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What does a background check consist of? Stick around if you’re curious to know. I decided to check what I can find about myself and what others may be searching for.
There’s a lot of information about us online and in other records. Although we might not want this to be available to others, background checks are increasingly common in the workplace, and financial background checks have existed for decades.
Here’s everything you need to know about what comes up on a background check.
What Is a Background Check?
A background check is the process of investigating someone’s history from public records to verify their identity, and often their character and past activities. It’s mostly used by employers, landlords, credit providers, businesses, private investigators, but also the public. People often search for old friends or check someone in the neighborhood by using these records.
Thanks to the digital age, an online background check service and public records databases can easily be found for free and via premium sites like Intelius or Checkr. However, employers and institutions use professional services that are often regulated and much more accurate than your average people search or background check websites open to the public.
Here’s what I found about what goes into a background check.
What Does a Background Check Consist of?
If you’re wondering what shows up on a background check, it depends on who is doing the check and for what purpose. In general, we’re talking about identification data, education, and employment history, criminal records, and financial information.
There is no standardized process, but available information can include:
- Name, addresses, and phone numbers
- Age, date of birth, and relatives
- Education and employment history
- Credit reports
- Criminal records
- Public arrest records
- Court records and civil lawsuit records
- Sex offender registries
- Marriage and divorce certificates
- Birth and death records
- Property ownership
- Voter registration
- Firearms ownership
Today, background checks also include social media profiles, personal websites, dark web monitoring, and the subject’s broader digital footprint.
AI and machine learning is making this process easier for employers but also raises personal privacy concerns and fears that automatic screening is not as effective as it could be.
Levels of Background Checks
Generally, employers categorize background checks into three main levels:
Basic Background Check (Level 1) – As well as identity, a basic check includes an individual’s criminal history, focusing on convictions and sometimes arrests. It may also include a check of the sex offender registry. It is common for employment screenings and tenant screenings.
Standard Background Check (Level 2) – In addition, a standard background check looks at employment history, education credentials, credit history, and reference checks. This is often used for more sensitive positions or individuals handling financial transactions.
Comprehensive Background Check (Level 3) –Further, this may check for professional licenses, civil court records, social media, and a more in-depth examination of an individual’s financial history. This level is common for positions of high trust and responsibility, such as executive roles, security clearances, or positions working with vulnerable populations.
Let’s take a closer look at the type of background checks that may be carried out.
Different Types of Background Checks
Background checks fall into different categories, though many will contain overlapping information from the list above. Different types of background checks include:
- Employment Background Check – When hiring new employees to verify identity, qualifications, past employment, and resume accuracy.
- Tenant Background Check – When considering renting to a tenant, this verifies identity, previous addresses, rental history, and income and employment status.
- Financial Background Check – By banks, credit card companies, and other lenders to assess creditworthiness.
- Professional Background Check – To ensure professionals have the required certificates and accreditations for a role.
- Personal Background Check – When trying to find someone or verify someone. Personal background check companies are also used ‘character assessment’ by employers.
- Pre-Marital Background checks – So both parties are aware of potential problems prior to a marriage.
- Crime Check – To find past convictions, arrests, and pending charges.
- Security Clearance – A vetting process designed to assess an individual’s eligibility to access classified information or sensitive assets related to their job.
- Law Enforcement Checks – Depending on the agency and rank of law enforcement, this includes things like outstanding warrants, traffic records, criminal records, gang affiliations, etc.
- 501c3 Background Check – A 501c3 is a non-profit organization. This type of check is assessing the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the group, its donors, volunteers, and board members. It’s used to determine legal status for tax purposes, misuse of non-profit funds, and regulation compliance.
- Hospital Background Check – Hospitals might perform limited background checks on patients before certain medical procedures, particularly if concerns exist about patient safety or potential risks. I.e., mental health and substance abuse evaluations.
- Business Background Check – Investigating a company’s history, financial stability, legal status, and reputation.
How Far Does a Background Check Go?
Background checks go as far as public information allows. This varies from person to person, the service being used, and the cost. Legislation is also a factor. In some states, you can check up to 7 years back, while others allow up to 10 years.
Furthermore, different states have varying regulations affecting the amount and type of information accessible in a formal background check. It can also depend on who and in what capacity the check is being made.
For example, a lender can perform a credit verification but typically cannot perform other checks in a formal capacity. Likewise, a landlord can perform credit checks, but the information available to them is not as detailed as what a bank or lender can access.
How far back do background checks go?
In California, the Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act (ICRAA) limits what employers can find on background checks based on the time frame. For a criminal background check, only criminal records within the past 7 years (with some exceptions) can be reported. This, effectively, creates a 7-year rule for employment-related background checks in the state.
