Are There Not Instant Background Checks?

In today’s world, computers continue to process at faster and faster speeds, and answers to most any question can be obtained in seconds by performing an online search. Further, if one were to google the term, “instant background checks,” almost 26 million results are now returned. It is therefore not surprising that so many people expect background check reports to be completed quickly, if not instantly.

However, the plethora of sources offering instant background checks is very misleading. Companies whose main marketing point is “instant background checks,” tend not to be consumer reporting agencies (CRAs). CRAs are companies that adhere to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA – the federal law that regulates background checks). Reputable CRAs have processes in place to handle consumer disputes, as required by the FCRA.

These “instant background screening companies” generally have “fine print,” usually in their terms and conditions, where they disavow being a consumer reporting agency. These non-compliant background screening companies will also usually have “hard-to-find” disclosure language such as, “not for employment screening purposes or any other FCRA permissible purpose,” or “information is provided for amusement or curiosity purposes.” They also are notorious for providing false positives, i.e., records purportedly on the individual you are checking, when in actuality the records belong to someone else with the same name.

Why is it Difficult to Obtain a Thorough Background Check?

There is no perfect or guaranteed method for obtaining a thorough background check. There are “best practices,” but there is no panacea for procuring a thorough background check. The reason is there is no national database that houses all criminal records. Even the NCIC (National Crime Information Center – although more commonly known as “the FBI Files”), only has about fifty percent of all the crimes in the country. Further the NCIC is generally difficult to access except for law enforcement purposes, and for certain limited job classification background checks.

But don‘t companies offer a “national criminal database” check? These background checks are national in scope only because they contain at least some limited information from every state. They actually are multi-jurisdictional criminal databases, and the information varies not only by state, but by jurisdiction. Plus, within each jurisdiction there typically is not one hundred percent coverage – and their records certainly do not all have complete or even partial dates of birth (DOBs).

With unique Social Security Numbers (SSNs), why are dates of birth so important when trying to research and locate criminal records? The reason DOBs are needed is that most criminal records do not have SSNs attached to them due to privacy concerns, as criminal records are public records that anyone can potentially access.

The reality is that most criminal records are retrieved by matching exact legal name and exact date of birth. This presents another challenge, as there are only 365 days (or 366 days in leap years), and there are about 330 million people in the United States. There is a myriad of common names, with the most often used name being John Smith (there are approximately 48,000 John Smiths in the USA).

When an exact match of name and DOB occurs, particularly with common names, it is crucial for the search to also include the middle name. However, even with a middle name, there may still be an exact name and DOB match. When this occurs, obtaining the actual court file (not simply using a digital index) to review documents can be needed, to compare against the individual’s address(es), physical characteristics, race, etc., in order to try to verify if the criminal record belongs to the candidate being background checked.

If no true national criminal database exists, where and how are criminal records found? The answer is usually by going to the source, meaning performing county criminal records searches. However, there are about 3,300 counties in the United States, with varying degrees of records automation, or lack thereof. Many county courthouses, unbelievably, still use primarily paper files (versus electronic), increasing the level of difficulty for retrieving data. Plus in today’s world of Covid-19 shut-downs and new protocols, the time needed for verifying county criminal records has lengthened significantly.

To make matters even worse, some counties and jurisdictions are redacting dates of birth due to political concerns with privacy. Having no DOBs truly confounds the verification process, especially when combined with the lack of SSNs and common names.

If searching county criminal records was not enough, the Federal Court System requires a separate search. Federal criminal cases are not part of county criminal records, and they also cannot be found in multi-jurisdictional “national criminal databases.” They require a separate Federal Criminal Records Search.

What are Common Types of Background Checks?

Resident Screening/Tenant Screening: Although the legal term under the FCRA is tenant screening, the politically correct term for the multi-housing apartment industry is resident screening. Of course, for commercial real estate, the term “tenant screening” still applies. These reports generally contain a credit report (most often with a credit score), a separate Eviction Search (which is critical since all judgments, including eviction judgments have disappeared from credit reports ever since July 1, 2017), and a multi-jurisdictional “national criminal database” check.

Resident screening reports are usually the closest to an instant background check report, because when there is no criminal or eviction record found, the report information does get returned in seconds. This works well for the multi-housing industry as their proclivity is to mainly perform basic, quick criminal searches, because their focus is to rent apartments units, and increase the ROI to their investors.

Employee Screening/Pre-Employment Screening: Employers who understand the need to mitigate risk and also the importance to protect against Negligent Hiring and Retention Liability lawsuits, will use not only a criminal database check, but add on county criminal record searches and even federal criminal record searches. It is particularly important that any potential record in a criminal database be verified against the original source, i.e., the county criminal records search.

Background checks for employment purposes will also contain other items, based upon the job classification. These searches may include: verification of employment history; verification of credentials, such as educational degrees and professional licenses; and motor vehicle reports.

Volunteer Screening: These background checks are similar to employee screening and they are crucial for nonprofit organizations. Sadly, this is due to predators targeting the clients of the nonprofits that they purportedly are volunteering to help.

Country Club Membership Screening: High-end private country clubs will generally perform an extensive criminal and credit check on their potential members. These private clubs want to protect their members – and they also want to protect their brand. It is not only the affluent that can afford the steep membership fees and food and beverage minimums of these country clubs. Terrorists and criminals also are flush with cash. The good news is that private clubs can pass the cost through to their member applicants, either incorporated into their membership fee, or by having a separate background check/application fee.

Franchisee Screening: Franchisors will request not only an extensive criminal and credit check, but will verify financial assets and net worth. This is critical when growing a franchise brand and protecting it. As with country club membership screening, the cost of the background check can be passed through, in this case to the franchisee candidate. It also can be positioned as a benefit to future franchisee candidates, who will appreciate the value of paying for their own thorough background check, knowing that future franchisees will also be thoroughly vetted, as franchisee screening reports help protect their own investment in the franchise brand as well.

So How Long do Background Checks Take?

From reading the above, there is no definitive answer. While some background checks, such as resident and tenant screening can be almost instant, other more thorough background checks can take one to three business days, and in some limited cases, weeks or more. It depends on the components of the report and also if there is a potential criminal record that needs to be verified. When a potential criminal “hit” is involved, requiring verification at the county criminal level, the issues related to lack of SSNs, no or partial DOBs, common names, paper files, and Covid protocols can combine to create delays, and sometimes, frustratingly long turnaround times.

Posted by: Rudy Troisi, L.P.I., President and CEO, Reliable Background Screening

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