Background Checks

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Summary: Background Checks

Background checks can be used by potential employers, state agencies, and interested parties to find information about a person's criminal history, employment history, and more. Background checks cost money. Beware of companies offering a free background check - these are usually scams.

Potential employers, landlords, colleges admissions personnel, government agencies, and other interested parties can use background checks to search someone's personal history for a variety of reasons.

Background Checks Defined

A background check is an investigation of a person's personal, professional, legal, and/or criminal histories.

As explained below, background checks can reveal a wide array of information about a person, and often the amount of information revealed depends on who orders the background check and how much information they require.

For example, certain decision makers—such as potential employers or loan officers—might use a background check to make sure the information a candidate or applicant has provided is correct.

Information on Background Checks

Again, it's crucial to understand that the amount of information included in a background check can depend heavily on who's requesting the check and for what purpose.

For example, an employer offering a part-time, minimum-wage job probably won't seek a background check that runs as deep as one would if the report were ordered by a law enforcement agency.

With that said, some of the most common kinds of information included on a background check include information about:

  • Personal information such as the person's:
    • Full name.
    • Age and birth date.
    • Phone number.
    • Address (including past residences).
  • Any properties the person owns.
  • Names of some of the person's relatives and neighbors.
  • The person's criminal history.
    • Again, criminal background checks dive more deeply into this information.
    • Sometimes, drug test results or polygraph test results can pop up, either related to the person's criminal history or past employment; however, including polygraph test results is regulated by certain laws.
  • Whether the person has legal status regarding citizenship, immigration, or employment.
  • The person's Social Security number.
    • Not only does this provide information about citizenship status, but also can trace identity theft.
  • Past or current litigation records.
    • Such records can relate to contracts, money, or property.
    • Additionally, this helps employers spot potential employees with a history of routinely filing discrimination lawsuits.
  • DMV records, such as driving records.
    • These records are crucial for employers who require employees to operate company-owned vehicles.
  • Education records.
    • This report confirms the person has the education he or she claims—whether it's a high school diploma or university degree.
  • Employment records.
    • Confirming a person's employment history helps determine whether the person has the experience for a particular job.
  • Licensing records.
    • Aside from proving the person is licensed to perform a particular job, licensing records also can provide information about education, complaints, investigations, and disciplinary actions.
  • Military records.
    • While this information might be pertinent to only certain types of employment, some potential employers want to make sure an applicant is telling the truth about military service.
  • Financial information.
    • Financial records include information about credit history, liens, bankruptcy, tax information, and civil judgments.
    • Mostly, financial information helps potential landlords, creditors, and bank lenders.
  • Records related to medical, mental, and physiological evaluations.
    • Generally, this information isn't available on a basic background check; the person must give documented, written consent before it can be released.

Using a Background Check

From the above descriptions, it might seem as if background checks are beneficial only to potential employers, but this isn't the case.

A variety of people and businesses use background checks, including:

  • School admissions personnel.
    • Universities for law and medical professions might request a background check for applicants.
  • Landlords.
  • Various government agencies, for purposes such as:
    • Military acceptance.
    • Security clearance.
    • Visas, immigration, naturalization, and international travel.
    • Compiling possible suspects for criminal investigations (conducted by law enforcement officers).
  • Firearms dealers.
  • Foster and adoption agencies.
  • The DMV.
  • Various lenders, such as those from banks and credit unions.

Sometimes, even credit card companies and car insurance providers conduct background checks.

Our guide to Criminal Records can provide even more information about how background checks and criminal histories are used.

Ordering Background Checks

Generally, you can compile a background check by contacting the appropriate state or federal agency and requesting the applicable copies of public records.

For local and state levels, this might mean the area's city or town hall or county courthouse; for federal levels, you can make a request with the U.S. State Department or another specific federal agency.

Typically, you should have no problem accessing your own public records; however, when it comes to accessing someone else's, it's not always as easy as it sounds. Per the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), agencies can deny information (or provide only partial information) if the revealing the information is deemed an unreasonable invasion of privacy. Also, some states have their own versions of this legislation.

NOTE: If you're interested in only your own background check, you can cut to the chase by submitting an Identity History Summary Request with the FBI. Be prepared to spend a little time and money and provide your own fingerprints.

Ordering an Online Background Check

Thanks to the “Information Age,” quickly gathering information online is a breeze, and many third-party companies offer these reporting services for you.

While using a third-party agency to compile a background check for you is a quick (and often fairly inexpensive) way to gather someone's information, understand a few things before choosing one:

  • Sometimes, these companies make mistakes. Depending on the depth of their research, they might present incorrect or misleading information.
  • Often, these companies must inform you that they're not official “consumer reporting agencies” as defined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), meaning their consumer reports aren't up to official FCRA standards.
  • Additionally, many (if not all) of these companies require you check a disclaimer stating you won't use their services in relation to the person's eligibility for employment, credit, or insurance per FCRA definitions and regulations.

So, despite the ease of use and amount of information you can gain from these companies, weigh the pros and cons (specifically based on your purposes) before choosing to use one.

Standard vs. Criminal Background Checks

Although “background checks” and “criminal background checks” are often confused as the same kind of check, there are differences; specifically, criminal background checks tend to be more thorough than general background checks.

For example, while a regular background check might include certain parts of a person's criminal history, criminal background checks dive deeper because they are designed specifically for criminal histories and not just basic information like a person's previous addresses, marital status, or financial history.

So, along with basic information like the person's name and address, a criminal background check can go so far as to include:

  • Criminal arrests and convictions.
  • Penalties, including prison terms, probation or parole, or any other court-ordered services such as drug and alcohol counseling.
  • Outstanding warrants.
  • Any known aliases.
  • Personally identifying appearance traits, such as:
    • Race.
    • Tattoos.
    • Birthmarks.
    • Height and weight.
    • Hair and eye color.

Because criminal histories are, for the most part, public knowledge, those who compile criminal background checks can access this information from court records and other similar sources.

Of course, some states regulate the specific information included in a criminal background check. For example, one state might show only convictions and not arrests, while others show everything—even if the arrest led nowhere.

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