How Reliable are Online Background Checks?

Have you ever wanted to go online and conduct a background check on someone? Is REAL information really available online? Is it legal? How do I find out? Is this something that will come back and haunt me later?

SURPRISING TRUTH # 1: Anybody can do a background check on anybody, any time they want to. Now I know that I’ve lost some of you who now think that I am off my rocker because you know that there are all sorts of forms that you have to sign with all kinds of legal warnings with criminal penalties and such, but I’ll say it again. “ANYBODY CAN DO A BACKGROUND CHECK ON ANYONE, ANY TIME THEY FEEL LIKE IT.” Because I want you to read this whole article, I am not going to explain those statements until further into the article.

SURPRISING TRUTH # 2: There is no instant national database of all criminal records that you can access. Now I know that you are sure that I am crazy. “Why just last night on Law & Order they got the bad guy’s record . . .” There, you are talking about NCIC, the National Crime Information Center or otherwise known as the FBI files. While the FBI maintains the best and most accurate records, unfortunately, you can’t get them, unless of course you are a federally insured bank, a defense department contractor, a nuclear power plant, a branch of the government itself or some other such entity. Some people out there are still convinced that the government has magic databases with all of our secret information on everything from criminal history to credit and health information. If that were true, why does it take the government itself four months and $2400 to conduct its own background checks? Don’t believe me? Look here: http://www.opm.gov/extra/investigate/FIN-2002/fin02-01Attach1.asp

SURPRISING TRUTH # 3: There is a big, big difference between everywhere and anywhere. The companies that sell database information advertise that they search everywhere, or at least that’s what they want you to believe. Using the word Nationwide is designed to make you think that they check everywhere. The question then becomes, “If you don’t check everywhere, what do you check?” The answer is that we check anywhere a person has lived or worked. It is much better to check ANYWHERE and get real records than to check EVERYWHERE and get inaccurate database records?

So if there’s no such thing as an instant nationwide database what are these companies selling? First let me tell you what these databases are good for and then I’ll tell you why they are dangerous. In some states of the USA their REAL criminal records are available in some kind of publicly accessible form. It may be on the internet and it may require a subscription or acknowledgement of permissible purpose for its use, but it is available. Texas is a good example of this. For a small fee you can go online and access the REAL criminal records of the state of Texas. Florida, Minnesota and Virginia are other examples of where you can get via these database services what I call “REAL” records. The problem is that these database companies don’t tell the consumer (you) that is most cases and in most areas of the country you are getting either nothing or marginal information at best.

Here’s why. The companies that collect and sell these database records, and the hundreds of companies that re-sell this information do not emphasize the weakness of their systems. This is why they emphasize the words “instant” and “nationwide” in their promotions. Everyone wants cheap and instant as opposed to slow and expensive, don’t they? Can you imagine a website that advertises “Slow And Expensive Limited Area Background Checks.” In fact to get really accurate records in most of the country it still requires in person searching at each county courthouse.

These companies get records where they can get them for free; usually from a state’s Department of Corrections, which means you are only getting info on a person if he/she has been convicted of a felony and sentenced to prison. When most people think of a criminal history background check they think of all arrests and convictions; both misdemeanors and felonies and the court disposition, guilty or not guilty and the sentence. As you can see, if you are getting only felony convictions, you are getting only a small piece of the pie. For example; a person could be arrested a couple of times for having drug paraphernalia or a small amount of drugs in his or her possession. If the records you are getting only include felony convictions, you would have no record of that person’s drug abuse.

The other problem that these Instant Nationwide background checks have is that in many areas of the country they get nothing at all because the states or the county superior courts or district courts don’t furnish them with free records. Here is another example: Suppose you are a parent in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Boston, Atlanta or New Orleans (just to name a few) and you want to do a criminal background check. You go online and type in “background check” in Yahoo or Google and right away you see the ads for the “Instant Nationwide” background checks. You choose one of the websites that offers instant records, you pay your $19.95 or $49.95 and you provide the information on the person you want to check-out. Instantly the website tells you that there is no record found based on the info that you have provided. You feel great! You go ahead and tell the nanny that she can start tomorrow because she has passed the background check. Here comes the big kick in the gut. . . What the website didn’t tell you is that their database records don’t search any of those areas at all. You just paid $19.95 or $49.95 and got NOTHING, ZERO, ZIP, NADA. Disclosure: Actually the proceeding sentence is not 100% true. In Nevada and Louisiana the databases do search currently incarcerated prisoners in their respective prison systems. So if your potential nanny is in prison right now then it would tell you that he/she is in prison, but I guess you would already know that.

Now to explain the # 1 Surprising Truth: I’ll say it again: Anyone can check anyone, anytime. If you are so inclined, you can check the criminal or civil record (or lack thereof) of your daughter’s boyfriend (I do that on a regular basis) your crazy neighbor next door, your business partner, your doctor, your ex-husband, your mayor or even your priest. In fact, you don’t even have to be a citizen of the USA to get these records. You can walk into the Superior Court (District Court in some states) clerk’s office, in the jurisdiction where that person lives/lived, go up to the counter, fill out a slip of paper, hand it to the clerk and wait for the results. Remember that you will only get the records from that county, i.e., if a person lived in multiple counties you would have to check each of them. The subject of your search could be an axe murder from the next county over, but your county court clerk would not have a record of it.

OK, now you’ve got the information, what do you do with it? This is the area where the law is concerned; what you do with the information! If you use this information to discriminate against a person, deny them employment, housing or entrance to a school, etc. then you are violating the law and opening yourself to big time liabilities and possible lawsuits. This is what all of the consent forms with warnings are all about. It’s not the getting of the information that the laws are concerned with but the use of it.

In summary, read the fine print and ask questions or go to the courthouse and do it yourself.