What is in a Background Check?

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Posted by: David Garcia April 05, 2022

A background check consists of components based on the type of position a job candidate is applying for.  A background check typically consists of three components: criminal searches, verifications, and ad hoc services.   To design a background check, you should work with a background check company to select the components you need in order to ensure a comprehensive and compliant program.

Not all background checks are equal. 

While most background checks consist of those three types of components, within those components there are often dozens of variations that can impact the quality and compliance of your background checks.  You don’t want to design a background check that doesn’t meet your needs, puts your company at risk, or wastes valuable dollars.  We have worked with companies that are spending $50 on a background check they thought was very comprehensive, only to find out that it had large gaps and did not cover many U.S. jurisdictions (such as California).

This article will help you design a background check and work with a background check vendor to build a Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) compliant program.  We will provide you with a high-level checklist covering each type of component so you can identify the right program for your company.

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Background Screening Basics – Three Concepts To Build The Best Employment Screening Program      

There are three concepts to review prior to evaluating components.  These concepts are:

  • Reporting History
  • Residence History
  • Names & Aliases

Reporting history refers to how long a potentially adverse item can be reported on a background check.  The Fair Credit Reporting Act states that 7 years is the guideline for convictions and dismissals.  The Fair Credit Reporting Act does not allow for the reporting of charges or dismissed cases after 7 years.  Work with your outside attorney or background check company to determine what timeframe is best for you.  We recommend 7 years, given its compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Residence history refers to how many addresses a candidate has lived at over a period of time.  This information is used by a background screening company to identify the counties to search for criminal records information.  Most companies tend to choose either a current address or the last 7 years of residence history.  The last seven years of residence history is much more comprehensive, but it also costs more.

Names & Aliases refers to which names the background check company will search.  Variations in name are frequently the result of  marriage (e.g. searching a candidate’s maiden name and married name) or due to variations in first names (e.g. Daniel, Danny, Dan).  Background screening  providers typically offer a “given name” or “all names & aliases” search.  Searching all names and aliases is more comprehensive, but it also costs more..

Once you have decided on these three concepts, you can then start to evaluate components.

Background Screening Basics – Selecting Components For A Professional Background Check

There are three, basic types of components:

  • Criminal Searches
  • Verifications
  • Ad Hoc Services

This article briefly goes into each component type and the variations in each.

What’s in a Criminal Background Search?

Below is a list of the most frequent types of criminal background searches.

  • National Criminal File.   This is a database that compiles information from a variety of sources.  Sources include county criminal records, arrest records, financial sanctions, and incarceration records.  These databases can be a great source for finding records outside of a candidate’s residence history (e.g. that crazy weekend in Las Vegas).  The downside to these databases is that not all U.S. counties are online, and therefore, many counties’ information isn’t collected.  Additionally, different sources of information report in different time periods…so you may not have the latest information from a particular county.  Finally, identifiers (e.g. first/middle/last name) can also be challenging and you should always go to the county of record to validate any information uncovered.
  • Sex Offender Registry. The U.S. Department of Justice and all the states maintain sex offender registries.  This is critical information and most employers want this information in their reports.  The caution is you want to ensure your vendor is providing this information.  Some vendors include this information in their National Criminal File product and others break this information out and charge separately.  We started working with a large staffing agency who thought they were getting this information, and it turned out their previous provider did not have it built into their packages.  You don’t want to make this mistake.
  • Terrorist Watchlists.  Terrorist watchlist services typically consist of information from domestic and global sources.  Domestically, the U.S. government lists criminals on the run from the law, including the FBI’s Most Wanted and the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) No Fly List. Globally, records returned include cases such as a candidate being wanted by a foreign government for financing a terrorist group, international terrorist watch lists, including the INTERPOL Most Wanted list, and the European Union terrorism list.  Like the sex offender searches, some vendors include this in their national criminal file product while other don’t, you will want to double check.
  • County Criminal Records. County criminal searches check the courts based on where a candidate has lived (residence history).   These searches return infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies, such as DUIs, DWIs, assault, theft, and burglary.  County criminal records searches are considered the “gold standard’ in background checks and should be in every program.  We always recommend at least a 7 year residence history search with 7 years of reporting information.   Please note that some county courts charge extra fees to access their data or require third party court runners. Most vendors will pass those fees onto their clients.  You will want to check with your provider to ensure that they are not marking up those access fees.
  • Statewide Criminal Records. Statewide searches scan criminal records at the state level, in a state of the employer’s choice, and return records that have been passed along to state-level courthouses.These searches access sources such as the State Judicial Court System, State Police, State Department of Law Enforcement, or the Administrative Office of the Courts. Records returned include infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies, such as DUIs, DWIs, assault, theft, and burglary. Please note, not all states have databases and not all states have representation from all counties in those states.  For example, statewide searches are not available in the following states: Arizona, California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. You should always run county criminal searches based on the candidate’s residence as part of a criminal background check.
  • Federal Criminal Records.  Federal criminal records search across the 94 U.S. federal district courts for violations of federal criminal law, including infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies, such as tax evasion, fraud, embezzlement, identity theft, interstate trafficking, and kidnapping.  These searches can be across all districts or just those that pertain to the candidate’s residence history.  County and state level crimes do not return through this type of search, which is why you want to utilize a National Criminal File search and the County Criminal Records search in conjunction with a Federal Criminal search.  Some vendors will charge differently for all districts versus districts based on residence history (there is more work involved). We always recommend searching all districts to ensure a comprehensive check.
  • International Criminal Search.  International criminal records searches look for criminal records for candidates who are working in the U.S. but have an international background. Each of the 223 countries has its own application checklist detailing required information, forms and turnaround times.   Each country can require different additional form submissions, as well as extra forms of identification. These checks can take a long time to process (up to 10 days) and can cost over $100 each.  These checks can also be challenging in that you are relying on a candidate to disclose their residence history.