This rule doesn’t apply to all types of background checks or situations (e.g., pre-employment checks for certain professions).
Other types of information like bankruptcies, court rulings, or civil litigation history are not subject to the same time limit. Likewise, any employer is free to run a standard person search and check the web, or social media for public information.
State laws regarding background checks
Like the California 7-year background check rule, other states have different legislation.
Some examples include:
Massachusetts – Prohibits employers from considering any criminal convictions that have been sealed or expunged from the applicant’s record.
Maryland – Restricts employers from asking about an applicant’s juvenile criminal record, with some exceptions for certain types of jobs, such as those involving childcare or working with vulnerable adults.
Illinois – Prohibits employers from considering arrests that did not result in a conviction.
New York – Restricts employers from using credit reports in making hiring decisions for most jobs.
How far back do employee background checks go?
Most employers focus on the past five years for employment history, as it often provides sufficient insight into recent career experiences and performance. In some cases, the policy may increase the check further to 7-10 years, depending on state law.
Certain industries or high-security positions might require more extensive checks reaching further back, depending on legal requirements and risk assessments.
So, what does a background check show? It can consist of a lot. However, it’s always context-based. A lender doesn’t care about your entire career history or social media posts. An employer doesn’t care about your divorce. A landlord should not formally check anything beyond your means to pay rent and that you are who you say you are.
Whatever background check is carried out, you have the right to know what was used, and found, and to correct inaccurate information. Sometimes being the victim of identity theft can ruin the accuracy of an employee background check and other checks.
I researched the answers to some of your most commonly asked questions about what is included in a background check.
What can be revealed in a background check?
Basic background checks may reveal and verify your basic personal details (name, age, address lookup etc), employment history, credit score, professional qualifications, and any criminal background.
A lot of background information can be revealed in a background check, especially if multiple services and sites are used. A casual internet search or a service like CheckPeople can reveal a person’s entire digital footprint and public records.
Ultimately, it depends on the focus, but everything from a criminal record check to a credit check can be made.
How does a background check work?
A formal background check by the likes of an employer works, first, by obtaining consent. In most cases, a check cannot be made without your knowledge and will be part of the application process.
Then, internal staff or a third-party service will be instructed to perform the check based on the given criteria and within the scope of the law.
The gathered information is compiled and analyzed, and a report is generated, summarizing the findings and highlighting relevant details.
The organization will then use the report as part of its decision-making process. You also have the right to review the report and dispute any inaccuracies.
How do you fail a background check?
Depending on who is running the background check, failing depends on their criteria. Some common ways to fail include:
- Providing information that doesn’t match the background check, such as lies or inaccuracies about past jobs, home address, etc. You should always fill out an employment application as accurately as possible.
- Having a poor credit score in a financial background check.
- Having a criminal record, arrest records, pending charges, or being on the sex offender registry when applying for jobs. The latter certainly applies if the job involves contact with children.
- Not having the correct professional qualifications or accreditations for a professional role, so a recruiter doesn’t fall into the trap of negligent hiring.
Will a background check show all my jobs?
For recruitment, a standard background check by an employer will show most of your past jobs, although that depends on the type of work and how it was documented.
What is an employment background check?
This type of check is often to confirm your resume and will cover:
Job titles, companies worked for, and employment dates listed on your resume. It’s unlikely to delve into every single job you’ve ever had, especially if they were short-term or unimportant to your current career path.
Some jobs in regulated industries or high-level positions might involve more comprehensive checks using specialized background check companies. These could uncover more job history, but still might not reach back to every single role.
Does a background check include a credit check?
A background check can include a credit check from a credit reporting company, depending on the type of check being carried out.
An employer background check usually won’t include a credit check unless you are applying for a financial or security-sensitive industry. This info is used to assess financial stability, trustworthiness, and potential risk for theft or fraud.
A form of credit check will almost always be used when applying for credit and is increasingly common when applying for a rental property.
What does a police background check consist of?
A police background check consists of an individual’s criminal history and current legal status. This typically includes:
- Records of arrests and convictions, including both misdemeanor and felony offenses.
- Outstanding arrest warrants.
- Details from court proceedings, including convictions, sentences, and probation or parole status.
- Sex offender registry status.
- Traffic violations, DUI offenses, and license status.
- Fingerprint analysis to verify identity and check for matches in criminal databases.
- Checks against national and sometimes international crime databases.
The specific components of a police background check may vary by jurisdiction and the context of your interaction with law enforcement. A routine traffic stop will be much less detailed than if you have been stopped under suspicion of a crime or evading warrants.