Blogging background checking and security issues


Sharing Criminal Records

A company called Thinkstream has developed a way to allow polices officers to search for criminal records from multiple sources - state and municipal - from a laptop or hand-held computer in their squad cars. This is definitely a valuable tool for the police.

Dennis at Open Society Paradox commented that it won’t be long before this spreads to the state level. He’s right, and it’s actually happening now. There is a trend where county courts, and some municipal courts, are passing along all of the criminal record information in their files and databases to the state level. There it is compiled and made available to select agencies and employers to search. There are a number of states that offer such a search.

While this is generally a good thing – as is anything that makes background checking simpler – there is still a question of standards and information quality control. I’ll use Minnesota as an example. Their state criminal records database isn’t too bad, but the following issues should be noted:

- Each county has the option of updating the state’s database electronically, by fax or by mail. Electronic is obviously the best because it is fast and only one human is involved. Faxing is second best, but is a little slower and requires a second human to interpret the received fax. Mailing is the worst as there are two humans involved and because there is a time lag in which updated records at the court are not received and available to be entered by the state for at least 2 to 3 days.

- The state’s database is searchable by name and date of birth. A name or date of birth that is off by even one digit won’t be found. In most counties, however, near-matches that are a result of careless data entry can still be found.

- There are no universal standards as to what is reported. Minnesota only reports criminal records, while Kentucky, for example, reports criminal and traffic records.

- It is unknown what measures each state takes to ensure the accuracy of the information in its database. This will probably be the topic of a future entry, but quality standards like the ISO 900x standards exist for a reason.

It’s really nice to be able to search state records quickly and easily, but anyone who does this needs to do a little digging to understand the potential holes in the information being searched. Hopefully the police officers already know this, but having heard from a few I’m not confident.

Identity Theft - Real Solutions Needed

The LA Times reports that legislation is being proposed to address the increasingly common problem of identity theft. The law is aimed at California, where the article says that identity is more prevalent that in any other state, but I expect we’ll be seeing similar legislation proposed in other states soon.

It’s good to see that it’s being taken more seriously, but as long as a person’s identity is tied to numbers on paper there will still be problems. It will be a never-ending competition between those who steal identities and law enforcement seeking to prevent it from happening. A more foolproof system of identification based on biometrics will probably emerge eventually, but we’re looking at some serious $$ to put that in place.

In the meantime people, and specifically employers, have to learn how to deal properly with the impact of identity theft. Right now anyone who has been the victim of identity theft needs to contact the three major credit reporting bureaus, TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. They will put an alert on the individual’s report that requires anyone seeking to open credit with the individual’s information to first contact the individual directly for confirmation.

However, a problem with the current process is not the process itself, but the way an individual or employer reads the credit report. Some employers are extremely paranoid and anything that says *Alert* will make them want to disqualify an applicant for employment. So in addition to the hassle of dealing with correcting problems caused by a stolen identity, a person might also lose out on future job offers.

Solutions are needed. Like I said above, biometrics might be a good longer-term solution. In the shorter-term laws like the ones being proposed in California will no doubt help, though they’ll have to keep pace with current methods of identity theft. Recipients of credit reports also need to be educated about how to properly interpret the reports, and in the employment field this means checking with legal counsel before making any serious decisions. Turning a job applicant down because he or she was the victim of identity theft is a decision that probably won’t fare well in court.



As you can see, I just redesigned the site. It was a bit frustrating doing it through Blogger's interface and I actually entertained thoughts of paying for hosting and doing it all myself with Wordpress or Movable Type. Hopefully Blogger will catch up with the changes within the next few minutes.

People Change

An article posted in the Green Bay Press-Gazette told the story of a Green Bay School employee who was recently arrested for violent behavior and drug abuse. The school had done a background check on him and found convictions, but they were from the early 80’s and they decided they were far enough in the past that they shouldn’t be a problem.

Unfortunately they were wrong, but it raises the question of how much past behavior should be allowed to influence present decisions. The more recent laws that require sex offenders to register when they move are along the lines of a modern day scarlet letter. I don’t imagine Hawthorne would be very happy with us.

Most state prison systems are referred to as Departments of Corrections, but why can’t we, as a society, learn to forgive? Learn to really encourage and reward moral change? Is it a case of the few spoiling it for the many, or do those of us without criminal histories enjoy being able to look down on those who have made poorer choices? Forgiveness can be a tough road for the ones doing the forgiving. I once heard someone say (if you know who, please tell me) that you can tell a lot about a nation by the way it treats its criminals. What do our practices say about us?


Public Availability of Private Information

PACER, an online search for criminal records at the federal level is available to the public. For a small fee, anyone can do a criminal records search. The nice thing is that it’s searchable by district, which means that someone only has to know very generally where a person has lived in order to check for records. Records at the federal level are usually only the high level cases, but the greater area coverage and low price still makes it a nice supplement to a background check.

