Background checks are an essential part of an organization’s employee onboarding process and contracting compliance program. If background checks are new to your organization, you may not know this key piece of information – not all background checks are created equal. Understanding the various components of a thorough background check will help you make an educated decision when choosing the right background check to fit your needs.
The information in this article will help you start down the road to selecting a background screening package while understanding the basic facts about what a background check is, why they are important, and the various searches that compose a comprehensive screen.
What is a background check?
A background check, or background screen, is a review of public record information about an individual. This information can be pulled for many reasons, with the focus of this article being for contracting or employment purposes.
The type of information included in a background check is called a “search” or “search components” and cover areas such as a criminal record search, a driving record search, basic identity confirmation, drug testing, government sanction and watch listings, or even a Sex Offender Registry search.
The screening results are then compiled into a report called a consumer report. The individual whom the background check pertains is the “consumer.” That data is then given back to the end-user who will review it and make the decision on how to proceed, which is often a decision of whether or not to hire/contract with the individual. The decision to be made is predicated on whether there may be any risks associated with working with the individual, and also to verify if the information they have provided is accurate, complete, and appropriate for the role for which they are being considered.
There is a role for everyone; however, not everyone is suitable for every role. The focus needs to be on the risk an individual may bring to an organization, its customers, consumers, and the overall network.
How are Consumer Reports Regulated?
In the U.S., the results from a background check (the consumer report), its contents, and use are regulated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). There is no comparable consumer reporting legislation in Canada, however many of the same principles of consent, open access, ability to dispute the information, and other accountabilities are included in privacy legislation. There are guidelines and regulations surrounding background screening that add another layer of regulatory compliance as well. The reference to compliance at PlusOne Solutions, for example, has two meanings – one related to the ability to meet the expectations in the contract with the Customer, (“compliance program”), as well as legal and regulatory compliance requirements.
While each Customer will ultimately have their own needs when determining the search components in a background screening package, there are some general criteria that most will include. Most commonly, a background check will include a criminal record check. Based on the jurisdiction of the screening – for example, the U.S. or Canada – the options available will be reflective of the criminal system structure of that area. For this summary, we will focus on the US options only as they are more varied.
Criminal Records Can be Checked at Various Levels
Criminal records in the U.S. are available at three different levels – county, state, and federal. Criminal systems for states across the U.S. divide crimes into several different categories depending on the severity of the crime. The major categories are infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. For background screening purposes we focus primarily on felony and misdemeanors, as infractions, or violations of a rule or ordinance, are the least serious and are and are not consistently included in criminal record searches. The information used to search these three levels of criminal records is the individual’s name, date of birth (DOB), and address history. The information that is returned when a criminal record is located may include case number, charge classification (felony/misdemeanor), charge type, disposition, disposition date, and sentencing, or other penalty information.
The county-level search is a thorough search of records held at the county-level and is the most comprehensive and popular criminal record search ordered. This is where most records for an individual will occur as there are more than 3,000 county courthouses across the U.S. The depth of these searches is typically seven years of residential address history which means that for every county where the individual has lived in the past seven years, from today’s date, a county criminal record search will be done. The county-level criminal record search is considered primary source data and is the main source of information that should be used.
The state-level criminal record search is very similar to the county-level, though it may not be available in every state. The state search is an aggregate of the details at the county-level search; however, the statewide search is typically a database search – meaning that it is reliant on information provided to it from each of the counties. This often results in information that may be incomplete, out of date, or not as accurate as the information available at the county-level. When ordered, except for New York, the statewide should be in addition to a county-level search, not instead of a county-level search. Not all counties may be included in the state repository, and there may also accuracy and completeness concerns as noted previously. The benefit of this search is that it does cover a larger geographic radius than just the individual’s jurisdiction of residence. New York is a unique situation whereby its Office of Court Administration (OCA) is the preferred source of information and covers all counties in the state as the primary source search and by law includes all those jurisdictions. As a result, county-level searches are not conducted in NY, only the NY OCA search is completed. Other states do not have this same requirement in place and therefore gaps appear in the coverage and date available in the statewide database.
The federal-level search, unlike the county and state level searches, is done through another system that is compiled by the U.S. Government including charges prosecuted under federal criminal law in federal courts. This is not a national search nor is it a search of all the county jurisdictions across the U.S. The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) criminal record system covers 94 federal jurisdictions. Most states are divided into 3 or 4 federal jurisdictions, while some other states may only belong to one federal jurisdiction. Federal searches include crimes against federal employees, crimes committed on federal land, crimes that cross state lines, and other specific categories such as tax evasion, fraud, or embezzlement. This search is often ordered in addition to the county-level search and the scope focuses at least on the current jurisdiction of residence. One note is that due to federal rules of civil procedure, these records often have very limited personal information in them which makes matching of records more difficult.
