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CONDUCTING FREE BACKGROUND CHECKS: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

checkedHi Folks!
I initially started writing the article below to make into an e-book. Well as things progressed and I started getting more and more in-depth, I thought it might be a good article for my blog. As you may or may not know I work for an employment screening company and they have given me their blessing to go ahead and publish articles that discuss how to conduct free background checks.

I have written several in the past and have even given specific examples within specific situations on exactly what to say and do. If you have missed them then please go to the search feature on my blog and type in “free background checks”, I am sure you will find them easily. The reason I am writing these articles is to educate consumers and businesses on how to conduct these checks. There was a commercial that used to be on television in the area where I live not too long ago that had the tag line of “an informed consumer is our best customer”. I truly feel that the more our clients or prospective clients know the better appreciation they will have for the amount of work it takes to conduct background investigations. Granted, some of the techniques may seem simple at first glance, but imagine trying to conduct background checks all over the United States. “Expertise made easy” is our tag line and it rings true. Not only do we have to know every aspect of the FCRA but we have to know every state law that deals with employment screening. It’s not just the legislation and laws we have to deal with, but much more. Federal, state, county, city courts, countless schools, universities, employers and government agencies, these are just a few of the areas where we need to be experts. The company I work for has the best investigators in the business today. I would put them up against any other employment screening firm in the United States. I know this is a long article, but it is worth the read, so without further adieu here is “Conducting Free Background Checks: A Beginner’s Guide”.

Introduction
In this age of technology, it seems logical to assume that information on just about anyone is available somewhere. Finding that information is where the challenge comes in. There are plenty of sources waiting to help. A simple Google search under “background check” leads to literally millions of hits for everything from a “Complete Background Check for $39.95” to websites offering wannabe sleuths tips for becoming “a great net detective.” But the truth is that most services that offer “free background checks” are actually going to charge you for something at some point. Despite its best intentions, the internet has still not conjured up the proverbial free lunch, so if you have the time to do your own legwork, it just might be possible to do a background check – at least a preliminary, cursory check — for free or very little cost.

Why background checks are important
There are dozens of reasons why background checks are important. Employers want to know about arrest records, outstanding judgments or credit problems. Parents want to make sure their new babysitter isn’t on the Registered Sex Offender list, and the new furniture store in town doesn’t want to hire a delivery man with a pitiful driving record. But there are other reasons to conduct a background check. School districts require their volunteers to go through a background check before releasing them to work with children, and many districts require their teachers to pass background checks not only when they are hired, but every few years to ensure that they have not committed crimes or civil offenses since being hired. Landlords can look for red flags with credit, criminal records, or lawsuits filed against potential tenants, and organizations like the Red Cross and Goodwill Industries require their volunteers to pass the scrutiny of a background check before being cleared to work –even in a volunteer capacity.

Where it all began
The U.S. military and the U.S. government have been pioneers in the development of the background check. Government workers at just about every level are rarely hired until they have been “checked out” first. Employees who will work with classified or sensitive information are required to get security clearances, which have always been needed for military, government and civilian employees working in areas where confidential, secret or top secret information may or will be shared. The corporate world and private businesses followed the example set forth by government and the military branches, and human resource professionals and business owners have become familiar with background check procedures to help reduce the chances of hiring the wrong person for a particular job. Workplace violence and the threat of terrorism have also put this issue at the forefront of many businesses agendas. But no matter where it started, today organizations of all sizes recognize the importance of taking everything at face value and doing what research can be done to uncover the truth. Investigating the accuracy of an individual’s stated background helps reduce the potential of hiring, associating, or even dating the wrong individual – someone who isn’t exactly who he or she says he is.