One of the biggest downsides is that the records can only be searched by name, an occurrence that is becoming more common even at the lower courts. This might not be a problem if the name being searched is pretty unique, but if someone has been cursed with a common name then look out. A search on a name like “John Thompson” will likely return criminal records in just about every federal district, and since only names are accessible to the public it can be pretty difficult to determine whether or not the records belong to the individual in question.

While it makes sense to curb identify theft by not providing a person’s name, date of birth and Social Security Number to the general public, in practice it’s a double-edged sword. Identity theft is limited, but it also means that an employer has to deal with how to use the information in deciding whether or not to make a job offer. There have been plenty of situations where a person wasn’t offered a job because of faulty information retrieved in a background check, and this newer practice doesn’t help things much.

Catch-22? I think so. However, I also think there are some potential solutions. Very basically, courts can take the information they have and just report the last four digits of the SSN. Some courts do this already and it seems like a no-brainer to me (except that PACER’s decision indicates otherwise). Moving forward, another solution would be to incorporate biometrics identification methods into the criminal justice system. There would have to be some cooperation on the part of the employment screening industry, employers and the criminal system, but I can see it being a viable option down the road. Fingerprints are obviously already being used, in some ways very efficiently, but they have yet to be used on a large scale in the public sector.

Whose Responsibility is Safety in Online Dating?

The debate, driven by, about whether or not legislation should be passed that requires online dating companies to disclose whether or not a background check was performed continues in Michigan. At issue here is the familiar debate over how much involvement the government really should take and how much responsibility, and therefore potential for danger, should be left in the hands of the individuals involved.

I was glad to read that not only would the proposed bill require companies offering online dating services be required to disclose whether or not a background check was done, but that it would also require those companies to state the limitations of background checks. It would be silly for someone to use the dating service thinking that she would be completely safe simply because there is a statement that says a background check was performed. For starters, how would the company verify that that the name of the individual is correct? The Social Security Administration, doesn’t allow potential employers to check a Social Security Number against a name until after a person has been hired, so I would be surprised if they allowed access to its information for mere dating purposes. I don’t see a way to guarantee that an individual listing with a dating service is who he says he is.

The second issue deals with the interpretation of the results. I very briefly addressed this earlier, and the problem here is that someone who looks at another person’s background check through the online dating service probably won’t know how to interpret the results. Most employers have an attorney that specializes in employment law who guides the company through the proper way to interpret and use the information retrieved from a background check. Who is going to help people using the dating service decide how to interpret the results? Will state laws that govern what records are and are not reportable in the employment industry carry over to the dating arena? Some states don’t allow records past 7 years to be reported, but I can see that kind of standard causing problems in the dating industry.

How will the online service decide what kind of background check will be done and who will do the background check? How will it be decided where to do a background check? Will prior addresses be verified and criminal checks done in those counties? How will someone dispute the results of his or her background check? How will damages from incorrect information be rectified? I suspect that if the entire online dating industry is forced to do background checks, or state that a background check wasn’t performed, most companies will opt to do a cheap, low-quality database search. This will give people using the service a very flawed sense of security and, I would think, have high potential for serious lawsuits.

If this legislation passes anywhere, these issues will have to be addressed. The issue is very problematic, and for an industry that is still struggling with standardization this debate promises to muddy the waters even more. People using dating services will need to be reminded that they still need to exercise caution when meeting someone else, even if a background check was done, and they’ll also need to realize that background checks aren’t perfect and that the information in a person’s background check doesn’t always define the person.


Arrogance in the Industry

I was once discussing the results of someone’s background check with a client and the client made a statement that was something to the effect of, "These people do things that we would never do." This client in particular made hiring decisions for a high-profile, international company, but I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed in either words or demeanor by a number of other people involved in doing background checks.

This attitude is sickening. We live and work with people who are very similar to us and somehow feel justified in looking down on people who haven’t had our so-called "advantages in life. We easily say (or think, if we aren’t bold enough to say it) that the person who was convicted for drug abuse or prostitution is nothing like us and that we are much "better people." Of course, we probably don’t bother to define what a "better person" really is. I personally think we equate "better" with someone who is willing to live by middle to upper class society’s accepted behaviors and conventions.

The truth is, we don’t really know what made that individual commit those crimes. We don’t know that she was born into a culture of drugs and that after making some bad decisions she’s now trying to break out of the pattern. Maybe she made fewer bad decisions than those around her and maybe she’s becoming a "better person" that we ourselves are in the truer, moral sense. We like to think we never would have done what "those people" do, but that’s not true at all. Every one of us is capable of any character flaw we see in another. As the saying goes, "It takes one to know one." Given the same circumstances, and perhaps having made the same small, bad decisions that weren’t necessarily illegal, we might be in the same position as that person we’re looking down upon.

