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A North Carolina woman called a few weeks ago. She had paid a local investigator $2,500 to do some surveillance on her ex-husband’s new live-in friend. She had also asked the investigator to conduct a background check on the friend to see if he had any criminal history. After meeting the friend on several occasions, she was concerned that he might have a criminal history. After a few days of surveillance, she was disappointed that it didn’t turn up much of anything.

I tried to explain that surveillance is hit or miss; it’s hard to blame an investigator for not finding the kind of information that the woman was hoping to find. Surveillance is almost always a crapshoot. You have to manage with the cards you’re dealt. The timing may not be right. The person may not be very active or doing the things that you think he or she may be doing. And there seems to be this vast disconnect between how difficult surveillance can really be and what the client expects to obtain from it (hint: it’s not like what you see on TV!).

But the woman was particularly vexed by the so-called background check performed by the investigator. The investigator had submitted a report to the woman that was 50+ pages long and filled with a bunch of information that was difficult to read—data that she knew wasn’t all that accurate and didn’t provide any real analysis by the investigator.

It was what I would describe as a data dump: a bunch of raw data from a number of sources including criminal records, address history, property records and the like that was effectively “dumped” into a report.

When the woman forwarded the report to me, I recognized it immediately. It was a “comprehensive report” from one of the main database providers for investigators that cost less than $20. These reports are extremely valuable to an investigator, but they are a mere starting point for conducting a real background check.

The client was convinced that the ex-husband’s new live-in friend had some criminal issues or a deep dark secret in his past, and the client was not confident that the report provided by the investigator was reliable.

“Comprehensive” background check reports may not be so comprehensive

After seeing the report, I confirmed her suspicions. These types of reports are not comprehensive whatsoever. In order to do a thorough criminal background check, research would need to be completed in each county or state that the person has resided. Specifically, the individual had resided in a number of states for which the comprehensive report did not have any mention of criminal coverage whatsoever, such as Illinois, New York and Connecticut.

In order to conduct criminal background searches in those particular places, separate and specific criminal searches would have to be conducted either at the specific court or in specific databases that cover those areas. For example, a New York criminal record search can only be completed with the New York State Office of Court Administration.

At the end of the day, after conducting a thorough criminal search in each of the necessary counties and states, we were unable to find any criminal history. However, the woman was comforted by the fact that we were able to thoroughly check criminal records in all the places where the ex-husband’s new live-in friend had resided.

I’ve talked about this a number of times on this blog (here, here and here): a “background check” to someone else might be a couple of Google searches or running a name through a $10 database. A thorough background check is much more than that; it gives you the confidence that there are no issues that you need to worry about.

The problem is that most people are unwilling to pay the fees to do an exhaustive search.

If you are willing to accept that a cheap background check is really not all that comprehensive and may not find some critical information, you can save yourself some money by going that route.

But if you want any level of confidence in the findings, you are better off paying for a thorough background check, because not doing so may haunt you in the future.

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How much does a background investigation cost … or … what are the fees for a background investigation?

This, of course, is always one of the first questions someone has when they are considering paying for a background investigation.

The short answer is a background investigation can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.

Or if you want to conduct a background investigation like the FBI does, it will cost you several hundred thousand dollars.

What you may need is something in between the various $19.95 online services and the several-hundred-thousand-dollar background investigation.

You want something that will give you peace of mind—in-depth, nonbiased, fact-based information that does not compromise accuracy.

As with any service, the more involved the project (in terms of both time and expenses), the more it is going to cost. And also as with any service, neither the cheapest nor the most expensive company is always the best choice.

Here are some general cost guidelines:

Red Flag Background Investigation ($500 to $1500)

A red flag background investigation will confirm the subject’s background information as well as highlight potential adverse information in order to help you make a more informed decision. A search of information at this level would include researching numerous proprietary databases, public records, news media and government repositories, with a focus on identifying critical red flags and warning signs of potential fraud; this information could be critical to know before you enter into a business or financial relationship, investment, or other transaction with the subject.

Professional Background Investigation ($1500 to $2500)

While a red flag background investigation is designed to identify essential adverse issues, a professional background check digs deeper into the individual’s professional history, business interests and financial status, as well as any issues relating to civil litigation and regulatory issues. A professional background investigation goes beyond online searches and includes a range of on-site court searches in the relevant jurisdictions and a detailed review of select records.

Comprehensive Background Investigation ($2500 and up)

A comprehensive background investigation gives you the most complete picture of the individual. It includes everything described above, plus additional analyses and reviews of business interests, court filings and news media appearances, as well as intelligence from sources that cannot be gained elsewhere. In addition, the comprehensive background investigation may include a review of assets and credit history (with written consent of the subject), source inquiries, asset information, and political contributions to identify conspicuous consumption warnings or close political connections.

This post is part of a series of posts titled Background Investigations 101 – What You Need To Know

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There are a number of things that are included in a background investigation that go beyond what is looked at in a typical background check.

