Almost everyone will undergo a background check in their lifetime. A staple of most job and rental applications, they are necessary in some states for gun ownership and have even made their way into dating scene.

However, there are a lot of problems with background checks. For the most part, they are incomplete and haphazard. Many are cheap or even free — and this is part of the problem. Yes, free sounds wonderful, and an inexpensive check for the price of a nice lunch for two sounds reasonable. Are they quick? You bet. All you have to do is fill in these five fields on this website and you’re all set? Great!

But what kind of information are you getting out of that background check, and how reliable is that information? If you’re looking for the best candidates for an opening in your company, or a tenant you can trust to treat your rental property with respect, or to trust the person you matched on a dating app, more than likely the information you need isn’t showing up. Or if it is, it’s not reliable.

So, what are the problems associated with background checks? Glad you asked...

1. Public Databases Are Incomplete and Out-Of-Date.

There is not a single national database of criminal records in the United States that you can search by name to find comprehensive criminal records.

The FBI’s National Criminal Information Center only includes the criminal history information that has been reported to the FBI. It is a great resource, but was only started in 1967 and is dependent on records that have been provided by criminal justice agencies. It operates under a shared management concept between the FBI and federal, state, local and tribal criminal justice users. And NCIC policy requires the inquiring agency to make contact with the entering agency to verify the information is accurate and up-to-date. There is also the National Data Exchange (N-DEx), another federal database dependent on submitted records. But there have been issues utilizing one to verify the other to find the most complete, comprehensive record possible.

Because there isn’t an all-inclusive, up-to-date, national database that covers everything possible, you will have to verify your results to a few databases if you are looking for a complete picture.

False positives are another issue that plague background checks. Private databases that aggregate all the records from all the jurisdictions are often out of date, and carry with them all the problems that come with trying to combine thousands of small, incompatible databases into one master. If two people share a name, or a name and birth date, or there was a mistake with the data entry like a typo, or if the data was just collected differently, this could result in a false positive or negative.

2. Social Media Isn’t Accessed.

Social media has become as much of a curse as it has been a blessing. Pictures and posts shared can give you insight into a person, maybe more so than an interview, a list of references, or someone’s criminal record.  With 77 percent of Americans on some form of social media, there is a very good chance of finding information about – or having access to someone.

A social media investigation can provide information on someone’s movements, associates or character. The metadata attached to posts can be used to determine a real-time location with surprising accuracy, as well as behaviors and habits over time.

3. They Refuse to Go “Old School” and Research News Archives.

Bust out the microfiche! Old news archives are a great resource of information. This could include run-ins with the law that never made it to a court hearing or were pleaded out, previous business dealings (and failures), scholastic achievements, etc. Some of our investigators have also found expunged or sealed convictions and arrests during their research.

It takes more than just a quick google search, but if you know the particular city, you can search the local paper online or even take that trip to the library or sometimes even the newspaper offices to review their archives.

4. They Don’t Verify Education.

Failing to verify education can produce embarrassment down the road (as Samsonite and others have discovered), particularly if you are hiring for a leadership position.

Contact the school’s registrar’s office and ask about credentials. If you’ve been given permission to conduct a background check by the individual for an interview, for example, this is permissible. Most college registrars will confirm dates of attendance and graduation, as well as degrees awarded and majors, upon request. Seriously — this is all you have to do. An employer can also request transcripts from the candidate.

If you’re worried about the validity of the school itself (i.e. is it a diploma mill) you can check the U.S. Dept. of Education or Council for Higher Education Accreditation websites.

5. They Often Don’t Access a Variety of Paid Databases With Better Information.

Here are a host of paid databases that are used by private investigators and other professionals access. Some examples:

  • TLOxp is updated daily and will provide names, addresses, aliases, emails, phones, places of employment, bankruptcies, liens, assets, criminal histories, social media profiles.
  • DelvePoint prides itself on being a great skip tracing resource for both people and business searches.
  • LexisNexis is the most commonly used database in any industry.
  • Westlaw is utilized by the legal profession, like small law firms with minimal resources.

These databases are able to pull information from multiple databases into one report, saving time.

6. They Don’t Take the Opportunity to Interview a Subject’s Colleagues.

Backdoor reference checks can help you gain an objective picture of a person from those they’ve previously worked or gone to school with, but that weren’t listed as references. Calling the human resources department of a previous employer may only verify the time and title of when someone worked at a company, but talking to a sales person about a former marketing representative may give you an idea of how cooperative someone can be.