Don’t misunderstand me. Background checking is important in today’s world and you have to have legally-defensible standards in place to help you make appropriate hiring decisions. What I’m saying is that it can be difficult to be the one who points the finger. Background checking can be very de-humanizing, and unless we’re hoping to live a lonely life, we need to be careful that we don’t think that an imperfect background check means that a person’s life has less value. As humans we’re often trying to set ourselves apart. However, we need to realize that nobody is perfect or exempt from some kind of temptation.


Background Check Before or After

Council members in Pennsylvania are mixed about whether to do the background check before or after offering an applicant the position of Borough Manager. It’s not a high tension article or circumstance, but it brings up an issue worth discussing.

This is a question that Human Resources and hiring managers have to answer with regards to background checks on new employees. Should the background check be done before hiring the prospective employee, forcing him or her to wait until it’s finished and hoping they don’t get another offer in the interim, or should the applicant be hired contingent upon a successful background check?

The route that I believe is clearly the safest, and therefore best, is to conduct the background check before the new employee’s first day at work. It would be difficult for a company to defend itself in court if a new employee did something violent on his first day of work when the individual’s violent background would have been uncovered had a background check been conducted before the company opened its doors to him. Additionally, it can be very awkward to tell a person that he is hired one day and fired the next as a result of what came back on his background check.

On the other hand, background checks can potentially take a long time depending on the type of checks being conducted. It can take several weeks to receive the results of a request for a criminal record check sent to the State of Indiana, and a great job applicant will quite possibly have other offers by that time. Another difficulty is that employers often don't want to ask for the applicant's date of birth until after an offer has been made in order to avoid possible legal tangles. One way around this is to have the applicant contact (or be contacted by) the company doing the background check. The applicant can give his date of birth directly to that company and employer doesn't need to know what it is.

What is a solution? Some companies decide to go halfway. They will put emphasis on key pieces of the background check that can usually be finished in two or three days, such as searching for criminal records in counties, and then make an offer that is contingent on the success of the remaining portion of the background check. This keeps people out who have a history of endangering others, leaves the door open for the employer to disqualify applicants for employment if other negative information is found, such as falsifying previous employment or education records, and lets the employer make a fairly quick offer. One thing that should definitely be avoided is delaying the start of the background check for over a week once the new employee has been hired. This can make for a very difficult situation for everyone involved - and I've seen it happen.

Like I said, it’s not a very exciting topic, but one that a lot of people in companies are faced with on a regular basis. Hope this helps.


Security In a Changing Nation

Adam Shostack brings attention to three different situations where government computer systems were accessed by hackers, and then concludes by stating that last year none of these incidents would have received much attention. Why? The reason is that we, as a nation, have become extremely security conscious in the past few years.

9/11 was the event that shocked us out of the notion that America is a place that is safe from the terror and unrest that we read about in other parts of the world. The bad things that happen to other people can happen to us, too. As a result, we’ve (not unexpectedly) made every effort to hem ourselves in and protect ourselves on every side. We’ve demanded that the government take steps to protect ourselves from foreign enemies, and political bias aside, I suspect that this desire for security is one of the primary reasons President Bush was elected for a second term.

But we’ve gone a step further. Where before we were primarily concerned with threats outside the United States, we’ve now come to suspect our own neighbors. True, there has always been difference of opinion among ourselves, but never has there been such an emphasis on personal security. We want to do background checks on our teachers, coaches, employees, caregivers, significant others (read up on the background check issue) and so on. Where will it stop?

The current state of information technology exacerbates the security problem as technological progress outpaces the necessary responsibility that would be imposed by ethical guidelines. People have always had the capacity for greed and lawbreaking, and today’s technology simply provides more opportunity for more people to do so.

Then comes along the ChoicePoint fiasco. The computer systems of one of the nation’s largest data brokers is compromised and we’re sent into a second panic. We see that our confidential information is not safe and secure, and we don’t even know who has it or who has access to it. I have no doubt that a number of the individuals affected by this had no idea that their personal information could be sold for legal purposes, much less illegal ones. Now any security breach that results in personal information being stolen or misused catches our attention and reinforces our fear that someone can and will take advantage of us. It’s a very disconcerting thought that someone could steal my identify and that their abuse of what is mine could drastically affect my life and future. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen to people a number of times.

So where does this leave us? There are a number of good thinkers out there who probably have some good solutions to propose. However, my initial thoughts are that we need either just and ethical information control or greater transparency in society. Both views have their strength and weaknesses, but those are different discussions. Our country is a different place than it was four years ago, and I’m not sure where, or if this seemingly reckless security craze will end. It's great for background checking companies, but I suspect that personal freedom is in some danger.


Data Brokers and Legislation

Having just read the back-and-forth discussion between Ryan Singel and Dennis Bailey about the ChoicePoint mess and how legislation should affect data brokers, I think a distinction needs to be made. There are data brokers that sell their databases to third-party employment screening companies, and data brokers who sell their information directly to the companies making the hiring decisions.

