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A background check or background investigation is the process of looking up and compiling criminal records, commercial records and financial records (in certain instances such as employment screening) of an individual.

Background checks are often requested by employers on job candidates, especially on candidates seeking a position that requires high security or a position of trust, such as in a school, hospital, financial institution, airport, and government. These checks are traditionally administered by a government agency for a nominal fee, but can also be administered by private companies. Results of a background check typically include past employment verification, credit score, and criminal history.

These checks are often used by employers as a means of objectively evaluating a job candidate's qualifications, character, fitness, and to identify potential hiring risks. However, these checks may sometimes be used for illegal purposes, such as unlawful discrimination (or employment discrimination), identity theft, and violation of privacy.

Pre-employment screening

Pre-employment screening refers to the process of investigating the backgrounds of potential employees and is commonly used to verify the accuracy of an applicant's claims as well as to discover any possible criminal history, workers compensation claims, or employer sanctions.

Screening applications in the UK

A number of annual reports, including BDO Stoy Hayward's Fraudtrack 4 and CIFAS's (the UK's fraud prevention service) 'The Enemy Within' have showed a rising level of major discrepancies and embellishments on CVs over previous years. Such business fraud cost United Kingdom businesses $1.4 billion in 2005..

Almost half (48%) of organizations with fewer than 100 staff experienced problems with vetted employees.

Thirty-nine percent of UK organizations have experienced a situation where their vetting procedures have allowed an employee to be hired who was later found to have lied or misrepresented themselves in their application.

Since the onset of the Financial crisis of 2007–2009, the level of fraud has almost doubled and some experts have predicted that it will escalate further. Annual research by Powerchex has also shown that the number of applicants lying on their applications has been increasing steadily since the summer of 2007 when the financial crisis of 2007–2009 began. As of August 2009, nearly one in 5 applicants have major lie or discrepancy on their application.

The market

Larger companies are more likely to outsource than their smaller counterparts – the average staff size of the companies who outsource is 3,313 compared to 2,162 for those who carry out in-house checks.

Financial services firms had the highest proportion of respondents who outsource the service, with over a quarter (26%) doing so, compared to an overall average of 16% who outsource vetting to a third party provider.

The construction and property industry showed the lowest level of outsourcing, with 89% of such firms in the sample carrying out checks in-house, making the overall average 16%. This can increase over the years.

Types of checks

  • Employment References
  • Education Verification - School grades, degree and any professional qualifications obtained
  • Character Reference Check
  • Gaps in employment history
  • Identity and Address Verification - whether the applicant is who he or she claims to be. Generally includes verification of the candidate’s present and previous addresses. Can include a money laundering, identity and terrorist check and one to verify the validity of passports.
  • Whether an applicant holds a directorship
  • Credit History - bankruptcies
  • Criminal History Report


The Financial Services Authority states in their Training & Competence guidance that regulated firms should have:

  • Adequacy of procedures for taking into account knowledge and skills of potential recruits for the role
  • Adequacy of procedures for obtaining sufficient information about previous activities and training
  • Adequacy of procedures for ensuring that individuals have passed appropriate exams or have appropriate exemptions
  • Adequacy of procedures for assessing competence of individuals for sales roles

The Financial Services Authority’s statutory objectives:

  1. Protecting consumers
  2. Maintaining market confidence
  3. Promoting public awareness
  4. Reducing financial crime

The FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) is the most important regulation governing background screening. You can view this at the home page by clicking on the link for the white paper that says "State FCRA rulings."

Pre-employment screening in the U.S.


Due to the sensitivity of the information contained in consumer reports and certain records, there are a variety of important laws regulating the dissemination and legal use of this information. Most notably, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) regulates the use of consumer reports (which it defines as information collected and reported by third party agencies) as it pertains to adverse decisions, notification to the consumer or applicant, and destruction and safekeeping of records.

