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There is no such thing as a national criminal records check (at least not available to the public). It’s a myth spread by numerous investigative firms, investigative databases, and commercial public record vendors.

Even in this digital age, instant access to digitized criminal records is not available, and in many cases old-fashioned “boots on the ground” techniques must be relied upon to do a proper criminal check.

While there are many firms and databases advertising that they provide a national criminal records check, it’s at the very least misleading, and at worst, completely false advertising. (In Depth: Why Online Background Check Services Fail.)

Why Can’t You Conduct a National Criminal Records Check?

There are literally thousands of separate criminal indexes maintained at the county, parish, township, and city levels throughout the United States. A true national criminal records check would require access to each individual index. The truth of the matter is that there is no central way to search the thousands of criminal indexes. So unless you want to go through the time and expense of searching every county, parish, township, and city criminal index, the mythical national criminal records check is still a myth.

The only true national criminal records check database is with the NCIC – the National Crime Information Center – but this database is NOT accessible to the general public and is only available to criminal justice agencies.

Statewide Criminal Check

There are a number of states where you can search statewide criminal records. Among the states that offer statewide criminal record checks are New York, Connecticut, Michigan, Colorado, and Florida. These state criminal indexes receive data from each state’s counties, parishes, townships, and cities. However, some states do not provide a complete history of felonies and misdemeanors, so read the fine print.

For example, the State Police of Michigan provides records of felonies and “serious misdemeanors that are punishable by over 93 days,” which only covers a portion of the criminal cases filed.

County Criminal Check

A more thorough approach is to search the county-level criminal records where the person has lived, as well as the statewide criminal records. Be aware that in some counties felony and misdemeanor records are maintained in a combined index, while in others felonies and misdemeanor records must be checked separately.

Federal Criminal Records

Most U.S. District Court federal criminal records are accessible through PACER, the online federal court docket system. Note that not all federal criminal records have been digitized or go back as far as you need. Based on our own experiences, PACER has been known to miss some things, so it is wise to use a secondary source to search federal criminal records, such as Courtlink, Lexis Nexis, or Westlaw.

Final Thought

The mythical national criminal records check remains a myth, but with some proper techniques you can confidently conduct a true criminal check.

Other Reading:

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Why, you may ask, is a “nationwide criminal background check” complete BS?  For one thing, there is no such thing.

Last week we highlighted some warnings about online background check services, and the gaping holes that these services have.

What most of these services offer, including the one we highlighted, is a “nationwide criminal background check” which has even more holes than a donut shop.

Now the facts…

There are over 3,000 counties in the United States, many of which have multiple courthouses which maintain criminal records. The procedures to access these records vary, most of which can’t be accessed through a central repository. Even so, many of these courts have not yet digitized records making them completely inaccessible online.

There is no official count as to how many criminal records (arrests and/or convictions) are accessible online, but it’s pretty minuscule and spread across to many different systems, courts and repositories that it will make you want to pull out your hair just thinking about it.

“True” Nationwide Criminal Background Check

As we have discussed previously, there is only one “true” nationwide criminal background check in the U.S. today. The N.C.I.C. (National Criminal Information Center), which is a central repository for criminal record information that is available only to registered law enforcement agencies and related criminal justice organizations which is not available to the public.

Even so, there have been questions about the reliability and accuracy of the NCIC database so even if you did have access to it, it may not be the most comprehensive way to find criminal records.

Further Reading

If you are serious about conducting a “nationwide criminal background check”, here are some helpful links:

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There are a number of misconceptions about what a professional private investigator can legally obtain. These myths may begin with your matrimonial client’s insistence that her husband has secret bank account, or your colleague has boasted about how his investigators found the smoking gun in the opponent’s phone records, or it’s possible that you picked up some ideas from the latest corporate espionage page-turner…

No matter what the reason, you need the information and you need it now! So why can’t your private investigator get it for you?  Typically, there are two reasons for this:

  • First, the information may be private and protected by either state or federal statute. In this case, your investigator may be able to identify where the information is located. Location is extremely useful information for leverage in negotiations, future subpoena requests, or discovery motions. In some cases (e.g. employment or insurance fraud investigations), you may have a previously-signed release from the subject that will allow you to access this private information.
  • The second reason is that the information simply doesn’t exist. The information may not be compiled into a single database or a comprehensive format. An investigator may ultimately be able to obtain the information, but the process isn’t as simple as you might think.

The 5 biggest misconceptions by clients involve private investigators’ access to the following:

1Banking and Financial Records

There are two things to consider here – where are the accounts and can we gain access to account-specific information?

First, there is no comprehensive registry of bank accounts in the United States and identifying undisclosed or hidden accounts is no small feat.

A seasoned investigator may be able to identify accounts linked to an individual through interviews, public records searches, or other legitimate investigative techniques. Once accounts are identified, legally obtaining account-specific information is nearly impossible without a court order or the consent of the account holder.