What’s in an Employment Verification?

There are generally four  types of verifications:

  • Employment
  • Education
  • Reference
  • Professional License

Below are details on each type of verification.

  • Employment.  Employment verifications validate a person’s current and/or prior employment.  This information typically includes dates of employment and job titles.  Verifying salary information continues to be prohibited by more and more jurisdictions.  Employers typically choose from one of the following options: current employer, last three employers, or last five years of employers.  Verifications are typically charged per verification.  Many employers will verify their employees’ employment through a third party service like Equifax’s The Work Number.  These will generate third party fees which background check vendors will pass on to you.  Smaller employers typically require a direct verification, which can take longer.
  • Education. Education verifications validate a person’s completion of a degree.  These are typically done at the “highest degree” obtained level and can include everything from high schools through graduate degree programs.  Many universities participate in the National Student Clearinghouse, which charges employers for access to information.  Background check vendors typically pass these fees on to employers.  You will want to make sure these fees are not being marked up by your vendor.  The most challenging verifications are for high schools, particularly during the summer.  You will want to work with a vendor who can go the extra mile on reviewing transcripts to help complete these verifications.
  • Professional License.  A Professional License Verification verifies any domestic professional license, including issue date, expiration date, credential title, and current status. Each Professional License Verification covers a single license claim.
  • Professional Reference.  Professional references help organizations gain an additional level of information on their applicant, beyond what is listed on their resume, that can provide greater insight on a person’s work ethic and abilities.  Questions asked include items such as:
    • What was the working relationship you had with this person?
    • What was the length of time you worked with them?
    • How would you describe their interpersonal skills?
    • What would you say motivated the individual most?
    • What would you say are their strongest attributes?
    • Would you rehire/recommend for rehire?
    • Is there anything you would like to add?

What’s an Ad Hoc Background Check Component?

After the above, there are a myriad of other components that can be used to design a background check.  These components are often position specific and can include:

  • Drug Testing.  Drug testing can be its own separate blog post (and it is, check it out hereThere are many ways employers can test candidates for illicit drug use.  These can include instant tests, urine, hair, and oral swabs.  Issues employers typically face in drug testing range from losing candidates who never take the test, clinics in challenging locations, evaluating a THC reading, and many more.
  • Healthcare Sanctions. Healthcare Sanctions scan a variety of data sources to determine if an individual or entity is barred from participating in any federally-funded healthcare programs, state aid programs, or appears on state abuse registries.  There are typically various levels based on how deep a search you want.  These searches are typically used for healthcare positions, and we recommend as deep a search as possible.
  • Employment Credit.  This search accesses a credit bureau’s data.  This will return credit information on a candidate, but not a credit score.  It will also not count as an inquiry for candidates.  These searches are typically used for executive positions and positions relating to money.
  • Motor Vehicle Records.  This search accesses a state’s department of motor vehicles and returns any traffic related information on a candidate.  This search may also incur state access fees.  This search is typically used when a candidate may be accessing a company vehicle.
  • Department of Transportation Related Searches. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), typically uses all of the above searches but in a more stringent search.  From DOT employment verifications to DOT drug testing and commercial driving records; this is a much more specialized type of background screening program.
  • Civil Records. Civil records can be searched  at both the federal and county level.  It will return smaller and larger claims, as well as other civil disputes, including foreclosures, liens, debt collections, and civil domestic violence.  These types of searches are typically used with executive positions.

Need help deciding what are the right components for your background screening program?

All of this is just a start when it comes to detailing the many types of background check components available today.  Have a question or need help designing your background screening program? Click below to work with one of our Scouts to help design the right program for your organization.



ScoutLogic is not a law firm.  You should always check with qualified counsel before you make any changes to your background check company.  If you need a qualified attorney, we would be happy to make a referral for you.

Topics: Background Check 101

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