What is a Background Check - Everything You Need To Know

article by Rebecca Lori
March 26, 2020
We’ve all heard the horror stories. Girl meets boy and falls in love, only to discover that he is in fact...married or vice versa. We’ve also heard tales from people who have been in a top position for a potential job, only to be rejected for no logical reason. So what is a background check?

What do these things have in common? All of these people could have hugely benefited from an online background check. In this guide, we will look at background checks, how they work and why you might need one. We’ll explain how you could find yourself in trouble if you perform the wrong type of background check and talk about the best online background check – paid vs free.

What is a Background Check?

In a nutshell, a background check is a process where a person’s background and character are investigated. There are a number of reasons why people perform background checks, but mostly it’s to verify that they are telling the truth about their personal details. Background checks are also used to view the person’s educational and employment history as well as to check and see if they have any criminal records. On a less serious level, a background check will also give clues to a person’s personality too, which is why lots of employers will perform a people search before they hire new employees.

How Does a Background Check Work?

“Background check” is a blanket term for looking into a person’s records to check their history – whether your own records or someone else’s. This means that there isn’t just one method of checking. A background check can be as simple as entering a person’s name into a search engine in order to see what relevant results appear or as complicated as hiring a private investigator to search the deep web for criminal activities.

Generally speaking, the most popular methods used to perform a background check are: doing it independently online or paying to use a specialist service. There are a number of background check companies that provide online checks and most are reasonably priced around $20 – a small price to pay for a big peace of mind.

These companies have access to more information than the general public as their search capabilities can go ‘deeper’ than a normal search engine. Such services may include: internet searches, checks into public records, looking through court files and sometimes physically visiting a courthouse for validation of the person’s records. The data that they search is mostly online and maintained by state and federal governments as well as private companies. If you choose to perform an independent background check you may find that accessing this type of information is tricky. Although public records are available for the general public, it isn’t just as simple as a Google search. Often these records are embedded in the deep web (which means that they won’t appear in standard search engine results). A background check company will know exactly how to access these records, so once you have signed up and given the name of the person you plan to check, they will perform a search and present you with a document explaining the results. Some background check providers will contact schools and employers directly, in order to verify information given too, which is why many employers use this service before hiring a new employee.

Why Do You Need a Background Check?

It might seem surprising, but there are many reasons why a background check is a good idea. You might be wondering – why should I do a background check on myself? So let’s talk data. You probably have a fair idea of what personal information you store at home, right? Most of us have folders with utility bills, bank statements and other personal information such as birth certificates, marriage certificates and passports. That’s just the physical data. You’re most likely to have a wealth of personal data stored on your laptop too and this is completely normal.

Now, how much of your data is online? You’d be amazed and probably horrified if you realized the scope of personal information that is available online. You might not think anything of it, but if you have social media accounts then the sheer volume of personal data floating around on the internet is phenomenal.

Not only that, but sites such as LinkedIn will also provide an online picture of your background and most will be searchable for the public. A quick search in Google of your name and location can bring up alarming results. Go on, try it now! Use “name, location” in Google, Bing, AOL and Yahoo and see what comes up. You might be surprised to see your name, age, current address and background information. But did you know that there are specialist websites that can trawl deeper than the usual search engines and reveal even more personal data?

Some websites such as White Pages reveal your current address and previous addresses as well as family member names associated with you. Websites such as Pipl does much the same. Not only that but every driving offense, any possible criminal offense, financial records and educational certificates are all online and online background check companies that search the deep web can usually access this information and present it to anyone who has requested it, in a special report.

When your life is online it becomes essential to know what that looks like. Does your online profile look professional? Could it deter potential employers? Also, is there inaccurate information online that needs removing or adjusting? An advanced background check will really put your mind at ease.

Another reason for using an online background service such as PeopleLooker is to check out someone else. You might want to check a potential roommate if you’re planning on sharing your property. What about dating? It might seem extreme but surely a quick background check before you meet in-person (if you met online) will help minimize the chance of any potentially dangerous situations? Another use for background checks is to verify if an online seller is genuine or not. Again, these are valid reasons why a quick background search is worthwhile.

What Can You Find in a Background Check?

You might wonder what does a background check consist of? And this is a valid question and depends largely on whether or not you plan to perform the check yourself. Let’s focus on background check companies right now as we’ll talk more about independent checks later. A background check from a dedicated service provider will focus on public records and the individual’s online presence. So this could mean social media accounts, dating profiles, anything where the person in question has created an account using their real name or an alias.

Most companies will offer a range of packages or services which is likely to increase in price depending on the complexity of the information needed. As a general rule though, background check companies will check the following:

  • Criminal Records –  you will find that different states in the US will perform their background checks differently, but most will look into National Criminal Databases, Terrorist Watch Lists, Federal & State Criminal Records, Sex Offender Lists and County Criminal Courts. Some employers may need to look into these records depending on the type of work involved.
  • Employment Records/Former Employers – technically, an employer is not allowed to check your background before they have decided to hire you. Not without your permission or good reason. Let’s explain further – an employer violates your privacy the moment they look you up online and check your social media profiles. This doesn’t necessarily stop them of course. If an employer is requesting a background check for employment then the employer will need your consent first. In compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) employers will need written permission to perform an employment check. It’s therefore advisable to always work with a FCRA compliant company if requesting a background check for an employee or potential employee. An employment check can include any of the following: work history, drug screening, educational background, credit history, social media, medical history, criminal records and driving records.
  • Credit Report – This is a record of the person’s credit to debt ratio and will show your full credit history including: bankruptcies, civil judgments, unpaid debts (bills) and credit inquiries.
  • International Background Checks – mainly used by employers, international background checks are performed when you have lived, studied or worked in a different country from the US. This check allows access to international records.

What a Background Check Won’t Show You

What is and what isn’t included in a background check will depend on the methods used to obtain the information. Everything about you is available online but most of it is protected for your security and privacy. Using an online background checking service will pull up data from a number of different public records but it’s unlikely to include a detailed report on your social media profiles. A private investigator will look deeper into things like that. If you have asked for an employment check without permission you also won’t be allowed access to this information as this goes against the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). More information can be found here.

Should I Pay For My Background Check?

Unless you are familiar with public records and internet research then your online background check is likely to be limited. Sure, you can find a lot of information on the internet and most of it is easy enough to find if you look for the best public records search engine.

However, when you want to search for the real gritty stuff like criminal records and credit reports then you’re going to need to call in some help from companies such as Truthfinder and BeenVerified. You might be wondering how much does a background check cost? This again is something that will vary from company to company and will also depend on the level of data required. Generally speaking, online background checks are reasonably priced and usually cost around $20 for a basic check. Spending such a little amount of money on such an important check makes sense as searching online independently is time-consuming and public records (if you can get hold of them) can be difficult to understand.

The Bottom Line

There are so many reasons why you should perform an online background check. It just makes sense to see what personal information is available for the general public to see. It’s vital you know what’s public information and searchable as there may be inaccurate information or information that could greatly reduce your chance of getting an important job or bank loan. Smart people run a background check on themselves, and in this technological era, it really pays to be smart.