Background Checks 101

, , | January 19, 2021 | By

What is a criminal background check? Simply said, it’s the compilation of public records associated with someone’s criminal history. 

Because it’s public data, these records are actually a commodity and accessible in some way (electronically or on site) to anyone. Knowing this, you could assume all criminal background checks are the same. However, they’re not! The differences pertain to the methodology behind searching for records.


A Complex Data Environment

There are 3,144 counties in the United States, each with its own court system or systems, and over 10,000 courthouses. What creates the biggest challenge in searching these thousands of sources is there is no standardization across the country relating to criminal records.

For example, there is no consistency in the personal identifiers provided within records. One jurisdiction may include full name, date of birth (DOB) and address. Other jurisdictions may only include full name and age. All these data variations make it difficult to identify every record that may belong to one individual.

Unique identifiers such as Social Security Numbers are rarely ever provided within court records. This is a huge misconception to those outside the industry where many believe a SSN is included in every record. There’s also no central database that pulls up a person’s complete criminal history just by typing in the SSN. That’s certainly how it’s portrayed on CSI, but that’s TV, not reality.


The Name Game

Everyone has just one name, right? Of course not, especially when you consider many married women who choose to take their husband’s surname. Other individuals may legally change their name for various reasons. A person may also have additional Alias or AKA (also known as) names like nicknames. For instance, Robert may be Bobby, or Victoria may be Vicky. Because AKAs are prevalent in court records, the most effective screening methodology includes AKAs. But don’t depend on applicants to divulge AKAs. The most reliable way to discover AKAs is through an Address History Trace (AHT), a report that identifies various names, DOBs and addresses associated with a specific SSN.

In addition to AKAs, names can be misspelled or can be keyed in various ways if they contain spaces, apostrophes or symbols. For example, the last name O’Conner may be entered differently, depending on how the system used, treats the apostrophe. It could be OConner, O Conner or Conner. How is it possible to search using name variations? Algorithms have been developed that automate name variations, expanding the search parameters even farther.

Considering all these variables, background checks are an imperfect science. With so many sources and opportunities for errors, what is a reliable screen?

Do people commit offenses where they live? Since most people spend the majority of their time where they live, it’s reasonable to assume the answer is yes. A recent internal study was conducted by BIB, examining 2,000 records, and then comparing the county of offense to Address History Track (AHT) results. This study revealed 70% of the records found in a county were discovered through the AHT and in the county of the resident’s home.Where to Start

Running an AHT to determine the jurisdictional profile then searching those counties identified are the first two steps of a reliable screen!


Databases: Supplementary Not Standalone

People don’t always commit crimes where they live. To dig deeper, expand the search with a “nationwide” database. Nationwide is a inaccurate name for this product, as there is no “database”, either held by the FBI or commercially, which contains records from every county in the United States. It’s simply impossible.

At best, a commercial database covers about 50% of U.S. courts (over 400 million records), and the FBI database has about a tenth of those (around 40 million records). The most complete and reliable records are never found in a database; they are found at the county level, which is the court of record.

Databases are a powerful supplementary tool, but they are oversold as a catch-all product. A search package may include language like “county verified” in conjunction with the national search, meaning that database hits are verified at the court of record. Verification of records from a database search should always occur to ensure its accuracy. But this search is not comparable to county level searches based on the AHT. This “verification trap” creates a false perception that a person’s residence history is searched when the reality is only database hits are being verified.

Database coverage can be compared to a wireless coverage map. Some areas have great data; others do not. Those courts included (about 50%) are courts with accessible data, meaning it can be aggregated in bulk or electronically into a database.

Some courts, however, do not report to any type of repository (state, national or commercial) and restrict their data accessibility. For example, Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix metro area) only provides access to their records at the county level. So, if someone has a criminal conviction in Phoenix, it is doubtful this offense would be uncovered when you only searched the state’s repository, FBI database, or a commercial database.


Sex Offender: Real-Time vs. Database

Searching Sex Offender registries is a final critical step to a reliable screen. But are your searches hitting real-time registries? A National Sex Offender database would be included in most commercial databases (Security Watch Lists are, too) and are a historical record of both past and present offenders.

When someone is placed on a registry, it may not be for the duration of his or her life. Each state has its own sentencing regulations relating to these crimes. So the value of the database is discovery of an offender, who is no longer listed on the registry, but the past criminal offense can still be located and considered in determining if an applicant is the right fit as an employee or volunteer. For maximum protection, districts should search all real-time registries available, not just your home state.


Background checks can be a complicated process, but organizations can screen better with these five steps:

  1. Insist on an Address History Trace (AHT) to determine a jurisdictional profile as well as AKAs.
  2. Expand your search to include counties found in the AHT.
  3. Search a commercial database as a supplement to find records outside of an applicant’s residence history and verify any records founds at the court of record.
  4. Search all real-time sex offender registries (not just the database or your home state’s registry).
  5. Include AKAs and name variation in all searches.