What is an online background check?
Most background checks these days start with an online search. An online background check, whether it is done manually or through a service, uses one or more online databases storing related data. For example, if your state allows the private search of driving records, someone could take your license plate number and search the state’s motor vehicle department for any available information. This might include registration address, registered name, any recent tickets (specific to that license plate, not necessarily a specific driver), and other publicly available information. Most online background check resources utilize publicly available records and compile information into their own database. This is how you can check a criminal record, address history, and relative information. To be honest, a lot of personal information is available if you know where to search. For example, you can get some basic information through whitepages.com. Of course, they will try to eventually sell you their own online background check services if you click for more information. If you are eager to check out online background check solutions, here is a resource that can get you started (but please keep reading for why this might not be right for you).
How does an online background check compare with one from a P.I.?
Most online background check companies are not capable (or do not want to take on the liability) of involving social security numbers. Not too long ago, there were some changes to the Fair Credit Reporting Act that now apply to background checks. This means only certain information is available to specifically licensed people (such as licensed Private Investigators, or debt collectors…I know, strange items to combine but they often take the same steps in tracking people). Since you are searching an online database, and you are not likely to have the required licensing and training, you are restricted from gaining that information directly. Instead, if you want that information, you have to go to a licensed professional in those states that have licensing (good luck finding that information in states without licensing for private investigators). So the main difference between an online background check and one from a private investigator is the level of information you can receive and confirm.
Another major difference between an online background check and one from a private investigator is the interpretation of information. If I am looking for John Smith in Portland, OR, I am going to have a lot of search results returned (I’ll have a lot of results returned for John Smith in any city/state). How do I know which record of John Smith is the correct one? If an online background check company cannot provide or receive a social security number, there is no guarantee that the records returned will match the individual you are searching. Even in rare cases where an online company provides some level of service that includes a social security number, they are not likely to help you determine what is accurate. In comparison, a private investigator can review a report and identify what is unusual, different, or needs follow-up. In those cases, they can advise additional research as necessary.
Wait, did you say the report might not be accurate?!
Yep, I said the report could have inaccurate information. It happens quite a bit. It could be as simple as an incorrect address reported, or linking the individual to someone they really are not linked. I have seen records where people had a criminal history linked to their social security number with a different name (yes, they need to get a lawyer to help them fix this as soon as possible). An online background check company rarely provides any service beyond providing you with the report. If they do, they charge for it- just like a private investigator would. The next level of service would be verifying or clarifying the information. In the case where a criminal history flags on the person’s name/social security number and it is inaccurate, this is usually determined by calling the jurisdiction and requesting a copy of the booking slip or a photo on file. Many jurisdictions now charge a fee for this, so it makes sense that these services are going to cost more than just running a name through a database (not to mention the amount of time spent on hold waiting for someone who knows what they are doing to come to the phone). Unfortunately, some smaller jurisdictions will not release information over the phone and will require someone to personally go in to make the request.
What information can I not get with an online background check?
There are a few areas that both online background checks and private investigators are restricted access by law (so, if someone or a company says they can do this, they have to break the law to get these).
- Nationwide criminal search– there is only one true “nationwide” criminal database, and that is the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. This database is restricted to law enforcement ONLY and for law enforcement purposes ONLY. Also, it’s not as nationwide it sounds. I know of several jurisdictions that do not submit all of their criminal information to the database (budget cuts affect everything). So there could be an outstanding warrant for someone and even the NCIC is not aware of this. Bottom line- there is no nationwide criminal database.
- Bank account records– many people (especially those who suspect their spouse is cheating on them) want to know if their partner or another loved one (rich family member knocking on death’s door) is hiding “assets”. Usually, this means a bank account. Other people want to know the activity of a partner’s bank account to see where they are spending money or who they are spending it on. No one can legally gain access to information regarding a bank account without a court order (unless you are the owner). Even then, there are specific steps to gaining that information.
- Credit information– this includes a credit score! There is some information from a credit report available to private investigators and debt collectors. The information available does not actually reveal credit information, but any updated activity to contact information such as the address. So when your partner leaves you, and you try to track them down, a private investigator can utilize a resource through a credit agency that will let them review the most updated debt application information. Whoops…they just tried to buy a new car and listed their new address?! Yep, we got them (as long as they stay still long enough for us to get there and provided accurate information). Bottom line- no one can get your credit information without breaking the law or you providing the access.
- Telephone records or GPS records of a cell phone– this one is a little tricky because so many different articles out there provide varying information and many of them have pieces of the truth. No online background check database or private investigator can legally gain access to official telephone records without a court order. Of course, if the phone is in your name- you already have access to the phone records and can do quite a bit of digging on your own. Cell phones have their own set of rules, but it is safe to say that “official” records (from the phone company) are off limit no matter what kind of phone the call is made from. One word of caution- in most instances it is illegal to place any type of tracking software on cell phones. While there are exceptions, do not plan on using tracking software on a cell phone without understanding the laws. Bottom line- no one can get you official telephone records from the phone company without a court order.
Well, what good is an online background check then?
Um…as a private investigator, it is hard for me to see a lot of value in online background check services. As an individual, I do see a lot of benefit in the information I can get for $20 or less.
Thus, I will say that some of the benefits include a cursory criminal record search, a cursory marriage/divorce record search, minimizing the amount of work you have to do, and helping to identify any potential issues. Almost anything available through an online background search company will be available via the internet. If you knew all the places to look and search, you could probably do it for free. But how much is your time worth? You could spend weeks trying to find all of the potential places to search and still not get as much information as is available through an online search. Of course, they could miss some places, too.
A word of caution
I cannot steer clear of this pet peeve. It really bothers me that some of these online background check services claim they can gain information that they really can’t. For example, one resource I have seen talks about how they can run a DMV check for you. In some states, this is true. In several states, it is not true. While most states allow some sort of release of information, many of them will NOT allow online inquiries or release of specific information. This means you cannot run an online DMV check in all states…so be cautious of the information you receive from these sources.
If you are really doing a true background check for reasons such as hiring someone, verify information prior to a marriage (love blinds most of us from even considering this), or any other reason that can result in legal action if a mistake is made- hire a professional. Some states have other types of people that act in a similar capacity to private investigators but specialize more in human resources. As long as they clarify what they are going to search and what they are NOT going to search, they are probably offering a good service. Keep in mind that the more searching you want to do, the more the cost! Most basic background checks start at $50, but this is usually enough to verify information and meet any due diligence requirements.
If you have no real legal reasons, and are more “nosy” about things- I have dabbled with this company and the information seems decent enough (but I can get more information, and more accurate information through my PI databases). Most online databases available to the general public will take longer to update their database, so you may not find the most recent information when you first search. If you decide to use this resource for an extended period of time, double check your searches in a couple of weeks, and then a couple of more weeks (if the information is important enough). Otherwise, think of most online background check services as entertainment!
-The Private I on Online Background Checks