Warning: Online Background Check Services Are Not What You Think

Imagine using one of the hundreds of online background check services to conduct a check on a potential new employee. You put in the person’s name and date of birth and pay with your credit card, and you get a tidy report that shows that he or she has a clean record.

You trusted that report, so how were you to know that the potential employee, who is now working for your company, is actually a convicted felon who has been arrested six times?

We recently tested one of the major online criminal background check services and were surprised to find how inaccurate the results were. We would be willing to bet that people who use these services every day run into the same mistaken, misleading information.

The Backstory

I recently received a call from a friend who was opening a restaurant in New York and wanted to conduct background checks on new employees. I recommended that, at minimum, he run criminal record checks in New York state and that the search be conducted through the New York State Office of Court Administration, the official repository of criminal records, run by the New York State Unified Court System.

I pointed him to a link on how to conduct a New York Criminal Record Search and told my friend that he could fill out the Criminal History Record Search Form with each employee’s full name and date of birth and then mail it to the Office of Court Administration, or that I could get the results almost immediately for a small fee on top of what the Office of Court Administration charges ($65 per name searched).

Dismayed by the cost of conducting a New-York-only criminal background check on up to 100 new employees, my friend went online to look for less-expensive alternatives. I do comprehensive background checks that cost thousands of dollars, so I could not blame him for not wanting to pay my hourly fee to submit his requests.

My friend found numerous online background check services that conduct a (supposed) statewide criminal background check in any one state for less than $20 per person.

How could an online background check provider offer a statewide check in New York or any other state for less than $20 when the state itself charges $65? It is a major red flag when an online background check provider charges $45 less than the official criminal record repository does.

Online providers stretch the truth when they say they offer statewide criminal background checks. I encouraged my friend to read the fine print on these sites, because each provider includes different records in its searches. So instead of conducting in-depth statewide criminal searches, online providers tend to include only information such as inmate records (note that most people do not get jail time) and sexual offender registries. Yet these providers get away with saying they conduct statewide criminal record searches.

New York has 62 counties, and within them are hundreds of small justice courts in remote locations that lack Internet access, so it is unlikely that online databases have all the information included in an official statewide criminal background check.

Additionally, New York does not sell information to database providers, as many other states do.

Skeptical of these online background check providers, I decided to put one of them to the test.

What Happened Next May Shock You

“Free,” “instant,” “cheap” background check services are all over the Internet. I decided to use one of the major providers to obtain a statewide criminal check in New York. I scoured the site for fine print but discovered none. The site said that the search would be statewide and provide instant access to records of criminal convictions, felonies and misdemeanors.

So I paid $19.95 plus tax for an instant criminal check, using a real person’s name and date of birth. I instantly received a spotless report of “No records found” for case records, sentencing records, disposition records or other criminal-related records.

It was a quick and easy transaction, and if I were a consumer reading this criminal background check, I would feel comfortable knowing that the person had no criminal history record in New York.

The Problem

The person whose criminal background I checked is a known convicted felon with a lengthy criminal record history in New York. In fact, this person has pled guilty to criminal possession of a weapon (misdemeanor), criminal possession of marijuana (misdemeanor), robbery (felony), possession of stolen property (misdemeanor) and assault (misdemeanor). In all, this person has been arrested six times in New York over the past 10 years.

How do I know that this person is a convicted felon? I ran a true criminal history record search through the New York State Office of Court Administration, the official repository of criminal records, run by the New York State Unified Court System.

The Online Background Check Failed Miserably

How could the online criminal background check have omitted these major records?

The site claims that its statewide search provides instant access to records of criminal convictions, felonies and misdemeanors. The site even suggested that I pay to enroll in a monthly service to be able to run nationwide criminal background checks, something that’s not even possible, as discussed in a previous post (The Truth about a Nationwide Criminal Record Search).

Only on the so-called statewide report did I discover a lengthy disclaimer about how you should “not assume” that the data provided is a “complete or accurate history of a person’s criminal history.”

Gee, thanks.

Nowhere else could I find any sort of warning or disclaimer.

Another Option

The online criminal background check service I used offered a way to conduct an “on-site court search” in one county in New York. For $100—$35 more than the official state repository charges for all counties—you can have a physical inspection of criminal records at the courthouse conducted.