While a background check typically includes criminal background checks, driving records (if the job demands the skill), verification of past employment, verification of academic degree and a credit check, a background investigation gathers information from various disparate sources to create a more accurate, comprehensive and complete picture of a person’s past.

Each investigative firm will have its own set of information that is researched, but in the most comprehensive forms of a background investigation, the following information should be included in a background investigation:

1Personal Identifier Verification – Identifiers such as a date of birth and Social Security number are key to linking criminal records, bankruptcy records and other public records to the subject of the extensive background check.

2Address History Verification – Knowing where the individual has lived is critical to determining which courts are necessary to search in order to identify any historical civil and criminal history, and to find information from other public records sources.

3Professional History Verification – A timeline of any employment affiliations, board memberships and nonprofit affiliations can show a history of affiliations with organizations riddled with scandals.

4News Media Review – Most people are under the false impression that all news media publications are easily accessible on the Internet. Historical and international comprehensive news media can identify past issues that can’t be found on the Internet.

5Internet Searches – With the explosion of social media and the perceived “anonymity” of the Web, some people will put just about anything on the Internet.

6Corporate Affiliation – U.S.-based corporations where the individual is a corporate officer or registered agent can identify businesses or hidden affiliations.

7Criminal Record History (State and Federal) – Checking local and state criminal records is one of the most important facets of a background investigation. It’s essential to conduct research at local courthouses or at other official government repositories of information.

8Civil Litigation (State and Federal) – As with criminal record history, it’s essential to conduct research at local courthouses, official government repositories, or proprietary databases that cover the jurisdictions in which the individual has lived. Records of civil litigation can identify disputes with previous business partners, harassment allegations or a history of litigiousness.

9Bankruptcy Records – A history of bankruptcy or financial issues could reveal critical financial details.

10U.S. Tax Court Records – U.S. Tax Court records can reveal unpaid taxes or disputes over taxes, which can lead to further information on income or assets.

11UCC Filings – Has the person been a creditor or debtor in any UCC filings? Did he or she pledge any assets as part of financing?

12Assets – Information relating to real property, motor vehicles, watercraft and aircraft records may show a pattern of living beyond one’s means.

13Judgment Filings – A history of judgment filings may identify a history of financial issues and/or litigiousness.

14Lien Filings – Similar to judgment filings, historical state or federal tax liens may show a history of financial trouble.

15Department of Motor Vehicle Records – A driving record request can identify traffic violations and, in most states, driving under the influence records, which some states consider a criminal record.

16Professional Licensing Verification – Records with local, state or federal regulatory bodies may reveal regulatory actions against professional licensees, such as a certified public accountant, doctor, nurse, an attorney or even a private investigator.

17Professional Affiliations – In addition to having a professional license, professionals typically are affiliated with organizations that award certain credentials or designations, but you don’t know if they are really part of the organization unless you check.

18Financial Regulatory Searches – Especially for individuals who have previously served in the banking or financial industry, searches of records belonging to financial regulatory bodies may identify previous violations or regulatory matters.

19Government Compliance Lists – A review of government compliance lists can identify sanctions from regulatory bodies or politically exposed persons around the world.

20Campaign Contributions – Political contributions may identify strong political ties or connections with polarizing political groups.

This post is part of a series of posts titled Background Investigations 101 – What You Need To Know

 

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Background checks are all the rage now. It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot these days.

There are background checks for gun purchases.

Background checks for employment purposes.

There’s the “Instant Background Check.”

Government background checks for security clearance.

Nanny background checks.

There is even a school in the Chicago suburbs that conducts a “criminal background” check via a “national database” for every visitor to the school.

You get the idea. Everyone’s doing them.

Will the real “background check” please stand up?

The term “background check” is so overused. In every instance noted above, a background check means something completely different.

There are many types of background checks depending on the situation.

To purchase a gun, your name gets run through National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS (which is not accessible to the public).

For employment purposes, they may verify your highest academic degree, some of your employment history and check your criminal history over the last seven years. They may even do a credit check and a social media check “if you are lucky.”

And for the school in the Chicago suburbs, maybe they are using the mythical national criminal records check.

Or for a nanny background check, you may choose to do a $19.95 online instant national complete background check.

Lots of investigative firms offer background check services as well, some charging as little as $75 for a “nationwide background check.”

Types of Background Checks


Government Background Check

Background checks in this category include checks when purchasing a gun, seeking government security clearance or applying for a government job. The depth of these background checks varies greatly depending on the purposes of the background check. For gun purchases, it may be as simple as accessing NICS, while high-level presidential appointees go through a rigorous investigation.

Employment Background Check

Employment background checks typically involve criminal background checks (which can be limited in scope depending on the state), driving records (if the job demands the skill) and verification of past employment and academic degree.

In some cases, the background check will include a credit check; according to the Small Business Administration, this is currently done by 60 percent of employers.

Online Background Check

This type of check is also known as an instant background check, national background check, complete background check or online instant national complete background check. There are literally hundreds of websites that offer to conduct commercial background checks. The depth and quality of these online background checks vary greatly depending on the information contained in the databases.