Getting Started
So since everyone’s doing it, it can’t be that hard, right? Well, yes and no. If you know where to go for the kind of information you need, and if you have some basic information to start with, a background check can be fairly painless. Knowing where to find the information is half the battle. That’s what this little book is all about. It’s also important to know that there are laws involved. If you are conducting a background check for purposes of employment or determining the suitability of an applicant for a particular job, you’ll be required to follow federally mandated guidelines to ensure you’re not violating the provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and other federal or state regulations. If you’re planning on doing a background check on someone for the purposes of hiring them, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the FRCA laws to make sure you don’t get yourself into legal trouble. A summary of FRCA rules are contained in the section on Credit Checks and Consumer Records, but please consult with your attorney for specific information on the dos and don’ts of employment screening. Although we won’t claim that this guide will ensure that your daughter’s date will drive safely or that your new cashier won’t rob you blind, we can at least provide suggestions for what types of information you can get, along with a few shortcuts to help you find it. Basic information that you’ll need to start your background check include name (including middle name or initial), date of birth, and location of residence (as close as you can get). It’s best if you also have a social security number, previous addresses, and any aliases the subject may have used, including maiden name or nick names, if applicable.

Public Information – The Worldwide Web
It hasn’t been too many years since the invention of the Internet, but already there is a wealth of free information available that was hardly even imaginable just a few short years ago. One of the best places to start with a simple background check is with a search engine. The most popular search engines, like Yahoo, Google, and Ask.com reach deep into public records and media reports. Even if you only have a first and last name, if your subject has been involved in a serious offense, a simple search engine may be enough to pull up some basic information. Social networking sites (like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) also can provide insight into an individual’s background, personality and character. In fact, more and more employers are doing a casual check of these public areas when reviewing the appropriateness of a candidate for a particular position. For employment screening, care must be taken to ensure you are not violating any FCRA rules when reviewing these postings for insight into a potential employee’s lifestyle or character. Specific things to look for when reviewing a social networking site as part of a background check would include: does the individual present him or herself professionally or in good taste? Does the candidate’s site show well rounded interests and clear communication skills? Is drug use or alcohol abuse evident in their posts? Are photographs of the individual tasteful (considering your interest in them as babysitter, cleaning lady, volunteer worker or paid employee)? In addition to information on a specific individual, most internet searches will bring up numerous options for investigative and background check services. Although these services may not be free, they could save you a lot of time chasing hard-to-locate or inaccessible information, and they may prove to be cost-effective when considering all other factors.

Public Information – Criminal Background Checks
Safety, security, and peace of mind are all important. Sometimes the best background checks result in finding nothing at all. But when it comes to bad behavior, from simple misdemeanors to repeat felony convictions, if it’s made it into the criminal court system, it’s most likely a matter of public record, which means it’s available for you to find, usually for free. Now of course there are exceptions to this rule. Crimes committed by minors are often erased, or the records may be sealed to protect the individual. Once the minor is of age and has met the conditions of their court-ordered punishment and good behavior, all record of a crime committed by a minor, no matter how severe could be sealed. For the most part though, if something illegal is associated with an individual, you have a good chance of finding it out through a search of public records. There are several ways to conduct a public records search. Our focus here is on free methodologies, so the list is limited to that scope. Depending upon the sophistication of the city or county (or its budget) many municipalities or county seats will have online databases available for public records search that will allow you to search by name, docket number or case number. When conducting this sort of search, be sure to include the communities and counties directly adjacent to or surrounding your subject’s known addresses (both present and past). Research on criminal behavior has shown that most crimes are committed within the perpetrator’s comfort zone, which usually means a relatively close distance to their residence. A good rule of thumb is to estimate an hour’s drive (60 miles) from the current address in every direction and search the counties and any larger municipalities that fall within that radius. It’s best if you know previous addresses, as well as the current address to be sure you’re checking in the right jurisdictions to cover past crimes or issues. One of the best references for state by state and county criminal record databases is located at https://www.brbpublications.com. Not all states or counties allow public access to criminal records information. Some do allow online access, while others require written applications and even fees, even so the fees are usually minimal. Some states and counties require that requesters provide certain identifying information, such as name, address, date of birth, or social security number. The rules associated with a particular locale can be found by visiting the specific website or phoning the County Clerk or Administrator.

