The Skinny On Background Checks

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I call it, “The Myth of the One Button.”

Television shows, movies and internet hype have planted the notion that all you have to do to gather information on a person is log on, press one button and out spits reams of accurate data, like water gushing from an open fire hydrant. The detective or hero or heroine then has an informational submission-hold on the subject of his inquiry.

Numerous on-line background check services have been launched in the last few years on the internet; some have even become I-Phone applications to give “instant” criminal records information. I have found, however, that, in the best case scenario, you might get “some” accurate information with these searches. But I would never use one and put my name behind it. What’s the saying? Oh yes: “Good, fast and cheap never go together.”

As one critic said of the rise of on-line background providers, “This is a trap for the unwary. These data dumps are really data junk. The data is of very little use to someone on a date, etc, because of all of the holes in the databases used, but of great value to stalkers and sexual offenders.” The on-line background checks harness the power of aggregating, or collecting information quickly, and disseminating it.

It’s apparently not just singles checking up on the latest love interest who use the on-line services. One woman at a cocktail party told me that her 18-year-old son was denied a job at a major sports retail chain because the on-line background check turned up that he supposedly had an armed robbery conviction. However, the background check was wrong because they had someone with the same name but a different date of birth. The Wall Street Journal reviewed the leading on-line background check providers and found they frequently made mistakes, such as saying a subject had a bankruptcy when in fact the person did not.

I will give you a few local examples of why on-line background checks don’t work and why you often need to go to the courthouse in person to search the records. California has a “fractured” records system, meaning that not all the counties handle criminal and civil records in the same way. Some counties make records available on-line while some don’t.

The most glaring example of possibly missing information on-line in a criminal background check is in San Francisco. Why? The county does not make its criminal records available on-line. You have to go, in person, to the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street, take a seat and start scanning the old-school printed ledger books. If you think you have a hit, you then have to order the record(s) from the warehouse.

A competent private investigator will make sure the identifiers, i.e. date of birth, middle name or a Social Security Number, match for the subject and for the record in order to verify it’s for the same person. In Contra Costa County, the on-line searches lump traffic and criminal records together so you have to go the courthouse to actually see the file.

My advice for a good background check is to first gauge what’s at stake. If it’s for a key position in a company or for someone who might be taking care of your loved ones, then don’t cut corners. Hire a professional private investigator for the job.


  1. As the founder and Chairperson of a private investigative agency which specializes in pre-employment background checks, I very much appreciated your article on the truth behind online and instant background checks. My clients do not mind paying a little more and waiting two or three days because they know our information is coming from the proprietary sources in real time. Even though the majority of my competitors have moved to a commodity-based philosophy, I have remained steadfast in my quest to secure the most accurate and up-to-date information; and I am always appreciative when someone recognizes and values the difference!

Speak Your Mind