The Ultimate Guide to Background Checks: How to Screen Others and Yourself

In our data-driven world, background checks have become an essential tool for making informed decisions about the people we interact with – whether hiring an employee, selecting a tenant, or even choosing a date. At the same time, it‘s crucial to understand your own background report and ensure its accuracy.

This ultimate guide will dive deep into the complex world of background screening, giving you the knowledge and resources to conduct checks on others and yourself. We‘ll cover everything from the basics of what a background check entails to the latest trends shaping the industry. Let‘s get started!

Background Check Basics

A background check is an investigation into a person‘s history, character, and qualifications. It involves gathering and verifying information from various sources to create a comprehensive profile. The goal is to mitigate risk by uncovering potential red flags or confirming that someone is who they claim to be.

Background checks are used in a variety of contexts, but most commonly for:

  • Pre-employment screening
  • Tenant selection
  • Volunteer vetting
  • Legal proceedings
  • Personal safety (e.g. online dating)

The depth and scope of a background check depends on the specific purpose and legal requirements. However, most reports include a combination of the following:

  • Identity verification
  • Criminal history
  • Employment and education verification
  • Credit reports
  • Driving records
  • Professional licenses and certifications
  • Social media and online presence

It‘s important to note that background checks are subject to various laws and regulations designed to protect privacy and prevent discrimination. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is the primary federal law governing background checks for employment. It requires employers to obtain consent, follow specific procedures, and allow applicants to dispute inaccurate information.

How Background Checks Are Conducted

Background screening involves collecting data from a variety of public and private sources, cross-referencing the information, and analyzing it for discrepancies or areas of concern. Here are some of the most common methods and resources used by professional background check providers and individuals:

Online Databases

Many online background check services aggregate data from public records and proprietary sources into searchable databases. These consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) make it easy to access criminal records, court files, property records and more.

Some of the top background check providers include:

  • CheckPeople
  • TruthFinder
  • Instant Checkmate
  • BeenVerified
  • Intelius

Online services typically charge a fee for reports and may require a subscription. Keep in mind that not all online background checks are FCRA-compliant for employment purposes. Always make sure your provider is accredited and up to date with regulations.

Court Records

Records of arrests, charges, and convictions are maintained by various courts at the federal, state, and county level. Understanding the court system is key to conducting a thorough criminal background check.

Here‘s a quick breakdown:

  • Federal courts handle cases involving federal laws, such as drug trafficking, tax fraud, and interstate crimes. Records are maintained by the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system.

  • State courts deal with violations of state laws, which vary by jurisdiction. Each state has its own court structure and recordkeeping system. Usually this includes a Supreme Court, Courts of Appeals, and trial courts (Circuit or Superior Courts).

  • County courts oversee local cases and maintain records of misdemeanors and infractions. There may be separate divisions for criminal, civil, traffic, and family matters. Records can be requested in person or online, depending on the county.

To access court records, you‘ll typically need to know the subject‘s full name and date of birth, as well as the jurisdiction where cases were filed. Searches can be time-consuming, as not all records are digitized or available online. If a case is very old or was filed in another state, you may need to submit a formal records request by mail.

Verification Services

For employment and education verification, background check providers contact past employers and schools directly to confirm dates of attendance, degrees earned, titles held, and other details. This process can be automated through secure online systems or done manually by phone or email.

Some major verification services include:

  • The Work Number (Equifax)
  • InVerify (TransUnion)
  • TalentWise (DISA)
  • HireRight

These companies maintain extensive databases of employment records, allowing for quick and efficient verification. However, not all employers participate, so some checks may require contacting HR departments or school registrars directly.

Social Media Screening

According to a 2018 CareerBuilder survey, 70% of employers use social media to screen candidates during the hiring process. Social media profiles can provide valuable insights into a person‘s character, communication style, and professional network.

However, social media screening is a legal and ethical minefield. It‘s all too easy to uncover protected characteristics like age, race, religion, or sexual orientation that cannot legally be considered in hiring. Any social media searches should be conducted by a third party and focus only on information relevant to the job.

There are also tools like Social Intelligence that automate social media screening and redact protected information from reports to maintain compliance.