Closing Thoughts

  • Some—but not all—courts provide online access to court records. In many cases, you still have to research the court records in person at the courthouse.
  • Going straight to the source (the court or official repository) is the single most important thing you can possibly in a criminal background check.
  • Every state and every county is different with regard to criminal background checks. Find out your local court’s policies and review “How to Conduct a Criminal Background Check Like an Expert.”
  • Not all online background check services are created equal. The one we reviewed here completely missed the mark, but others may be different.  Check the fine print about what was searched, how up-to-date the records are and how far back the records go.
  • Online background check providers may provide you with information that makes you feel better about whom you are hiring, doing business with or letting into your home, but in some cases you may be better off using nothing at all than using these online providers.
  • If you use an online background check provider be weary of terms like “nationwide,” “instant” and “free.”  Look for sites that are completely transparent in the records that are available and not filled with disclaimers.
  • Doing a proper background check may be costly, but if it finds critical records, you will spare yourself embarrassment and liability down the road.

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12 replies
  1. Billie
    Billie says:

    I have been doing research on how to do a background check in my state (WV) and it says i have to go to WV State Police with appropriate forms and have WRITTEN PERMISSION from the PERSON allowing me to do so??? is there away around that?

  2. Karl Black
    Karl Black says:

    Before paying to use a site I ran their free check first. Only 2 sites out of 8 I checked showed nearly all of my previous addresses. I thought this was a good indicator – that’s what I get for thinking.

    I ran checks on myself after paying to see if the sites were any good. Neither site could find my two marriages or divorces, none of my speeding tickets, and, to add insult to injury, they then came up with only 2 of my previous addresses in the final report.

    How do you run a free quick check, come up with a good address history, and then fail to provide that information once the person has paid? I didn’t even bother to check on the person I was researching. One site offered a full refund, the other site only refunded 50%. And no, you won’t find any disclaimers in the fine print stating that maybe some courts don’t make their information available, that little tidbit is buried in the fine print you get only after you pay for a subscription.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Many of these sites are simply not very good, but there are some misconceptions. For example, marriage and divorce records are not publicly available in most states, so the fact is that in some cases, you could never find a marriage or divorce record. The same goes for traffic infractions. In many states, traffic infractions are included with Department of Motor Vehicle records, which are protected; other states they are openly available in courts.

  3. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    Your 19.95 report showed a spotless record?? I personally have a spotless record and i can pre-apply to ANY online background check site and be told there are multiple court records/documents found, arrest, divorce, sexoffender…. all are checked. But when you actually pay there nothing but an old address from years before.

  4. Matt
    Matt says:

    You’re right I wish I would have read this before spending 9.95. Their ads are very misleading.

  5. Beverly Schultz
    Beverly Schultz says:

    Just a heads up: Many of these sites promise that the person you are checking will never know. A few months ago, I ran a check on my friend’s ex (with a known criminal history). No surprises, he had been in more trouble than I knew of. Two hours later, his name showed up on my caller ID. A reverse phone search led to a town in Georgia less than 5 miles from his previous address.
    Since my friend passed away, the number has been changed twice, so he didn’t get it from her old address book. Neither the phone or the internet is in my name, so doubtful he knew who he was calling, but must have obtained the number from my IP address, after somehow being tipped off that he was being checked.
    These checks, even, if accurate, don’t protect the privacy of the person checking. Just thought you should be aware. B. Schultz, Arizona

    • Linda Rivera
      Linda Rivera says:

      wow, thanks for that information. I wish they would tell you that. You think you have the privacy to check that in your own home.

  6. Nathan
    Nathan says:

    Great post! Loving the blog! You have some great content. Seems like you know what your talking about.Will definitley be back soon to see whats new.

  7. Brian Smith
    Brian Smith says:

    Also, to add to such a great article, how about the online services that capture data but never update it. I have had a friend who had a record expunged, 5 months later went to go apply for a job and was rejected due to a background check. Funny thing is the online service actually was arrogant with him on the phone and he also had to wait about 60-90 days before they removed it from his records along with other databases that they own. I think that on both ends it unfair and ridiculous at just how untrue a lot of these sites happen to be when it come to providing up-to-date information and stating that they are trusted. Such sensitive information should not be in the hands of a business period.

    • Roger
      Roger says:

      What service was this?

      I had a similar experience, and would like to try and find out where this sealed report came from.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Actually, not every state has a centralized system, and in some cases you may be better off going straight to the court. In Texas, it was recently reported that one out of every four criminal records never made it to the Department of Public Safety Computerized Criminal History System, which is not terribly comforting.

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