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What Constitutes a Thorough Criminal Background Check?

Contrary to popular belief, there are no foolproof background searches or “national database” searches that cover the entire country. As a matter of fact, many states don’t submit criminal records to national databases, and many that do submit information only provide incarceration records. With the absence of a true national criminal database, the best option available is hands-on research at the primary source: local county courthouses. However, with over 3,000 counties throughout the U.S. and over 10,000 courthouses storing criminal records, it would be an onerous and costly task to search a person’s criminal history in every courthouse.

This is why a comprehensive background search begins with address and social security number verification. This search verifies the applicant’s social security number matches the applicant, and reveals alias names and addresses from the past. With this information, county criminal courthouse searches can be conducted in the counties the applicant has lived during a specified period, typically seven to ten years.

State repository and/or database searches are a valuable supplement to county courthouse searches. These searches allow you to broaden your investigation and possibly identify an applicant’s criminal past in an area outside of his/her counties of residence. Keep in mind, however, that information obtained from these searches is sometimes outdated or incomplete. Consequently, when repository or database records are found, a county criminal search should be conducted in an effort to verify the information or to find out the final disposition of the record. Remember, a good search is a thorough search!

Federal criminal searches are also recommended, as they search for violations of Federal law that are recorded in U.S. District Courts rather than local county courthouses. Federal crimes usually involve serious offenses such as embezzlement, robbery, drug trafficking, mail fraud, racketeering, crimes over the Internet, and kidnapping. Unfortunately, the searchable index for Federal District Courts has very little identifying information, so confirming a record match may be difficult and time consuming.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) keeps a listing of identifying information taken from fingerprints submitted voluntarily by various criminal justice agencies in connection with arrests, or relating to naturalization or military service. Many employers are under the impression that this FBI identification database is the “gold standard” in background screening. In reality, the background screening community considers the FBI’s database as a tool to be used but not reliable enough as a single source for a background check.

FBI background checks are not available for all employers. There must be a federal law or state statute requiring the FBI check. Unfortunately when legislators pass laws and statutes requiring fingerprint checks, they do not understand the lack of information available through these searches. When required to rely on the FBI database, employers should be aware of the potential pitfalls of using the system.

Having been arrested and fingerprinted may not help your job candidate land a job, but if the arrest did not result in a criminal conviction, this critical disposition information is likely to be missing from a person’s “rap sheet.” Thus, relying on the FBI database alone doesn’t paint the whole picture. Since the FBI database relies on voluntary submissions of identifying information from fingerprinting, one can only imagine the margin of error that is possible. With thousands and thousands of counties, boroughs, parishes and independent cities in the United States, it may not be possible to have third party vendor fingerprinting stations serving all jurisdictions in the same manner. Alternately, reputable background screening agencies, like Hire Image, have developed court researcher networks that cover all jurisdictions.

If you choose to rely on any single database that has incomplete, erroneous, or incorrect information, you could be putting your business, employees and customers at risk. A thorough background check will include several types of searches to cast the widest net possible in screening the potential employee.

Additional recommendations for searches may include terrorist watch lists and verifications of education, employment and professional licenses. Credit reports, driving records, drug testing and specialized industry screenings, such as medical and financial screening are also valuable tools for determining a candidate’s fit.

Performing cheap, substandard searches – or worse yet, not performing background screening at all – can cost your organization a lot more than the price of a comprehensive screening process. Be sure to engage a reputable background screening company that specializes in employment screening.

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