Private Records – Driving Records
Driving records contain a history of violations, convictions, collisions and departmental actions incurred by a driver over a period of time. They are mostly considered to be private records, so for that reason you can’t just go around requesting and receiving copies of someone’s driving record from the Department of Motor Vehicles. In fact, these records are protected except for specific instances where they are considered necessary information. Specifically, you can obtain motor vehicle records if you are an employer and if driving is a part of the job description for the individual you are checking on. For example, if the person is going to be transporting materials for your company or serving as a delivery driver, or if he or she is a school bus driver or otherwise needs a safe driving record for optimum job performance, you can obtain driving records. There is a federal law called The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), which regulates how information from DMV records can be released and shared. It basically limits the acquisition of such information except for in cases where the information will be helpful in conducting a legal, insurance, or employment evaluation. The law also limits what you can do with the information once you receive it. It is a violation of the federal law to provide information obtained for one of the above reasons to an “uninterested” third party. For the most part you can obtain information from the DMV if the following reasons exist: 1) It is a requirement of employment and therefore part of a background screening. For example if the person is going to be a delivery driver or will be transporting materials for your company, it makes sense to access their driving record; 2) If you are an attorney who requires the record to defend your client; 3) It is an insurance matter to determine risk factor in insuring a client; or 4) you are obtaining your own record to confirm its accuracy or defend yourself in court. Different states will have different laws, some more lenient than others. Most will require that you have permission from the individual you are checking out before they will release the records. To see list of states department of motor vehicles you can go here: https://www.brbpublications.com/ Click on your specific state to get details on how get access to these records.

Private Records – Credit Checks
At no time in history has the information contained in a credit report carried as much weight in evaluating individuals as it does today. Right or wrong, a credit report is a window into your personal life. It includes information on your residence and where you live, how you pay your bills (late, on time, in full, minimum amounts only), and whether you’ve been sued by creditors, or have filed for bankruptcy. Nationwide consumer reporting companies sell the information in your report to creditors, insurers, employers, and other businesses that use it to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, employment, or renting a home. But like driving records, credit records are considered private except for these uses. In order to access information from a credit report, you will need the individual’s written permission.

Employers and Credit Checks
It has become standard practice for businesses to contact credit bureaus for information on a potential employee’s credit history. Applicants may not like it, but in this day and age that is the case. Obviously this is particularly important if the employee will have responsibility for handling money or will have access to sensitive information that could be desired by competitors or “corporate spies.” The assumption being that someone in debt with a history of poor financial management is more likely to buckle under to the temptation of theft or to the pressures by unscrupulous individuals who may bribe them to give up company secrets. The Fair Credit Reporting Act limits what employers can do with information obtained from a credit report or a background check. Employers must have permission from the individual whose credit report they are seeking, and they must notify the individual if the contents of the credit report cause them to take an adverse decision regarding the individual’s employment. As an employer, you may use consumer reports when you hire new employees and when you evaluate employees for promotion, reassignment, and retention — as long as you comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Sections 604, 606, and 615 of the FCRA spell out your responsibilities when using consumer reports for employment purposes. Before you reject an applicant based on credit report information, you must make a pre-adverse action disclosure that includes a copy of the consumer report and the summary of consumer rights under the FCRA. Once you’ve rejected an applicant, you must provide an adverse action notice if credit report or background check information affected your decision. There are legal consequences for employers who fail to get an applicant’s permission before requesting a consumer report or who fail to provide pre-adverse action disclosures and adverse action notices to unsuccessful job applicants. The FCRA allows individuals to sue employers for damages in federal court. A person who successfully sues is entitled to recover court costs and reasonable legal fees. The law also allows individuals to seek punitive damages for deliberate violations. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission, other federal agencies, and the states may sue employers for noncompliance and obtain civil penalties. Bottom line: use caution whenever evaluating consumer records as part of a pre-employment screening.

