Everybody is subject to a few background checks throughout an average life, but it isn’t the kind of occurrence that’s common enough that we’d know how to do it by rote. Chances are the person who needs to know the most about background checks is working in a professional capacity. Background checks at various degrees are standard for loan applications, tenant agreements, and of course employment screening.
An investigator (the person running the check) will usually need to obtain written consent from the subject (the person being checked).
Laws control what information can be used from a background check in some areas. For instance, employers are usually prevented from discriminating against a candidate on grounds such as marital status or religious belief. Privacy rights laws and consumer protection laws can also affect the usage of background checks. For example, the Fair Credit Reporting Act in the US affords certain rights to the subject, while the New Zealand Clean Slate Act allows minor convictions to be expunged from citizen’s records.
It is up to the investigator to know the laws in their jurisdiction pertaining to background checks.
Forms of Background Checks
Depending on the circumstance, a background check may cover the following in any combination:
criminal records check
employment and education history
The purpose of background checks is to compare the subject’s past record, determining if they are trustworthy and reliable enough to enter into the proposed agreement, be it applying for a student loan or an apartment lease. While there will always be rare subjects who have a special aspect not covered by the screening, background checks are aimed at being a fairly thorough audit sufficient for the purpose at hand.
A landlord/lease agreement will typically be limited to a credit check. An employment screening will be more thorough, including criminal background and employment history. Candidates seeking a position required high trust, such as government security clearance, might have a minor life history to sketch out.
The Background Check Process
An investigator will need verified identification of the subject and a bit of starting information, such as an application form or a resume.
For identification, the investigator might require social security number, date of birth, photo ID, and any aliases the subject has used in the past.
Credit checks are usually obtained through a credit bureau, as there is no official government support for the practice. There are a small handful of commercial credit reporting agencies that allow publicly accessible credit reporting.
Criminal records checks involve a query sent out to courthouses, law enforcement agencies, and various offices within the criminal justice system, such as correctional facilities. Since each courthouse only has records for their jurisdiction, a full check requires a poll of every jurisdiction where the subject has lived.
Driving records and vehicle ownership history is a matter of public record conducted through the Dkepartment of Motor Vehicles or similar agency, depending on the area.
Social media checks are still unconventional, but employers have made it fairly commonplace to at least scan through a subject’s online footprint. This will involve the subject self-reporting their online accounts and aliases. Because online anonymity is so easy to accomplish, social media scans aren’t seen as reliable.
Education history is made public by the education system and is quite simple to verify. Employment history requires the subject to self-report former employers, then the investigator has to verify each position manually.
Character reference is rare, but involves a subject typically reporting three individuals who can vouch for the subject. Then the investigator uses this contact information to survey the references.
Drug screening is usually handled through a third-party medical lab, where biological samples are taken from the subject.
In-House or Outsourced?
Background checks are at least very time consuming, depending on thoroughness. While they aren’t usually expensive, small fees may accumulate for some metrics reporting. Using an Internet service helps tremendously to shorten several steps, and is becoming a standard method for most use cases. An online service such as CheckPeople can save a lot of legwork, and may even be all most users would need.
For the details which can’t be automated, such as interviews with people over the phone, this work might fall to a company’s human resources department. However, investigative agencies do offer services to do this sort of background checking for a fee.
Exceptions and Edge Cases
Several items may be omitted from criminal background checks, depending on the local laws. Juvenile records are nearly always sealed, not even subject to a Freedom of Information query. A lenient judge might have moved to have a subject’s records expunged if they were convicted for a one-off offense. Infractions are almost always left out.
Depending on the source of the query, credit agencies might only return a numerical score or in-depth report of various debt activity.
Due to changing laws concerning the prohibition of certain controlled substances, workspace drug screenings are experiencing a shift in what they screen for, depending upon the employer. Employers can still hold a “zero tolerance” policy, screening individuals for all drugs even if some of them are legalized.