Taking the backdoor background check a step further, setting up an actual interview with colleagues of a person lends a bit more formality to the process which may help frame the conversation. When companies are vetting c-suite candidates, they often conduct these interviews with former employees, clients, co-workers. A lot of executive search firms conduct these interviews, which enables them to grow their candidate pools at the same time.

7. They Don’t Check Professional Licenses.

Background checks usually don’t verify professional licenses. Just like verifying a person’s education or job history, a simple phone call to an association or even a quick search on the licensing organization’s website can confirm a license: Doctors? Lawyers? Teachers?

For example, you can verify if a private investigator you’re interested in hiring is licensed by checking here.

Any association or institution who values their reputation will be willing to verify whether someone is a full-fledged, licensed member. If someone is lying about membership or licensing, there could be legal trouble, so it’s worth checking them out.

8. They Fail to Check Other Resources.

There are other areas in background checks that can be investigated — but with only with the person’s permission.

  • A credit check includes a compilation of reports by the three major credit agencies (Experian, TransUnion, Equifax), and can actually be had for free, once a year, by law. They can reveal if payments were made on time and how they handle their finances.
  • A driving record check reveals status of drivers license, traffic accidents, driving record points, traffic law violations, convictions, and fines, and any DUI’s in public record. It will also reveal whether a driver’s license is currently valid, suspended or canceled. This information could’ve helped avoid a terrible incident earlier this year.
  • Drug screenings are pretty self-explanatory — if drug use has occurred, it will show up in the test (depending on the type of test and the type of drug). That's all there is to it. Forensic surface drug tests can identify trace amounts of substances on any surface.
  • A Social Security Number /I-9 verification checks the social security number provided against the Social Security Administration's data. They can also match the information in an I-9 to the Dept. of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration’s records, to verify if someone is eligible to work in the US.
  • Liens and civil judgment checks can check if an applicant is fiscally responsible, lives a “stable” lifestyle, and has no outstanding judgments or debts to pay as a result of legal proceedings. A lien is imposed by law on a piece of property in order to secure payment for a debt, while civil judgments are rulings in a court of law pertaining to non-criminal matters. Employers will sometimes check to see if you have any judgments or liens.

9. They Don’t Do a Deep or Dark Web Search.

A deep web search is anything on the internet that is not indexed by a search engine. Websites that can’t be found through traditional search methods include anything protected behind a password or paywall, like:

  • Medical and financial records
  • Scientific and academic databases
  • Legal documents and government reports
  • Subscription-only content

Technically, the contents of your email account exist in the deep web — although you can’t find them on the deep web without the login details. Banking information, doctor communications, secure image hosting and anything else that is protected from the public eye is considered to be deep web content. Large sections of the deep web are searchable, if you know how to do it.

There are darker things lurking on the web as well. Different from the deep web is the dark web, an anonymous and encrypted part of the internet that is difficult to access. Websites designed to be accessed only by special anonymous browsers exist, and these hidden sites often become hotbeds of illegal activity. These sites may include forums or chat rooms as well as information for illegal activities including drug use, child pornography, human trafficking, political protest and more.

How deep your background search needs to be will determine if a dark or deep web search is necessary.

One More Thing — the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

If you’re doing a background check for employment, you need to be aware of the FCRA. The FCRA regulates the collection of credit information and the access to credit reports. It was passed in 1970 to ensure fairness, accuracy and privacy of the personal information contained in the files of the credit reporting agencies.

The EEOC and FTC have established guidelines for background checks:

  • "Any time you use an applicant's or employee's background information to make an employment decision, regardless of how you got the information, you must comply with federal laws that protect applicants and employees from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, or religion; disability; genetic information (including family medical history); and age (40 or older). These laws are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)."
  • "When you run background checks through a company in the business of compiling background information, you must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Notify the person you might use the information for decisions about his or her employment, in writing and in a stand-alone format. The notice can't be in an employment application."  (For example: you may notice a separate 'page' as part of an online job application that asks for this information.)"
  • "If you are asking a company to provide an 'investigative report' — a report based on personal interviews concerning a person's character, general reputation, personal characteristics, and lifestyle — you must also tell the applicant of his or her right to a description of the nature and scope of the investigation."

Bernadette Vielhaber

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