In my opinion, the broker that ought to be regulated is the one who provides the information directly to the hiring company. Information that is not obtained, evaluated and reported using strict reporting standards is information that unfairly costs people their jobs and reputations.

Following this, the broker that provides information to a third-party company should not be regulated because the third-party company will be held responsible for its use of the data. Although they contain inaccuracies and are almost never perfectly current, databases still are a valuable source of information. You might be surprised to hear me say this, but I will qualify that statement by saying that they are valuable because they provide leads to additional information that may exist on an individual. The third-party reporting the information needs to verify the information found in the database, but had the database, with all of its inaccuracies, not been available, then important information may never have been found at all.

As an example, an employer may only be aware that a job applicant has lived in a few select places. What the employer does not know is that the applicant committed a crime in a state or county in which he never lived. Due to prohibitive costs, traditional courthouse searches would only cover those counties in which he has lived and would not catch the out-of-state record. A database with a wide scope, however, would possible catch it. The employment screening company knows that the record and disposition of the case might not be accurate and up-to-date, so they send someone to the courthouse to verify the record. It would be found to be either reportable or non-reportable, depending on the most recent information in the courthouse, and the company would have all of the information necessary to make a good decision. The database search was valuable, but the information had to be verified first.

So, access to potentially inaccurate information that is then confirmed or disconfirmed is highly preferable to no information at all. The key is ensuring that the party reporting the final information to the employer complies with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and has strict policies in place to ensure that only verified, accurate information is reported. We want to live in a safe world, but not at the expense of freedom.

The Heart of the Database Problem - ChoicePoint Again

Wired News posted a story that summarizes the problems with the way ChoicePoint conducts its background checks. A number of individuals in the industry quote the unreliability of background checks based solely on database searches and that are not backed up by physical visits to courthouses. It states that just using database searches, no matter how often the records are updated, is not a substitute for an actual courthouse visit and that companies doing so cannot say that they are complying with the requirement in the Fair Credit Reporting Act that strict procedures must be maintained to ensure the reporting of highly accurate information.

It's good to see this discussion coming out into the open with the media. The industry really lacks standardization and accountability, so hopefully we'll see more of that as the public awareness level rises.


Don't Blame the Background Check

According to The Houston Star, more employers are making hiring decisions based on the individual’s credit score. A credit report is often a component of a background check, especially if the applicant will be working with finances and making financial decisions for the company.

The article is very biased in favor of “John,” someone who apparently isn’t able to get any kind of job as a result of his bad credit score. He says that he got behind on his bills and ultimately filed for bankruptcy because he had low-paying jobs to begin with, and now he can’t any more low paying jobs, much less better paying ones, because of what potential employers read on his credit report.

Does anything here strike you as being off just a bit?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t help people who are down and out, but let’s not blame the system for a person’s bad decisions. It’s possible to live on very little money if you make the right financial decisions, and if you’re a responsible worker and stick with it eventually you’ll make a little more. You probably won’t make a lot of money in the long run, but you’ll be able to survive.

Maybe John is one of a very small minority of people who had no control over the outcome of their lives, but I have to say I doubt it. There are organizations that exist to help people in his position, but he will still be required to work hard. There is hope for the future, but let’s not blame the system for holding people accountable for the poor decisions they’ve made in the past.


Who Am I, Anyway?

So I need to make a disclaimer. I am not a lawyer. I am not the owner of a company that does background checks. I simply work in the industry and have exposure to both companies who are hiring people and applicants whose backgrounds are being checked. Given this, I’ve seen that a lot of people have no idea about what some of the issues are surrounding the industry. What do I do? What any normal person would do - I blog about it.

Why am I saying this now? I recently posted a response to a journalist’s article on the ChoicePoint fiasco, not really wanting to get involved but wanting to let her know that she might want to check up on a few things to get more information for her story. She responded and wanted to talk, and foolishly I agreed to speak with her. Foolishly, you say? Yes, because without being a lawyer and without being able to represent a company I can’t really be counted as a quotable source. She understood this as we spoke, but it made me realize that I really need to be careful about what I communicate here and how I present myself. Maybe I need to say something about this at the top of my site.

The purpose of this site is to raise questions about the background checking/employment screening industry and let people know that there might be some issues they need to consider that they might not know about. A lot of what you see here is my personal reflection on what I see going on in the industry. Do not take what I write as unquestionable truth. Be smart and check with your legal counsel before making any important decisions. If something here catches your attention, do some research to verify what you need to know.

I’ll say it again, CHECK WITH YOUR OWN LEGAL COUNSEL before making any real decisions.


Merging Industries - Selection and Screening

There are two sides to hiring a new employee. One is to determine if the applicant is a good fit for the company and position, and the other is to determine if there is anything in the potential employee's background that would disqualify him or her from employment. There are all kinds of companies that offer background check services, and there are a number of companies that offer tests and screening services for potential employees. I don't, however, know of any companies that do both sides well. The key word here is well. Some employment screening companies offer some pretty basic services to determine new employee "fit," but they aren't very comprehensive or involved and don't carry many guarantees.