If a consumer report is used as a factor in an adverse hiring decision, the consumer must be presented with a “pre-adverse action disclosure,” a copy of the FCRA summary of rights, and a “notification of adverse action letter.” Consumers are entitled to know the source of any information used against them including a credit reporting company. Consumers must also consent in order for the employer to obtain a credit report.

Types of checks

There are a variety of types of investigative searches that can be used by potential employers. Many commercial sites will offer specific searches to employers for a fee. Services like these will actually perform the checks, supply the company with adverse action letters, and ensure compliance throughout the process. It is important to be selective about which pre-employment screening agency you use. A legitimate company will be happy to explain the process to you.

Many employers choose to search the most common records such as criminal records, driving records, and education verification. Other searches such as sex offender registry, credential verification, skills assessment, reference checks, credit reports and Patriot Act searches are becoming increasingly common since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Employers should consider the position in question when determining which types of searches to include, and should always use the same searches for every applicant being considered for one position.


They are frequently conducted to confirm information found on an employment application or résumé/curriculum vitae. One study showed that half of all reference checks done on prospective employees differed between what the job applicant provided and what the source reported. They may also be conducted as a way to further differentiate potential employees and pick the one the employer feels is best suited for the position. As workplace violence becomes more of an issue, employers are becoming more concerned about the people they hire. Employers have an obligation to make sure their work environment is safe for all employees.

In the United Statesmarker, the Brady Bill requires criminal checks for those wishing to purchase handguns from licensed firearms dealers. Restricted firearms (like machine guns), suppressors, explosives or large quantities of precursor chemicals, and concealed weapons permits also require criminal checks.

Checks are also required for those working in positions with special security concerns, such as trucking, ports of entry, and airline transportation. Other laws exist to prevent those who do not pass a criminal check from working in careers involving the elderly, disabled, or children.

Possible information included

The amount of information included on a background check depends to a large degree on the sensitivity of the reason for which it is conducted—e.g., somebody seeking employment at a minimum wage job would be subject to far fewer requirements than somebody applying to work for the FBImarker.

Criminal and incarceration records:There are several types of criminal record searches available to employers, some more accurate and up to date than others. Many websites offer the "instant" background check, which will search a compilation of databases containing public information for a fee. There are also other database-type criminal searches, such as statewide repositories and the national crime file. A commonly used criminal search by employers who outsource is the county criminal search.
Citizenship, immigration, or legal working status: The hiring of illegal workers has become an issue for American businesses since the forming of the Department of Homeland Security and its Immigrations and Customs Enforcement(ICE) division. Many history making immigration raids over the past two years have forced employers to consider including legal working status as part of their background screening process. All employers are required to keep government Form I-9 documents on all employees and some states mandate the use of the federal E-verify program to research the working status of Social Security numbers. With increased concern for right-to-work issues, many outsourcing companies are sprouting in the marketplace to help automate and store Form I-9 documentation. Some jobs are only available to citizens who are residents of that country due to security concerns.
Litigation records: Employers may want to identify potential employees who routinely file discrimination lawsuits. It has also been alleged that in the U.S., employers that do work for the government do not like to hire whistleblowers who have a history of filing qui tam suits.
Driving and vehicle records: Employers that routinely hire drivers or are in the transportation sector seek drivers with clean driving records—i.e., those without a history of accidents or traffic tickets. Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Transportation records are searched to determine a qualified driver.
Drug tests: Drug tests are used for a variety of reasons—corporate ethics, measuring potential employee performance, and keeping workers' compensation premiums down.
Education records: These are used primarily to see if the potential employee had graduated from high school (or a GED) or received an college degree, graduate degree, or some other accredited university degree. There are reports of SAT scores being requested by employers as well.
Employment records: These usually range from simple verbal confirmations of past employment and timeframe to deeper, such as discussions about performance, activities and accomplishments, and relations with others.
Financial information: Credit scores, liens, civil judgment, or bankruptcy may be included in the report.
Licensing records: A government authority that has some oversight over professional conduct of its licensees will also maintain records regarding the licensee, such as personal information, education, complaints, investigations, and disciplinary actions.
Medical, Mental, and Physiological evaluation and records: These records are generally not available to consumer reporting agencies, background screening firms, or any other investigators without documented, written consent of the applicant, consumer or employee.
Military records: Although not as common today as it was in the past fifty years, employers frequently requested the specifics of one's military discharge.
Social Security Number: (or equivalent outside the US). A fraudulent SSN may be indicative of identity theft, insufficient citizenship, or concealment of a "past life". Background screening firms usually perform a Social Security trace to determine where the applicant or employee has lived.
Travel records: Jobs that require a security clearance may require the applicant to disclose their past and future international travel plans.
Other interpersonal interviews: Employers may investigate past employment to verify position and salary information. More intensive checks can involve interviews with anybody that knew or previously knew the applicant—such as teachers, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and family members; however, extensive hearsay investigations in background checks can expose companies to lawsuits. Past employment and personal reference verifications are moving toward standardization with most companies in order to avoid expensive litigation.


