As we have discussed at length (here, here and here), a background check comes in all different shapes and sizes. The range includes everything from a $10 background check you can find on the Internet to a pre-employment background check (which typically lacks depth) to an FBI-like background investigation, which would cost a few hundred thousand dollars.
While I would argue that a $10 background investigation (or even worse, a “free” background check) is almost completely useless, regardless of what type of background check you do, there are a few basic questions that every background check should answer.
Are there any serious issues in the person’s past?
Not only are you making sure that you are not dealing with the proverbial “ax murderer,” but you also want to make sure that you are not dealing with somebody who has been charged with or convicted of any serious crimes.
The investigation may turn up a history of drug dealing, petty theft or indecent exposure — or even serious offenses like grand theft, larceny or assault. Even if these issues occurred quite some time ago, they can be quite revealing (repeat offender numbers are staggering).
For example, a major city leasing land to a private company would be interested to know that the CEO of that private company is a convicted felon.
The trouble is that most low-cost background checks are so poor at identifying criminal records, they aren’t even worth using.
Most low-cost background checks are so poor at identifying criminal records, they aren’t even worth using.
Is the person who they say they are?
In the simplest terms, you want to make sure that the person’s name, date of birth, address history and Social Security number match the person they claim to be. Effectively, you want to make sure that you are not dealing with a complete con artist.
In addition to confirming some basic details, every effort should be made to verify details of the subject’s employment history, education history or, if applicable, professional licensing.
Recently, we were asked to conduct a background check on an individual whom somebody had met through a dating site. We were able to confirm that the person really did exist, that she lived where she said she lived, and that she wasn’t an ax murderer. But we also found that she was not a licensed nurse (as she had claimed) and that she didn’t work for the local hospital where she said she worked.
In another case, we were able to determine that our client’s fiancé had been married and divorced three times, despite the fact that the prospective groom claimed to have never been married.
In both cases, these were some pretty serious warning flags.
Are there any potential warning signs of what is to come, or other character issues that may exist?
This question is a bit more nuanced. Warning signs typically don’t slap you in the face and scream “look at me!”
What you are looking for here is a history of repeat behavior that may lead to problems — like a person who has been involved in numerous lawsuits (you might be the next on their list).
Or a history of financial troubles that may lead to bankruptcy.
Or even lifestyle issues, such as photos in far-off places, that may indicate someone living beyond their means.
Or a recent DWI may be a sign of potential alcohol problems.
Falsification of work or education history may not be the only white lie someone is telling.
It also may reveal potential issues that may be out there, but may not necessarily be widely known or publicly available. More likely than not, this type of information may only be obtained with further vetting, like through interviews or surveillance.
For example, numerous photos of someone out on the town may not be too sinister at face value, but interviews may reveal a secret drug addiction.
The truth is that most background checks cannot confidently answer these questions, in part because answering these questions confidently comes at a price, and a “free online background check” couldn’t answer these questions in a million years.
Not only do you have to do a comprehensive criminal record search, but you need to have the knowledge and experience to be able to identify and analyze the warning signs.
More often that not, a pretty simple search can identify an individual with serious felonies or the proverbial ax murderer; but a legitimate background check will answer the more nuanced questions necessary to make critical decisions.