Employment History
You can learn a lot about an individual by contacting previous employers. Although many businesses are hesitant to provide information about former employees for fear of being sued, most will provide basic “yes-no” information. Most employers will verify an employee’s dates of employment and will answer the question, “Is this individual eligible for rehire?” Typically, if employees left their jobs on good terms, they are eligible for rehire. Employees who were fired or terminated for cause are typically not considered eligible for rehire. Phone interviews are the best way to get background information on a former employee. If you can it is best to contact the subject’s former supervisor. They will usually have the most insight on your new potential employee. If that is not an option then contact the company and ask for the hiring manager or Human Resources Director. These individuals are responsible for hiring, payroll, and employment records. They can assist in confirming employment status. By developing an easy rapport with the individual, you might also get additional insight into the employee’s work ethic, behavior on the job, and employability. Keep in mind that the Society for Human Resource Management states that 12% of job applicants use false claims other estimates put this number as high as 15%. Before you make an applicant an offer, you need to get the facts.

Education Information
Colleges and universities are excellent sources of information about people. Most colleges have an Office of the Registrar, which is where all current and former student records regarding enrollment are housed. Colleges and universities differ on how open they are with their information, but many will provide confirmation of enrollment or graduation over the phone. Others may require a special form to be submitted or even a fee to be paid prior to releasing information about a student.

Personal Interviews to Determine Background Details
One of the most obvious ways to conduct a background check is through the use of a personal interview of the subject in question. Not surprisingly this is often the method of last resort, perhaps since it requires one-on-one contact and can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable for the individuals involved. The personal interview is particularly important when dealing with a young person (such as a teenager who is applying for a babysitting or pet sitting job) who most likely does not have a criminal record, driving records, or any other official records of either the public or private kind. Personal interviews offer the opportunity to ask direct questions and to follow-up brief answers with more in-depth, probing questions. The best way to conduct a background check on an individual that has no public or private records is to 1) Spend time together and have a long conversation; 2) Ask for and then check references; 3) Interview neighbors and friends of the individual. You may be surprised to find out that people are, for the most part, honest and willing to open up about themselves if asked questions in a direct and non-threatening way.

Interviewing Friends and Associates
Friends and associates, former co-workers and even family members are excellent sources of information about an individual. These sorts of background checks are most effective when the sources have been supplied by the subject in question. A skilled interviewer can ask questions that are non-threatening and insightful. A conversational style can assist in easing tension and encouraging interviewees to open up with free-flowing conversation that provides insight into the subject’s personality, likes, dislikes, and behaviors.

The Due Diligence Check
A due diligence check is an excellent tool to use before entering into a business venture with another business or individual. Due diligence checks tend to have the same elements of background checks but may be more in-depth. A due diligence check also typically reviews the licensing requirements of a professional or organization (such as corporations, medical professionals, a teacher, or other licensed professionals) to ensure that they are appropriately credentialed and licensed. Other elements include vetting company principles or members of the board. It is the most convenient and effective way to stop business to business fraud. Typically these due diligence checks involve a survey of federal and state licensing authorities, property searches, business filings, etc. Most often this type of check is best conducted by a professional background screening firm.

Special Considerations for Background Checks
Individuals who are conducting background checks for the purposes of hiring an employee have to be particularly careful about the type of information they get, how they acquire it, how they use it, and they need to make sure that they notify the applicant both of their intent and findings. In situations where the job applicant’s permission is required, it is critical that appropriate records are kept and open communications are maintained. In certain situations, it may be advised to proceed with caution, particularly when personally interviewing individuals, their associates, family or friends. Although background checks can be a useful tool for evaluating individuals and their suitability for a variety of different situations, the subject can be a touchy one and should be considered highly sensitive. Certain states limit access to criminal information for purposes of hiring to a period not to exceed seven years prior to the current date. That means any offense, no matter how severe, that occurred more than seven years prior cannot be taken into consideration when reviewing a criminal record or an individual’s suitability for employment. Make sure that you check your individual state’s requirements and laws when screening a potential applicant.

Conclusion
As this article has shown, there are many sources and services available to those interested in conducting a background check. Although most are not free, and many can be extremely time consuming, most are very affordable. And with society the way it is today, background checks are a necessity of life, and they are worth doing right.

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