On the other hand, there are companies like DeCotiisErhard, Inc., whose employee selection system effectiveness is mentioned in this article, that develop employee selection tools geared toward measurably reducing turnover (and the high costs associate with high turnover) and increasing customer satisfaction. Doing this kind of development work requires a lot of expertise, and a background checking company would have to leave its core competency in order to do a good job covering that ground. So, why don't companies in these two industries form partnerships? An employer might be attracted by having a system working for them that almost guarantees them good employees in both phases of the new hire process, and each company's involvement ensures quality in both the selection process and the background check.

These industries are both developing, especially background checking, so there is still plenty of room for new ideas and new competitive advantages. Companies that offer background checks are more in demand these days than are companies that provide employee selection systems. I don't know how lucrative it would be for these kinds of companies to partner, but it seems like it would be worth exploring.


What Questions to Ask a Pre-Employment Screening or Background Checking Company

You know you need to do background checks on your new hires, but it can be a daunting task to sort through the seemingly endless number of companies out there that do background checks. Here are a few questions to ask to help you sort through them. No doubt there are many more questions that you could ask, but these should get you started.

How do you obtain your criminal record information?Do they send an actual person to search the courthouse records, or do they search a database? If they search a database, do they follow up all noted records before they report the results to you? It’s important that all criminal record information they report to you is as accurate and as up to date as possible, and this usually means directly searching county courthouse records. Also, be sure you’re comparing apples to apples when you compare the services provided by different companies. Companies often have different names for the same service, and the same names for different services. You have to ask about the sources of information if you want to be able to make a good comparative decision.

Do you check for criminal records at the county, state and Federal levels?
A decent background checking company will be able to search records at each of these levels.

How do you find out where someone has lived in the past?
Credit reporting companies like”>Acxiom, a division of”>TransUnion, provide this information based on credit histories. Non-credit reporting companies like National Background Data, also report this information. Be sure that the source reports previous addresses at least seven years back because some only go back three or four years.

How Quickly Are Criminal Search Results Returned?
If the company says they always return them within two days or less, or better yet, instantaneously, look out! They’re probably doing a database search and aren’t following up to verify any records they found, which means they may not be complying with the Fair Credit Reporting Act. If this is the case, then you could have problems using the information they provide to make employment decisions.

How do you ensure that the criminal information you provide is free from error and typos?
There should be a process in place in which all information that is reported to the client is double-checked for accuracy. Any time a human is involved there will be errors, and a good company takes this into account and builds their reporting system in such a way that data-entry errors are minimized or eliminated. There isn’t really an excuse for providing inaccurate information to a client, especially when it impacts someone’s job.

What procedure do you have in place to deal with incorrect information you report?
This is an unavoidable problem in the background checking industry. Even if the company reported exactly what was provided to them by the court or any other source, there will still be errors. Court records are far from perfect, which means there needs to be a solution on the back end of things to regulate how inaccuracies are dealt with. If inaccurate information is found to have been reported, the company should have a procedure in place for re-checking the information and, if at all possible, that prevents the same error from occurring again. They obviously can’t guarantee that all court records will be perfect in the future, but if the problem is that the researcher didn’t pull the records correctly then there needs to be a policy in place to address that.

In additional to a consumer report, do you also do investigative reporting?
A typical consumer report as defined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act attempts to locate records that already exist on an individual. An investigative consumer report, however, involves speaking with people to learn more about the personal characteristics of the person you are investigating. This includes things like speaking with personal references or references from previous employers. The legal language is clearer and more exact, but this is the general gist of it.

How many calls a day do you make to complete a verification of employment?
The company should call at least once a day and, in the case that calls are not returned, should clearly communicate at what point the verification request is closed.

What level of customer service do you provide?
This is very important, especially when you have to meet deadlines or request additional information on something that the company reports. A good company will be able to rush requests when necessary, but be careful not to cry “wolf” too many times or you won’t be taken seriously and may actually receive poorer customer service. If you don’t catch someone on the phone when you call, you should generally expect to receive a return phone call or email within an hour or two.

Picking the right company to do your background checks is important. You want the most accurate results and you want to be covered legally. A lot of companies make great claims about the information they provide, but it can just be a smokescreen. You need to be smart enough to dig a little deeper and be sure you’re comparing apples to apples when companies are telling you about the services they provide. I hope this is helpful. As always, email me (use the link at the bottom of the page) if you have any questions or would like to see an additional post on the subject.


Free Background Checks

Criminal records are publicly accessible, but that doesn’t mean you can do a free background check. For starters, you’re going to have to know where the person has lived in the past. If you’re trying to check your own criminal history this isn’t a problem, but if you’re checking on a new neighbor, a babysitter, etc., then you probably don’t have easy access to this information. You’ll have to have the cooperation of the person if you want to dig up the dirt on them.

