family trees spent $2.3 billion on genealogy products and services, according to a 2012 study by market-research firm Global Industry Analysts.

And while nearly everyone who researches ancestry is caught off guard by some finding, says genealogist Terry Koch-Bostic, a Mineola, N.Y.-based director of the National Genealogy Society, a nonprofit education, training and records-preservation group, roughly 1 in 5 of those surprises are negative, she estimates.

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