National Criminal Databases
The national criminal database search is an additional criminality-related search that is also available, though its contents are not limited to just U.S. sources. This search is done using the individual’s name and DOB against a large database of the available county and state criminal information, the state reported sex offender records as well as fugitive, Department of Corrections, U.S. and international government databases covering numerous watches and sanctions listings. Records may be updated weekly, monthly, or on another timing schedule but vary from search to search. Since these records are from databases, the accuracy, completeness, and content are not considered direct source information and any information returned should be validated. Like the statewide search, the key benefit of the national database search is that it expands the scope of records beyond just the individual’s residential history. The other watches and sanction listings are also helpful to understand if there are other risks to consider that may not be uncovered with a criminal record search. Oftentimes, the national database search is offered on the market for a low price. Since it is a database search, the results (if any) return quickly. However, we caution Customers against solely using this search as the concerns of incomplete and often outdated information outweigh the value.
Sex Offender Registry Searches are Recommended
Most of our Customers are using a service network that is often inside homes and on-premises with little or no supervision, which raises other risks and concerns. For that reason, one of the most important searches to conduct across a contractor service network is a Sex Offender Registry search. Unknowingly putting a sex offender in a customer’s home is among the top scenarios our Customers are trying to avoid. The existence of registration on a sex offender registry is a defensible pre-adverse condition if job relevant. While the national database search includes aggregate data submitted from most state sex offender registries, a search of the individual against the U.S. Department of Justice, National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW) is also recommended. If a record is located, comparisons are made against criminal records and other database searches we have completed. Sex Offender Registry searches only report the individual’s registration as a Registered Sex Offender and may not contain the actual criminal conviction(s) which resulted in their inclusion on the registry. For that reason, we also recommend running records at the county jurisdiction when a sex offender registry is identified.
Identity Searches Verify You are Screening the Correct Person
Since each search is reliant on starting with accurate identifiers – name, DOB, and address – every background screening should include an identity search. This is a search of the demographics an individual provides against databases that may include credit bureau header information, USPS address forwarding, utility bill records, voter registration data, licensing and registration data, and various aggregate sources. Search results may return additional names, residential address history, and other reported dates of births associated with the subject. This will also confirm when and where the SSN was issued, that the SSN does not belong to a deceased person or was not issued before the DOB of the subject. Developed names, alternate DOBs, and addresses may be identified and used to identify other court systems to search.
PlusOne Solutions goes to great lengths to verify the identifiers that a background report is based on because if there is an error with that data, the rest of the report is also questionable. We use various sources to verify and validate all names – given, alias, and developed from other searches. DOB is a common identifier that can be changed by applicants to evade the location of records. Verifying that the day and month, as well as year, are accurate further reduces the chances of missing records and information and/or assuming the background of another individual with a similar name.
Driving Record Searches Provide Valuable Information
When the individual will be required to drive for the role they will be holding, whether their own or a company vehicle, a Motor Vehicle Record (MVR) search, as it is typically called, may also provide additional information. As well as providing driving history information, the MVR search is also very helpful as an identity tool. Since the MVR is issued by a government authority, it is often a reliable source of an individual’s proper and complete legal name. The record information also includes address, DOB, and other demographic information that can be used to cross-reference it to other data in the file. Depending on the customer PlusOne Solutions is working with, the driving specifics may or may not be of relevance. Some Customers want only to verify that an active license is in place while others may have a greater interest in reviewing driving infractions, incidents, and other related information.
In-Depth Comprehensive Background Checks Should Utilize Multiple Searches
Every search included in a background search serves a different purpose and provides different values. The approach we take at PlusOne Solutions is to consider the combination of searches to ensure the most useful and thorough search to protect our Customer’s network. This may include conducting two different sex offender checks, using national criminal database and county criminal records to improve the likelihood of locating records, and thoroughly investigating any discrepancies in identifying information used to conduct the searches.
There is never a guarantee that all records and negative information on an individual will be found, but a strong Contractor Compliance Program and demonstration of due diligence is a solid way to mitigate risk. A program will also not guarantee issues will not occur in the future but if an individual knows about the requirements, they are more likely to meet and respect them. Working with service networks already keeps Customers at least one step away from the individual doing the work on their behalf. Using the available public record information, and proper consent, to conduct a background check is one way to demonstrate diligence.
Contents are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Users are reminded to seek legal counsel concerning their obligations and use of PlusOne Solutions services.
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