So let’s say you know where this person has lived. Public records in county and municipal courthouses are accessible to the public, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to get to. If the person has lived in another state, you’ll probably have to go to that state and the county in which they lived in order to search the court records. The travel costs will probably be far higher than it would cost to hire a company or private investigator to do the records search.

Companies that provide quick and easy background checks do so by either purchasing or compiling themselves criminal records from courthouses across the country. Yes, there are people who go into a courthouse, type in the letter “A” and start writing away. Talk about a recipe for insanity. They then sell access to this database of criminal records for a fee. However, companies won’t give you access to this information unless you are doing the search for a legitimate reason, related, for example, to employment or a rental application. Do look for secrets in your boyfriend’s past your best bet is to hire a private investigator.

So what do you do if you don’t have money to hire anyone? Well, you’re reading an article on how to do a free background check so this is probably your situation. Here are the steps:

1. Find out where your person has lived, at least in recent years.

2. Say they lived in Cincinnati, OH. Go to Googleand search for “Hamilton County OH Clerk of Courts” to locate the Hamilton County (where Cincinnati is located) Courthouse. This happens to one of relatively few county courts that post their criminal records on their website. It’s a database and as such is updated periodically and is only as accurate as the person data-entering the information, but it’s far better than nothing. If they lived in another county, check to see if that county’s courthouse has a website with records online. If the county does post records online, you’ll probably be able to search for criminal records, civil records and the database of registered sexual offenders in the area.

3. If there are no records available online, try calling the county courthouse directly. Tell the person who answers that you’re trying to see if there are any criminal records on file for someone, and if you’re fortunate the clerk will search while you’re on the phone. It helps if you tell the clerk that you have a good reason for doing the search (for example, you’re thinking about hiring this person to watch your children but you suspect he has a criminal history).

4. If no records can be released over the phone and there is no online access, both of which are often the case, your only recourse is to hoof it over to the courthouse yourself and search the records manually. This is how most courthouses still operate, and is the method that returns the most accurate results. If you’re an employer hiring a company to do a background check for you, this is what you want them to be doing.

So, you can do a low cost or free background check locally if you’re willing to do a little legwork, but for a thorough, comprehensive background check your best option is to hire a reputable company or private investigator. As is usually the case, you get what you pay for.


How To Do a Background Check

The first thing to determine is your reason for doing a background check. Are you just trying to cover your behind legally in case one of your employees goes and does something crazy, or is it a serious component of your new-hire application process that is used to weed out sub-par applicants?

Most companies probably say that they do them for both reasons, but the truth comes out when the decision starts to affect the checkbook. A barebones background check costs much less than a thorough, investigative background check.

A basic background check probably just includes some kind of search for criminal records. If you’re really cheap you can just do some kind of database search, but I wouldn’t count on that to save you in a heated legal battle. A simple but decent criminal record search would use some kind of locator service to find out where a person has lived in the past and would then check with the individual county courts in each of those counties.

If you want to be more thorough (i.e., spend more money) with your background check, you can add several components to the do the criminal record search mentioned above. You can add counties to a county criminal record search, as well as different jurisdictions. Many states have a collection of the more serious offenses from the entire state, and there are records searches available for federal criminal records, by district, as well. There are all kinds of criminal records searches available, but these are the basics.

In addition to criminal record searches, you probably want to verify information that your applicant has provided to you. This means verifying things like education and degrees received, previous employment and even things like licenses or certifications. On top of this, you could also speak with personal references and employment references. However, be warned that many employers have a policy that prohibits the release of anything beyond dates of employment and title.

So now that you have the information, what do you do? If you’re going to hire the person, just stuff it away in the personnel file. However, if you saw something on the consumer report (yes, it’s called a consumer report even though it doesn’t have anything to do with reviewing a consumer product) that turns you off and you decide not to hire this person, be sure you follow the adverse action guidelines in the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Not doing this could result in serious legal consequences.

Happy hiring!


Park Volunteers Refuse Background Check

A new requirement for Chicago park volunteers makes a background check and refusing to talk to the media mandatory for anyone who wants to volunteer their time to spread mulch and trim branches. Gary Wisby and Andrew Herrmann, Staff Reporters for the Chicago Sun Times, report the story in this article. The media ban would be removed as long as volunteers don't try to represent the Park District, but the background checks requirement will stay for any volunteers who will come into contact with children.

I will say one thing: read 1984.

How far is too far? Nobody will argue against the importance of protecting our children from phyiscal danger. However, where is the line? Are we as a society going to get to the point where no one who has been convicted of any form of violent criminal activity can set foot on public property? I can understand doing a background check on employees, but I think that doing a background check on a volunteer who is working in a public park is going a little too far. As much as we want to deny it, we aren't going to make the world completely safe. As long as there are people in it, there will be danger because every one of us is very capable of hurting other. In fact, I would say that just about everyone in the world has hurt someone else one way or another, even if it wasn't criminally. If we try to remove all of the danger, we also remove freedom and access to the things that make life worth living. Again, read 1984.

