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