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Background Checks

What is a background check?

A background check is a broad term referring to the process of a person or entity collecting public information about a person to verify that they are who they claim to be. 

The typical background check involves looking up an individual’s criminal record, financial history, professional licenses, or education status. A standard background check will also include identifying information such as: 

  • a person’s full name
  • aliases
  • family members
  • date of birth
  • address history
  • social security number 

A person is often the subject of a background check when entering a legal agreement or making a special purchase. Examples include: 

  • signing a lease on an apartment
  • purchasing a firearm
  • applying for a loan
  • applying for a special permit, license, or certification

If the background check brings up information that doesn’t meet the standards of the organization or individual running the check, it could mean the difference between accepted or declined for whatever it is the person is applying for. 

Alternately, an individual can run a personal background check using the internet or other means in order to see if the publicly available information on them is accurate and meets their own personally-held data in the relevant categories. For many reasons, background checks are an important aspect of 21st-century life. 

What are the common types of background checks and what information is usually included in them?

Some of the most common forms of background checks include:

Criminal background check 

A search of national, state and local databases for records pertaining to a person’s criminal history. Criminal background checks are commonly run by certain companies or when a person attempts to purchase a firearm. 

Commonly included information: 

  • Court cases
  • Arrest records
  • Felony and misdemeanor conviction records
  • Arrest warrants
  • Sex offender registry information
  • Incarceration records

Credit background check 

A credit background check or credit check is a review of a person’s credit score and financial history commonly done using a third-party company. This type of check can be done on its own, or as part of a larger, all-encompassing background check.

Commonly included information: 

  • Credit score
  • Credit card debt
  • Outstanding student loans
  • Car and mortgage payments
  • Bankruptcies
  • Closed accounts

Universal background check 

The commonly-proposed type of background check for the purchasing of firearms in the United States that requires buyers to have their information run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) set up by the FBI. 

Currently, the NICS is used for background checks in 29 states. In 12 states and the District of Columbia, a universal background check is required for all private gun sales, including those at gun shows. 

Commonly included information: 

  • Arrests and criminal convictions
  • Military records
  • Mental health records
  • Restraining orders

Personal background check

A personal background check is one that an individual runs on themself in order to see what personal information is available about them in the public record and/or to prepare for a background check run by a landlord, or financial institution. It may refer to a single background check online using a third-party company or a series of checks using a variety of sources.

Commonly included information: 

  • Criminal background information
  • Driving records
  • Credit history
  • Education history
  • Marriage records
  • Divorce records
  • Court records
  • Digital footprint, i.e., information that comes up on a google search or social media accounts such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. 
  • Work history

Fingerprint background check

A record check performed at a law enforcement agency using special fingerprint scanning equipment in order to match a person with their criminal record, if any exists. This type of check may be required for certain professions, or to work for ride sharing companies such as Lyft and Uber. A fingerprint background check is one of the most accurate and verifiable that can be done. 

Commonly included information: 

  • Criminal background information, if it exists

Professional licenses background check 

A professional license background check, or verification, is performed to confirm that a person holds the proper professional license, permit, certification or degree to hold a particular position, and that said license is currently valid. This check is run by searching the databases of state and federal agencies or educational institutions. 

Commonly included information: 

  • Professional licenses or certifications held by an individual
  • Current status of licenses or certifications

OIG background check

OIG is an acronym for the Office of the Inspector General, which is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Government’s largest inspector general’s office. 

An OIG background check searches the OIG exclusion list, which includes all individuals or entities that are excluded from federal healthcare programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. 

A person or entity can appear on the OIG exclusion list for a number of reasons, including:

  •  misdemeanor convictions
  • malpractice
  • fraud
  • the submission of false information to federal healthcare agencies    

Commonly included information: 

  • An individual or entity’s presence on or absence from the OIG exclusion list
  • Reason(s) given for a person or entity’s inclusion on the OIG exclusion list

What is the Fair Credit Reporting Act and how does it apply to background checks?

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is a federal law passed in 1970 to make sure that the information included in an individual’s consumer credit bureau file is accurate and fair. The law limits the ways that an individual’s information can be used by financial institutions, employers, and other organizations. 

Enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the FCRA advances accurate and fair background checks and empowers individuals to know what is included in their credit report. Employers, creditors, financial institutions, property owners, and other organizations must comply with the FCRA and a violation of the act may result in a maximum civil penalty of over $3,500.

What rights does the FCRA give me?

The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives individuals several key rights and powers to ensure that their credit history or other information is not used unlawfully. These rights include:

  • The right to request all the information a consumer reporting agency has on you. Every American gets one free file disclosure a year from all three national credit bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian.
  • The right to dispute incomplete or inaccurate information on your credit report.  
  • The right to know if information in your credit file is used to deny an application for employment or insurance.
  • Full access to your credit report, while access for others is restricted to those with “permissible purpose”, including banks, property owners, and insurance companies.
  • The obligation of an employer to ask for written consent if looking up your credit report. 
  • The right to reject pre-screened offers of credit. 

How can I run a personal background check?

Depending on the type of information you are looking for, there are a number of options you can use to perform a background check. Consult one or more of these sources to get started:

  • The local police department or sheriff’s office. A good source for criminal records, including arrest and conviction reports. 
  • The county courthouse clerk’s office. Check the clerk’s office for court records, as well as criminal record information. You can search by name or by case file. 
  • State police or State Department of Safety website. Most states have either an internet search tool for criminal history information or an application that can be filled out and submitted by mail or in-person to access personal criminal records, or any others on-file. 
  • National credit bureaus. The three national credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax, all offer one free credit report every 12 months. 
  • A third-party background check company. There are plenty of online background check services that comb through a number of national, state, and commercial databases and deliver the results in exchange for a small fee. Many of these services will advertise a “free background check”, however, they typically request a fee to view the results of the search. 

What can I do if my background check has mistakes?

Incorrect or inaccurate information that comes up during a background check can have potentially damaging consequences for one’s future propositions. Thankfully, there is usually a way to dispute and correct the information before it has a negative effect on a person’s life. 

While the process of correcting background check information varies depending on the source of the information, here is the basic process for handling the issue:

  1. Identify the mistake(s). Highlight the mistake(s) on a printed copy of the background check.
  2. Create a written notice that explains the mistake. You may have to submit a written notice later in the process, anyway, so it’s a good idea to type out a description of the mistake and explain why the information is incorrect. 
  3. Gather supporting documents. Locate and collect any supporting documents serving as proof that the information on your background check is inaccurate or incomplete. This may include a court record, bank statement, or arrest report, depending on the nature of the issue. 
  4. Contact the source of the mistake. Get in touch with the party responsible for the mistake, whether it be a creditor or a law enforcement agency, through the official phone number, via email, or by visiting the office. Explain the issue and inquire about the official process for disputing the mistake.
  5. Solve the problem. Typically, there be will an official process for fixing inaccurate or incomplete information on a background check that involves filling out and submitting an application in addition to providing supporting documents or information.  

Learn More About Background Checks In Each State