Even in their most basic form, nearly all background investigations will include some form of identity verification, some criminal history (the depths of which may vary), and watch list research, but there are varying levels of background investigations where you can find information, from a $19.95 online service to a several-hundred-thousand-dollar background investigation such as one done by the FBI.
And there are quite a few in between.
In general, however, background investigations are designed to reveal information in a person’s history that may call their character into question.
On one end of the spectrum is the basic online background investigation. In most cases, online background checks should be able to do a good job of verifying a person’s identity, finding any serious criminal offenses, exposing significant jail time, and identifying registered sex offenders and international terrorists.
In the simplest terms, these types of background investigations should be used to identify the terrorist, the ax-murderer, or the sex offender you wouldn’t allow within three miles of your residence.
While this has been completely oversimplified, this end of the spectrum is what you would typically find in an employment background check, where the main focus is identify verification, criminal records, terrorist watch lists, and sex offender registries. These checks may also confirm the individual’s reported degree and employment history.
At the other end of the spectrum is the FBI background investigation, where every moment from the time a person is born is scrutinized, vetted, examined, cross-checked, and investigated.
While this kind of deep vetting is saved for extraordinary circumstances like investigating people in high-ranking political positions or people involved in extremely high-stakes litigation, it is between these two extremes that background investigations can be really revealing.
This is where you can identify much more nuanced information that can call a person’s character into question, like connections to unscrupulous organizations, a history of failed businesses, or questionable or inappropriate comments hidden deep in social media accounts.
This is also where financial issues, factual misrepresentations, lies, falsehoods, exaggerations, controversial remarks, contentious behavior, accusations, troublesome conduct, and problematic connections can be revealed; those revelations provide a broad-based picture of a person to help the client make a more informed decision.
For example, attorneys involved in high-stakes litigation may want to know more about a so-called expert or star witness; a private equity firm making a major acquisition may want to dive deep into their new president; the board of a public company may want to closely scrutinize the activities and representations of the incoming CEO/chairman of the board; a corporation may want to examine a competitor who has mysteriously come out of nowhere to steal some high-stakes accounts.
So, can a background investigation reveal whether or not you stole lunch money in the fourth grade, or whether you were jaywalking across Main Street or have a secret tattoo that nobody has ever seen?
Maybe, but I can promise you it’s going to be extraordinarily challenging, time-consuming, resource-intense, expensive, and not easy to find … unless you have some close friends in the FBI. ;)