Drug tests and credit checks for employment are highly controversial practices. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a project of the Utility Consumers' Action Network (UCAN): "While some people are not concerned about background investigations, others are uncomfortable with the idea of investigators poking around in their personal histories. In-depth checks could unearth information that is irrelevant, taken out of context, or just plain wrong. A further concern is that the report might include information that is illegal to use for hiring purposes or which comes from questionable sources."

In May 2002, allegedly improper post-hire checks conducted by Northwest Airlines were the subject of a civil lawsuit between Northwest and 10,000 of their mechanics.

In the case of an arrest that did not lead to a conviction, employment checks can continue including the arrest record for up to seven years, per § 605 of the Fair Credit Reporting Act:
Except as authorized under subsection (b) of this section, no consumer reporting agency may make any consumer report containing . . . Civil suits, civil judgments, and records of arrest that from date of entry, antedate the report by more than seven years or until the governing statute of limitations has expired, whichever is the longer period.
Subsection (b) provides for an exception if the report is in connection with "the employment of any individual at an annual salary which equals, or which may reasonably be expected to equal $75,000, or more"[79991].

Some proposals for decreasing potential harm to innocent applicants include:
  • Furnishing the applicant with a copy of the report before it is given to the employer, so that any inaccuracies can be addressed beforehand; and
  • Allowing only conviction (not arrest) records to be reported.

In New Zealandmarker, criminal checks have been affected by the Clean Slate Act 2004, which allows individuals to legally conceal "less serious" convictions from their records provided they had been conviction-free for at least seven years.

In Michiganmarker, the system of criminal checks has been criticized in a recent case where a shooting suspect was able to pass an FBI check to purchase a shotgun although he had failed the check for a state handgun permit. According to the spokesman of the local police department,
... you could have a clear criminal history but still have contacts with law enforcement that would not rise to the level of an arrest or conviction [that can be used] to deny a permit whether or not those involved arrests that might show up on a criminal history.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has criticized the federal policy, which denies constitutional rights based on a criminal check only if the subject has been accused of a crime.

Public records pay sites

Taking advantage of public records availability in the United States, a number of Web based companies began purchasing U.S. public records data and selling it online, primarily to assist the general public in locating people. Many of these sites advertise background research and provide employers and/or landlords with fee-based checks.

There has been a growing movement on the web to use advertising-based models to subsidize these checks. These companies display targeted ads next to the reports delivered to landlords or employers. Some of the reports provided by these pay sites are only expanded versions of a basic people search providing a 20 year history of addresses, phone numbers, marriages and divorces, businesses owned and property ownership. Usually, these sites will also provide a nationwide criminal report for an added charge.

See also


  1. BDO Fraudtrack 4 Report
  2. CIFAS - The Enemy Within
  3. Fraud Track 4 Report
  4. Fraud doubles yet expert says the worst is still to come
  5. Under-21s told 29% more lies on job applications this year than last]
  6. Annual pre-employment Screening Survey
  16. Kathy Barks Hoffman, Associated Press, 10:33 am EDT Apr 13, "Mich. shooting suspect was denied permit"

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