See 10 Best Background Checks of 2018

What Do Background Checks Reveal?

Jim TrummJan 31, 2018

Decades ago, it wasn't hard for people to escape their pasts. But in the digital age, keeping your secrets is difficult, if not impossible. The scope of what a background check can reveal is now determined only by the respect for the law and the depth of the pocketbook of the person or company requesting a background check.

What Kinds of Criminal Records Can be Revealed in a Background Check?

Convictions for juvenile offenses, misdemeanors, and felonies may appear on a background check report, unless state law states otherwise or the records have been sealed. However, getting reliable national criminal record information isn't easy or cheap.

The overwhelming majority of criminal convictions in the United States are state matters, not federal ones. There are fifty separate state judicial systems. Within each state, criminal cases are handled at the county level. This means that there are over 3,000 counties whose court systems issue criminal convictions. Since there is no standardization in how the thousands of American criminal courts make their records available, collecting and continually updating information about people's criminal records is a daunting task.

While there are two "official" databases of nationwide criminal convictions, they are both only for the use of law enforcement officials and federal employers. Neither of the national databases can be lawfully accessed by a private individual or corporation.

Private companies have created their own databases of criminal convictions, but these may not be up to date and don't necessarily include all convictions from all jurisdictions. However, someone who's determined to thoroughly investigate a given person's criminal record-and who has a lot of time and money to do so--may be able to do so by comparing multiple databases and visiting hundreds or thousands of courthouses.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) doesn't place a time limit on how long criminal convictions can remain on a background check. However, some states (notably California) have a local version of the FCRA that requires criminal convictions to fall off a background report in seven years. This has created a standard practice within the industry of leaving out criminal convictions more than seven years old. However, deleting old convictions is just an industry convention and is not required in most states.

Are Arrests That Don't Result in Conviction Included in a Background Check?

Although criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, arrest records may still appear on background check reports, unless those arrest records have been sealed. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission frowns on the use of arrest records in determining whether to hire someone, but such use is not, strictly speaking, prohibited. 

What Kinds of Civil Cases Show Up in a Background Check?

The answer to this depends a great deal on the type of background check being done. The Fair Credit Reporting Act places limits on how long bankruptcies and civil actions can remain on a person's report. Bankruptcies must be stricken within ten years, while civil suits, tax liens, and judgments must fall off in seven years. So if the background check company is a "Consumer Reporting Agency" within the meaning of the FCRA, civil cases will eventually disappear. However, not all background checks are conducted by companies that are "Consumer Reporting Agencies."

Just as there is no truly national criminal conviction database that's accessible to private individuals and companies, there is no national database of civil actions. And since civil cases far outnumber criminal cases, there is more to keep track of. This suggests that there is a much greater likelihood of a background check company missing a civil case than a criminal conviction.

Are Driving Records Included in Background Checks?

Background checks conducted for people who have to drive as part of their job may well include a report on the subject's driving record. It depends on what the person or company who commissions the report wants. Companies that are hiring workers who must drive as part of their job may well want a report that includes serious motor vehicle offenses, DUIs, and license suspensions. Like everything else in the world of background information, this data is available at a price.

Are Credit Reports Included in Background Checks?

For many years, credit reports were a standard component of pre-employment background checks. However, after the recession of 2007–2008, so many people had "bad" credit that this ceased to be a big factor in corporate hiring. At the same time, some states began to prohibit employers from using credit reports as part of a hiring decision unless the employer has a "compelling business rationale." In particular, positions that require handing money or present the opportunity for embezzlement are more likely to require a credit check than other jobs.

What Else Can Be in a Background Check?

Background check companies typically offer their customers a number of options designed to tailor the information sought to the customers' needs. Upon request, information can be obtained about a someone's employment and residence history, educational history, drug test results, placement on a terrorist watch list, registration as a sex offender, and even social media usage. The precise limits of what information can be obtained varies somewhat from state to state, according to differences in state law.