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How reliable are online background checks?

Written by Amine

When something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Are online background checks all they are cracked up to be? Are they really instant and nationwide?

SURPRISING TRUTH #1: It is perfectly legal to conduct a background check on anyone at any time. Now I know I’ve lost some of you who now think I’m off my rocker because you know there are all kinds of forms you have to sign with all kinds of legal warnings with criminal penalties and stuff, but I’ll say it again . “WHO CAN DO A BACKGROUND CHECK ON ANYONE, ANYTIME THEY FEEL LIKE. Since I want you to read this entire article, I won’t explain these claims until the end of the article.

SURPRISING TRUTH #2: There is no instant national database of all criminal records that you can access. Right now you’re probably sure I’m crazy. “Why did they get a tape of that bad guy on Law & Order last night…” You’re talking about the NCIC, the National Crime Intelligence Center, or otherwise known as the FBI files. While the FBI keeps the best and most accurate records, unfortunately, you can’t get them, unless of course you’re a federally insured bank, a Department of Defense contractor, a nuclear power plant, a branch of the government itself, or some other such entity. A surprising number of otherwise intelligent people think there are giant government databases of information about everyone, including their criminal history, work history, credit records, and even what books they check out from the library and what videos they rent. If that were true, why is it taking the government itself four months and $2,400 to do its own background checks? You do not believe me? Email me and I will send you a link to the Office of Personnel Management website for the fee and time schedule.

SURPRISING Truth #3: There is a big, big difference between everywhere and anywhere. Companies that sell database information advertise that they search everywhere, or at least they want you to believe. The use of the word Nationwide is designed to make you think they check everywhere. The question then becomes: “If you’re not checking everywhere, what are you checking?” The answer is that we check anywhere a person has lived or worked. Is it much better to check ANYWHERE and get real records than to check EVERYWHERE and get inaccurate database records?

So if there is no such thing as an instant nationwide database, what are these companies selling? First I’ll tell you what these databases are good for, and then I’ll tell you why they’re dangerous. In some US states their ACTUAL criminal records are available in some publicly accessible form. It may be on the Internet and may require a subscription or confirmation of the permissible purpose of its use, but it is available. Texas is a good example of this. For a small fee you can go online and access REAL Texas criminal records. Florida, Minnesota, and Virginia are other examples of where you can get what I call “REAL” records through these database services. The problem is that these database companies don’t tell the consumer (you) that this is the case in most cases and in most areas of the country you get 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 resell this information, do not highlight the weakness of their systems. This is why they emphasize the words “instant” and “nationwide” in their promotions. Everyone wants cheap and instant instead of slow and expensive, right? You can imagine a website that advertises “slow and expensive background checks for limited areas”. In fact, to obtain truly accurate records in most of the country, a personal search is still required at each district court.

These companies get records where they can get them for free; usually from a state’s Department of Corrections, which means you only get information about a person if they’ve been convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison. When most people think of a criminal background check, they think of all arrests and convictions; both misdemeanors and felonies and court dispositions, guilty or not guilty and punishment. As you can see, if you’re only getting a felony conviction, you’re only getting a small piece of the pie. For example; a person may have been arrested multiple times for being in possession of drug paraphernalia or small amounts of drugs. If the records you are obtaining only contain felony convictions, you would have no record of the person’s drug use.

Another problem these Instant Nationwide background checks have is that in many areas of the country they get nothing at all because the states or county superior courts or district courts don’t give them free records. Here’s another example: Let’s say you’re 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 “background check” into Yahoo or Google and you’ll immediately see ads for “Instant Nationwide” background checks. You choose one of the websites that offer instant listings, pay your $19.95 or $49.95, and enter the information about the person you want to check. The website will immediately tell you that no record was found based on the information you provided. You feel great! Go ahead and tell the nanny she can start tomorrow because she’s passed the background check. Here comes the big gut punch. . . The website didn’t tell you that their database records don’t search any of these areas at all. You just paid $19.95 or $49.95 and got NOTHING, ZERO, ZIP, NADA. Disclosure: In reality, the driving sentence is not 100% true. In Nevada and Louisiana, the databases search for currently incarcerated inmates in their respective prison systems. So if your potential babysitter is in jail right now, it would tell you that she is in jail, but I think you already know that.

Now to explain Surprising Truth #1: I’ll say it again: Anyone can audit anyone at any time. If you’re so inclined, you can check the criminal or civil record (or lack thereof) of your daughter’s boyfriend (I do this regularly), your crazy next-door neighbor, your business partner, your doctor, your ex-husband, your mayor, or even your priest. In fact, you don’t even have to be a US citizen to get these records. You can walk into the office of the clerk of superior court (in some states the district court) in the jurisdiction where the person lives/lived, go to the counter, fill out the paper, give it to the clerk, and wait for the results. . Note that you will only get records from that county, ie if a person lived in multiple counties, you would have to check each one. The subject of your search could be an ax murderer from the next county, but your bailiff will have no record of that.

OK, now you have the information, what are you going to do with it? This is an area where law is concerned; what do you do with the information! If you use this information to discriminate against a person, deny them employment, housing, or school admission, etc., you are breaking the law and exposing yourself to large time commitments and possible lawsuits. That’s what all warning consent forms are about. Laws are not concerned with obtaining information, but with its use.

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

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