Finally, I wonder where the voices of these people are when it comes to and on television? We want to keep violent and ual offenders away from us and our families, but we'll let our children take this stuff in every day on television. Don't we realize that we are influenced by what we take in? We need to wake up and treat the root of the problem and not just the symptoms.


Merging Industries - Selection and Screening

There are two sides to hiring a new employee. One is to determine if the applicant is a good fit for the company and position, and the other is to determine if there is anything in the potential employee’s background that would disqualify him or her from employment. There are all kinds of companies that offer background check services, and there are a number of companies that offer tests and screening services for potential employees. I don’t, however, know of any companies that do both sides well. The key word here is well. Some employment screening companies offer some pretty basic services to determine new employee “fit,” but they aren’t very comprehensive or involved and don’t carry many guarantees.

On the other hand, there are companies like DecotiisErhard, Inc., that develop employee selection tools geared toward measurably reducing turnover (and the high costs associate with high turnover) and increasing customer satisfaction. Doing this kind of development work requires a lot of expertise, and a background checking company would have to leave its core competency in order to do a good job covering that ground. So, why don’t companies in these two industries form partnerships? An employer might be attracted by having a system working for them that almost guarantees them good employees in both phases of the new hire process, and each company’s involvement ensures quality in both the selection process and the background check.

These industries are both developing, especially background checking, so there is still plenty of room for new ideas and new competitive advantages. Companies that offer background checks are more in demand these days than are companies that provide employee selection systems. I don’t know how lucrative it would be for these kinds of companies to partner, but it seems like it would be worth exploring.


Drug Testing on the Decline

Do you drug test? The Arizona Republic recently published an article that states that drug testing was done in 2004 by only 62% of employers as a background check component, versus a high of 81% in 1996. Reasons cited are the costs associated with drug testing as well as problems dealing with the legal ramifications of positive drug tests. The article also talks about the rise of drug testing popularity in the 1990’s. I would be curious to see the actual results of the study in order to find out which industries are doing less drug testing and which haven’t changed much. If I had to guess, I would say that a lot of blue collar employers still do drug testing and that the white collar employers are the ones tapering off. It’s a no-brainer that if you have an employee operating heavy machinery around other people and product then you don’t want him to come to work stoned. However, if the employee is an accountant or stockbroker, working under the influence isn’t as much a safety hazard. He might make some mistakes with figures that cost the company some money, but being a little clumsy and mentally slow probably won’t put anyone in great physical danger. Don’t quote me on this.

It sounds to me like drug testing is like a lot of fads. It was a great idea, and many employers jumped on the bandwagon in order to look good in the public eye. But when the economy changed and there was less money around for extras, drug testing started being looked at with a more critical eye. There will probably always be employers who do some form of drug testing due to the nature of their industries, but now that the craze is over employers in industries where its value is somewhat questionable might decide to spend their money elsewhere. A background check might be good enough without it.


Convicted Criminals Get a Second Chance

An article recently published notes that in 15 states, non-violent felony or misdemeanor convictions can be expunged by the report. They'll still be available to government agencies and select public institutions, but for more employers they won't be seen. The criminal has to be on good behavior for a period of time, sometimes for as little as three years, and can then apply to have the record expunged. This presents a challenge to employers in those states. Someone could be hire who is believed to have a clear criminal record, but is in actuality someone who has fairly recently been in jail for embezzlement or some other non-violent crime. Sure, they might not physically attack anyone in the company, but what about theft of company property or funds?

This brings up what I think is an interesting issue: Is there a place for a second chance? I imagine the procedure mentioned above has at its heart the idea that people ought to be given room to change. People do change - I've heard many stories. However, the article mentioned above states that the nationwide number of people who get out of prison and return within three years is about 50%. No doubt the number is higher when the number of years considered is more than three. But even so, in my opinion that's a lot of people who have changed and can probably handle becoming part of normal life again and working a decent job. I tend to think that unless there is a clear indication that an individual will soon commit another crime, he or she ought to be given a second chance at life. Maybe I'm soft, but I know that those of us who have never committed a crime have still done plenty of things wrong. As a society we are very good at dealing harshly with the faults of others, and dealing very lightly with our own.

Of course, there is the fact that companies have to consider the legal implications of potentially hiring someone with an expunged, non-violent criminal record. There are two sides, one of which says that the company can be held responsible, even if the record was expunged, and another that says that the company cannot be held responsible for something it didn't know about. The second view is obviously the most logical at face value, but in the event of a large corporate scandal involving an employee whose felony record has been expunged I wouldn't be confident saying that the company would emerge unscathed.


What Makes Up a Background Check?