As we have pointed out in previous posts, there are gaping holes in these databases and it is highly recommended that you read the fine print. For example, an online instant national complete background check would never catch someone lying about military service.

Do-It-Yourself Background Check

There are a number of resources available for individuals to conduct their own background checks. After all, as we have previously discussed, for the most part a background check utilizes open source records. It’s just a matter of understanding how to access the information.

For example, in Connecticut, anyone can conduct a statewide criminal background check through the Connecticut Department of Public Safety.

Of course, hiring a professional who does this on a daily basis using their expertise is an ideal solution, but it may not always be cost effective or necessary.

Professional Background Investigation

A professional background investigation is more than just checking a few sources, passing along raw data or punching a name into a couple of databases. A background check utilizes hundreds of different data points and collects and analyzes that information for misrepresentations, inconsistencies or omissions. A background investigation goes beyond the typical red flags and provides a comprehensive picture of an individual.

This post is part of a series of posts titled Background Investigations 101 – What You Need To Know

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So, what really is a background investigation?

A background investigation takes on many shapes, forms and sizes, and is dependent on how far you want to dig into a person’s past, how much you are willing to pay for the investigation and the type of access authorized within the law.

Definition of a Background Investigation

A background investigation is the process of obtaining and collecting data from public, proprietary and other sources to determine: 1) if the person is who they say they are, 2) if the person has any adverse history and 3) the authenticity of the person’s qualifications and character.

A background investigation can take on numerous forms and the level of the information included in the background investigation is largely dependent on 1) access to information, 2) how much you are willing to pay for the information and 3) how far you want to dig into a person’s past.

Let’s break this down a little further.

Three Basic Questions in a Background Investigation

Is the person who they say they are?

A critical first step is to verify the basic details pertaining to an individual, such as a person’s name, date of birth, Social Security number and address history. Additionally, confirming that the person is not on any government watch lists, a convicted sex offender or really a wanted terrorist.

Is there any adverse history?

In addition to reviewing state and federal criminal histories, adverse history searches can include a review of any civil litigation history, bankruptcy records, judgments, and liens as well as any derogatory news media articles. It may also include reviewing social media sites for references to this person.

Can we authenticate their qualifications and character?

This would include verifying the authenticity of professional details such as employment history, education history and professional licensing history, as well as uncovering any sanctions, disputes or complaints. This may also include interviews with colleagues, business partners or adversaries to develop information outside of the public domain.

Factors To Consider

The background investigation can take on several forms, depending on several factors.

If someone working in the federal government is doing a background investigation for security clearance purposes, he or she has to have access to certain nonpublic information. The FBI background check on Steve Jobs, however, is an example of the need to access public information as well.

Dig Deeper: How to Conduct a Background Check Like the FBI

Similarly, when you purchase a gun, your name gets run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which is a nationwide criminal record repository that is also not publicly available.

For an investigator or any background screening firm, information in a background investigation is gathered from public and proprietary sources. While it may also include a review of a person’s credit history or personal financial details, this data can only be obtained with specific consent.

How Far Do You Want to Dig Into a Person’s Past?

There is a big difference between a background check and a background investigation. While we will dedicate some more time to this in a future post, in general, a background check is typically a quick way to quickly verify the integrity of a person by inputting their name into one or more databases and passing the raw data along to the end user.

Typically the information in a background check is not vetted or verified. Information in these databases can be incomplete, incorrect or stale. More troubling, the databases are usually not what they say they are, especially with regard to key areas such as criminal records.

Dig Deeper: Warning: Online Background Check Services Are Not What You Think

A background investigation is much more thorough and complete, and it includes scouring various public and proprietary databases, and analyzing and vetting the information for misrepresentations, inconsistencies, omissions, sanctions and false statements.

How Much Are You Willing to Pay?

I am sure you have seen various online services offering free or low-cost background checks. The reality is that most of the online criminal check databases and online background checks provide little more than a false sense of security.

A background investigation provides a much more thorough and accurate picture of an individual. Of course, with thoroughness, accuracy and depth, you are going to pay more.

This post is part of a series of posts titled Background Investigations 101 – What You Need To Know

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Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with what Hal Humphreys, from Pursuit Magazine, believes to be one of the absolute best blogs in the investigative industry!

Background investigations and background checks are all the rage now.

You can read news almost every day about background checks for gun purchases, background checks for employment purposes, federal government background checks for security clearance purposes, and nanny background checks.

There is even a school in the Chicago suburbs that conducts a “criminal background” check via a “national database” for every visitor to the school.

The confusing part is that each one of the “background checks” described above is something completely different!

What’s even more confusing is that a background check and a background investigation, although technically similar, are really completely different.

Needless to say, it’s a confusing mess.

Have no fear … we are here to help.

We have created a series of posts to explain some of the areas of background investigation and background checks.

Among the topics we will explore in this series include:

Sound interesting?

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Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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