Employers Discover Fast and Cheap Online Background Checks Using Criminal Databases Not Always Accurate or Legal

By Lester Rosen, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) President & Thomas Ahearn, ESR News Editor

According to an age old platitude, “If something looks too good to be true, it probably is,” so employers should be wary of fast and cheap online criminal background checks that promise accurate and legal information on job applicants at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen.

The need for accurate and reliable information should be obvious to anyone dealing with background checks. Even so, numerous internet sites have sprung up recently promising cheap, almost instant background checks that deliver criminal information to anyone, anywhere, and in seconds. These sites utilize a so-called “national criminal database” and vendors of such databases typically claim to have compiled millions of records from every state so users can know instantly if someone is a criminal at a very low price.

Although a multi-state records database can be a powerful tool when used by a qualified employment screening firm as part of an overall background check, employers who think they are getting a real criminal background check can be in for a rude awaking when they discover that such searches are far from the real thing. Applicants with criminal records can easily be missed, while people without records can be incorrectly identified as criminals. Both results carry negative financial and legal implications for employers.

Employers using these databases for employment purposes need to understand the limitations and legal exposure associated with using them or risk finding themselves embroiled in litigation. Employers are quickly discovering that fast and cheap online background checks using criminal databases not always accurate or legal.

This is Trend #3 in Employment Screening Resources (ESR) Fourth Annual ‘Top Ten Trends in Background Screening’ for 2011.

Here are just some of the issues with these databases:

  • Multi-jurisdictional databases are NOT official FBI database searches. FBI records are only available to certain employers or industries where Congress or a state has granted access. Searches offered by “fast and cheap” web sites are drawn from government data that is commercially available or has been made public.
  • So-called national criminal searches are a research tool only and are not a substitute for a hands-on criminal record search at the county level by researchers. The best use for these databases is to indicate additional places for a background check firm to search.
  • Many states have very limited database information available for employers. Examples of states where databases may have limited value are California, New York, and Texas.
  • Databases in each state are compiled from sources that may not be accurate or complete and can contain results that are “false positives” or “false negatives.” A person’s name in a database is not an indication that person is criminal any more than the absence of that person’s name shows the person is not a criminal.
  • Database searches can be inaccurate due to searches often being based upon matching last name, the date of birth, and the first three letters of the first name to eliminate computer matches that are not applicable. However, in some states, there is limited or no date of birth information or a person may have been arrested under a different first name.
  • There are also significant legal complications for employers since any search from an internet site for employment is subject to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) which highly regulates employment background checks. There are some “instant criminal check sites” that do not bother to make that clear or mention it only in the “fine print.”

Accurate background checks are important because inaccurate or “stale” (not current) information on background checks can disrupt the lives and careers of employees and job seekers alike and as the following examples from ESR News indicate:

In addition, in some cases “fast and cheap” can be a code word a background check scam. With so many people looking for work in the current economy and willing to do just about anything to land a decent job, background check scams were unfortunately a commonplace occurrence in 2010. Instances of falsified or outright fake background check investigations for employment purposes are on the rise, as indicated by these reports on ESR News:

With the unemployment rate just under 10 percent and approximately 15 million Americans unemployed, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) issued a warning to jobseekers about scammers taking advantage of the current weak economy by targeting unemployed people desperate to work, scams including false background checks and unnecessary credit report checks. The BBB has identified the following job scam “red flags” to help jobseekers to protect themselves while they search for a job:

  • The employer asks for money upfront for a background check or training: The BBB has heard about jobseekers that paid phony employers upfront fees for supposedly required background checks or training for jobs that didn’t exist.
  • The employer requires check of a credit report: The BBB warns that employers that ask job applicants to check their credit reports before they get work may be attempting to get the jobseekers to divulge sensitive financial information.
  • The employer offers the opportunity to become rich without leaving home: The BBB advises jobseekers to be use extreme caution when considering a work-at-home offer and always research the company with BBB at http://www.bbb.org.
  • The employer offers salary and benefits that seem too-good-to-be-true: The BBB uses an old adage – “If the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” – to demonstrate how phony employers lure unsuspecting job hunters into their scam.
  • The employer’s e-mails have many errors in grammar and spelling: The BBB warns that online fraud is often done by scammers outside the U.S. and English is not their first language, as evidenced by poor grammar and misspelling of common words.
  • The employer asks for personal information too quickly: The BBB warns that job applicants should never give out their Social Security Numbers or bank account information over the phone or by email until they confirm the job is legitimate.
  • The employer requires money wire transactions or dealing of goods: The BBB also warns jobseekers about cashing checks sent by companies and wiring a portion of the money to another entity or receiving and mailing suspicious goods.

The recent surge in scams involving background checks underscores the need for employers to make sure that they are dealing with legitimate screening firms when outsourcing background checks. At a bare minimum, the background check firm should belong to the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS). In addition, NAPBS has announced a Background Screening Agency Accreditation Program (BSAAP) that will also help employers locate professional and legitimate suppliers of background checks.

These stories are proof positive why employers cannot rely only on cheap and quick searches using Internet databases or search engines like Google check in place of “real” background checks from companies like Employment Screening Resources (ESR), which is accredited by the NAPBS Background Screening Credentialing Council (BSCC). ESR uses trained background check specialists that research criminal and civil court records, driving records, credit checks, social security number traces, employment references, educational verifications, and more.

Hiring (and firing) decisions made by employers must be based on timely and accurate background check information. Erroneous and out of date background check information exposes employers not only to bad hiring decisions but also to potential litigation from those people harmed by such data. In fact, the subject of database information accuracy gained national attention when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) came under fire for “flawed” information used in government background checks. As reported in ESR News:

For more information on databases searches, read ‘Criminal Databases & Pre-Employment Screening: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ by ESR founder and President Lester Rosen, which investigates all aspects of criminal database searches:

  • The Good: Criminal records database searches are valuable because they cover a much larger geographical area than traditional searches, which are run at the county level. Since there are more than 3,200 jurisdictions in America, not all courts can be checked on-site.
  • The Bad: Despite their value, criminal records databases have serious flaws, including incomplete records, name variations, and untimely information. Also keep in mind that database checks by private screening firms are NOT FBI records. 
  • The Ugly: Inaccuracy is only one pitfall of national criminal database searches. They also make employers vulnerable to a number of legal landmines, especially when it comes to confirming if the record is current and accurate and even belongs to the applicant. 

For more information about “real” background checks, background check scams, FBI criminal databases, and how employers can find the most accurate and current data about job candidates, visit the Employment Screening Resources (ESR) website at http://www.ESRcheck.com.

Employment Screening Resources (ESR) is releasing the ESR Fourth Annual ‘Top Ten Trends in Pre-Employment Background Screening’ for 2011 throughout December. This is the Third of the Top Ten Trends ESR will be tracking in 2011. To see an updated list of ESR’s ‘Top Ten Trends in Pre-Employment Background Screening’ for 2011, visit: http://www.esrcheck.com/Top-Ten-Trends-In-Background-Screening-2011.php.

Founded in 1996 in the San Francisco Bay area, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) is the company that wrote the book on background checks with ‘The Safe Hiring Manual’ by ESR founder and President Lester Rosen. Employment Screening Resources is accredited by The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS®) Background Screening Credentialing Council (BSCC) for proving compliance with the Background Screening Agency Accreditation Program (BSAAP). ESR was the third U.S. background check firm to be ‘Safe Harbor’ Certified for data privacy protection. To learn more about ESR’s Leadership, Resources, and Solutions, visit http://www.ESRcheck.com or contact Jared Callahan, ESR Director of Client Relations, at 415.898.0044 or jcallahan@ESRcheck.com.