What comes to mind when you hear the words “background check”? If you’re like many people, the word “background check” is something you’ve heard a lot recently but seldom heard defined. Some companies do very extensive background checks because they are very concerned about safety and security in their work environment, and others do minimal background checks in order to spend the least amount of money and still meet what they deem to be legally sufficient. So what makes up a background check? I can’t provide legal advice, and each company’s requirements are different, but here are some of the key components:

Criminal – This is what most people think of when they hear “background check,” and it’s certainly a piece that shouldn’t be left out. Criminal searches fall into three general categories: those ran by government agencies, public records searches done in courthouses and searches of databases that are compiled from both public and private sources. Government searches are only available to government agencies (duh) and a very select group of private and non-profit organizations – generally those that work with children or the elderly. Of the remaining two, the most accurate and up to date are criminal records searches performed by actually sending someone to the courthouse to search for records. The drawback is that you have to know where the person has lived, and you often won’t find criminal records that are located in counties in which the person has never resided. There are services available, many of them credit-based, which provide former addresses of residency. Database searches, on the other hand, usually cover a much wider territory. Their drawbacks are that the information contained in them often contains errors and isn’t up to date. A database search can give you a lot more territory coverage, but because of their weaknesses it is a good idea to follow up any noted criminal records with a trip to the appropriate courthouse.

I should also mention that a number of states offer criminal searches to private companies. If you live in one of these states and determine that the information the state provides is accurate, then it might be a good option. If you hire people that live in different states you might have a problem doing background checks consistently on all applicants since not all states offer this kind of check.

Driving Records – Employers who employ drivers usually want to check to make sure that their applicants have valid licenses and that their past driving records meets the company’s requirements.

Drug Testing – Some employers require drug testing before hiring an applicant, some require them after on-the-job accidents, some do random drug testing, and some do all three. The kind and frequency of drug testing is often determined by the industry the company is in and the standards or laws imposed on it.

Verify Social Security Number – You can’t actually confirm that a SSN matches a name through the Social Security Administration until after the applicant is hired (makes sense for SSN security, but not for hiring!), but you can check it to make sure it is a valid number and to find out when and where it was issued.

Verify Employment – Make sure that the person actually worked where they said they worked for a given amount of time, and did what they said they did. Sometimes you can get more information out of a company, especially if you supply a release form signed by the applicant, but the basics you can always get are dates and title. More and more companies are afraid of being sued these days.

Verify Licensure – Verify that an applicant has a license (RN, technical license, etc.).

Check References – Find out more information about the applicant’s personal characteristics. Note that you are calling references that the applicant supplied, so they’ll probably be biased. Make sure good questions are asked.

Verify Education – Find out if the applicant graduated from the school he said or she he graduated from, and that he received the degree(s) he or she says were received.

These are the basics of background checks. Almost every employment screening company offers these checks and most will also offer plenty of variations on these checks. It can get tricky because although they do many of the same things, employment screening companies call them by different names. Be smart.


Check Yourself

Employers are interested in doing background checks on new hires, but it is becoming increasingly popular for people to do background checks on themselves, either to find out what someone else might turn up or to "pre-qualify" for a job. Last year Choicepoint started offering a "Background Check in a Box" to small business owners at Sam's Club, discussed in this article, and Entersect recently one-upped them by offering job seekers the chance to do their own background check on

My concern is this: Considering how difficult it is for an employment screening company to get other companies to understand the ins and outs of doing background checks properly (which typically includes proving to them that database searches are not the best way to get accurate background information), how difficult is it going to be to communicate this to the average job seeker who doesn't have the benefit of a legal department to assist him or her. What will the response be when he or she conducts a background check via a database search, and then the potential employer conducts a background check by going to the courts and searching actual court records and finds something that disqualifies the individual from a job? There will no doubt be legal disclaimers that the job seeker agrees to before doing his or her own background check, but it seems to me that this new opportunity has the potential to negatively impact the overall perception of the employment screening industry. What we need now are more consistent standards that lead to higher quality information and consumer trust, not more variables without regulation. I see offering personal background checks as a big part of the future of employment screening, but I'm concerned that we've put the cart before the "standards" horse.


Choicepoint in the Global Spotlight

New Zealand's The National Business Review posted an article on the mess that Choicepoint is currently in. The article points out the fact that it was Choicepoint’s blunder, not the determination of a skilled hacker, that led to hundreds of thousands of individuals’ personal information being stolen. On top of this, Choicepoint is also slammed for additional lawsuits related to incorrect information that have been filed within the past several years.

Choicepoint is a giant in the employment screening industry, and there is no doubt that this incident will be a hard blow to the company. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that any aspiring company in this industry needs to develop and execute processes that are designed to both guarantee the reporting of high quality information and also to be proof of due diligence in its business practices should legal. Process, process, process. It’s a pain to be doing all the time, but these days, and especially in an industry as sensitive as employment screening, it’s corporate suicide not to do it. The legal proceedings haven’t been wrapped up yet for Choicepoint, but I expect that they won’t emerge unscarred.