Other Sources

Depending on the purpose of the background check, other sources of information may include:

  • Driving records from state Departments of Motor Vehicles
  • Credit reports from the three major bureaus (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion)
  • Professional license verification through state licensing boards
  • Federal and state sex offender registries
  • Terrorist watch lists and sanctions databases

Conducting Your Own Background Check

With so much personal information available online, it‘s smart to periodically conduct a background check on yourself. This allows you to:

  • See what information employers, landlords, or others might find
  • Identify potential red flags or inaccuracies
  • Take steps to correct errors or mitigate negative information

Here‘s a step-by-step guide to checking your own background:

  1. Obtain your credit reports from You‘re entitled to one free report each year from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Review them carefully for errors or signs of fraud.

  2. Request your driving record from your state DMV. Check for accuracy and resolve any outstanding tickets or violations.

  3. Visit your county courthouse or use online court databases to search for criminal records, civil judgments, or bankruptcies in your name. Note that not all jurisdictions offer online access.

  4. Verify your employment and education history. Contact past employers and schools to ensure they have correct information on file.

  5. Google yourself and check your social media profiles. Look at the results from a hiring manager or landlord‘s perspective – is there anything you wouldn‘t want them to see?

  6. Consider using a professional background check service to get a more comprehensive report. Just make sure to choose a reputable provider and review their terms carefully.

If you find any inaccurate or outdated information in your background check, you have the right to dispute it. The FCRA requires CRAs to investigate and correct errors within 30 days. You can also contact the original source of the information (such as a court or employer) to request an update.

The Business of Background Screening

The background screening industry has grown rapidly in recent years, driven by increased security concerns, globalization, and technological advances. Here are some key statistics:

  • The global background screening market is projected to reach $5.46 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 7.5% from 2020 to 2027 (Allied Market Research)
  • Over 95% of employers conduct background checks on job candidates (Professional Background Screening Association)
  • Criminal background checks are the most common type, used by 94% of employers (SHRM)
  • 73% of employers say the quality of their hires improved due to background screening (HireRight)

The industry is highly regulated, with companies navigating a complex web of federal, state and local laws. Key legal considerations include:

  • FCRA compliance: Background check providers must follow strict procedures for obtaining consent, providing disclosures, and investigating disputes. Failure to comply can result in costly lawsuits and damage to reputation.

  • EEOC guidance: Employers must ensure their background check policies do not discriminate against protected groups. The EEOC recommends individualized assessments and consideration of job relevance before taking adverse action based on criminal history.

  • "Ban the Box" laws: 36 states and over 150 cities and counties have laws restricting when and how employers can ask about criminal history on job applications. The goal is to give ex-offenders a fair chance at employment.

  • Data privacy laws: Background check companies are subject to an increasing number of data privacy regulations, such as the GDPR in the EU and the CCPA in California. These laws give consumers more control over their personal information and require companies to implement strict security measures.

Despite the challenges, the background screening industry continues to evolve and innovate. One major trend is the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate and speed up the screening process. AI-powered tools can help with everything from identity verification to court record searches to social media analysis.

However, the use of AI in background checks raises concerns about accuracy, bias, and transparency. A 2019 study by the UC Berkeley School of Law found that algorithms used to predict "criminality" based on facial recognition were highly inaccurate and discriminatory. As the technology develops, it will be crucial to ensure proper regulation and oversight to prevent misuse.


Background checks play a vital role in our society, helping to create safer workplaces, communities, and personal relationships. However, they are not without risks and limitations. Inaccurate or misleading information can cost someone a job or housing opportunity, while improper use can violate privacy rights and enable discrimination.

Ultimately, the key to effective and ethical background screening is transparency, consent, and relevance. Individuals must be informed about what information is being collected and how it will be used, and have the opportunity to correct any errors. Organizations must carefully consider what information is truly necessary and job-related, and have policies in place to prevent bias and protect privacy.

As the world becomes increasingly data-driven, it‘s more important than ever to take control of your own background report and understand the screening process. By following the steps and resources outlined in this guide, you can conduct background checks with confidence and protect your own reputation in the digital age.