The Gramm-Leach Bliley Act, passed in 1999, imposed strict penalties for individuals who obtain information about a third party account through pretext or deceit.  Check out Fred Abrams, Esq. post on Violating Federal Law In Asset Search for a great case study.

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get Bank Records or Account Information?

2Telephone Records

Telephone records are private and third party access is restricted by a host of state and federal statutes, including the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006.

Similar to bank records, an investigator can use legitimate tools to try to identify the telephone carrier for a particular phone number or individual.

There are a number of online tools that allow you to input part of a phone number to determine the carrier (e.g. www.phonefinder.com). However, those cannot be completely relied upon for accurate information, particularly in today’s age of portable cell phone numbers, Skype, and Voice over Internet Protocols (VoIP).

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get Phone Records? or Can a Private Investigator Get Cell Phone Records?

3Credit Information

In recent years, the federal government has placed a number of restrictions on the ability of third parties to access and use credit information.

Most important here is The Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) and subsequent amendments.

FCRA not only restricts how a third party can obtain credit information about an individual, but it also places requirements on third parties to make certain notifications to individuals when certain actions (including employment decisions) are taken using that information.

Dig Deeper: Can a Private Investigator Get a Credit Report?

4Nationwide Criminal Records

The closest thing to a nationwide criminal records check in the United States today is the National Criminal Information Center (“NCIC”) database.

Access to this database is strictly limited to law enforcement agencies and authorized criminal justice organizations; private investigators and information brokers do not have access to its contents.

Dig Deeper: The Truth About Access to National Criminal Records

5Comprehensive Individual Profile

Type “background investigation” into Google and you’re sure to be bombarded with claims of “Only $19.99 for a complete background check!” or “$14.95 for instant background investigations!”

Such claims are dangerously overstated – it’s virtually impossible feat. Buyers beware…these bargain sites generally just pull together information from various online sources.

They are not comprehensive and miss many online public records (not to mention those records that haven’t yet made it out of the courthouses and onto the web!).

Whatever information is provided in the “investigation” is frequently filled with inaccuracies and extraneous details.

Dig Deeper: Professional Background Check v. Free Background Check

Guide to Hiring a Private Investigator

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When the need arrives to conduct a criminal record check for be weary of online search engines and third party information brokers that claim to provide a “nationwide” criminal record search.

Even in the age of the Internet and computerized database records, there is no such thing “nationwide” criminal record search and service providers who advertise that they have access to these records are inaccurate.

National Criminal Information Center (N.C.I.C.)

There is only one “true” nationwide criminal record search in the U.S. today.  The N.C.I.C (National Criminal Information Center), which is a central repository for criminal record information that is available only to law enforcement agencies and related criminal justice organizations.

Access to this database is strictly prohibited to the general public, including private investigators and information brokers. While there has been unfortunately a history of abuse to this privileged system, the government has recently cracked down on determining who is accessing the NCIC database, including system audits and federal prosecution against those who inappropriately access the system.

In fact, there have been questions about the reliability and accuracy of the NCIC database so even if you did have access to it, it may not be the most comprehensive way to find criminal records.

Be Wary of Online Databases

Despite public restrictions, it has not prevented online information brokers and “sleuthing” websites from attempting to market “nationwide” searches.

A typical google search for the term “nationwide criminal check” produces thousands of databases and third party sources that claim to provide “national criminal checks,” “instant criminal records,” or “free criminal records.”

However, if you check the fine print, these third party sources typically include prison records and sex offender registries, and even this information is not inclusive of all states and jurisdictions. While this may be useful in identifying records for more serious or violent convicted criminals, most arrests do not typically result in convictions and jail time.

Even more outrageous about these websites is that many claim to include a “free” National Sex Offender database, which us also available for “free” on the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Public website.

Other websites advertise to hold “300 million records” which is of no value if the website does not hold any records from the state or local jurisdiction in which the subject of the investigation is/was located.

A “True” Nationwide Criminal Record Search

To conduct a “true” nationwide criminal record search on an individual for due diligence investigation, executive background check, investigative due diligence or a comprehensive background investigation, you must first establish the jurisdictions that an individual has resided and/or worked.

Searches must be conducted through respective state repositories and in local jurisdictions, (often by hand) and in many cases a date of birth is also required to conduct the search.

Each state has different rules about who may access their records and how the records will be provided. Some states have record repositories which are public record (i.e. Florida records can be accessed through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement).Even with access to these statewide repository systems, there is no substitute for “hands-on” research of court records, which are much more reliable and accurate.Also keep in mind that in certain jurisdictions, arrest records do not typically cover less serious offenses such as misdemeanors and traffic infractions. In addition, federal arrest records (such as wire fraud or crimes against the U.S. government) are both kept and prosecuted separately in their respective federal courthouses.

Final Thought

The bottom line is that when the need arrives to conduct a criminal record check be weary of online search engines and third party information brokers.

Only a professional investigator with knowledge of the entire process can get you the “accurate” information needed.

It may be a bit more costly to do it right now, but it can save you the embarrassment and potential liability if something is missed down the road.

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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!