Understanding ‘Instant Criminal Background Checks’

Why you might not be getting the full picture.

When doing online research you might be tempted to use one of the many “Instant Criminal Background Search” products seen advertised on TV or in your google search results. Before you shell out your hard earned money for these sorts of reports, it’s important to understand how these services work and why you are not getting the full picture.

Do you know what you’re really getting?

Most instant criminal checks are considered non-FCRA compliant. The FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) among other things, protects an individual from false accusations or clerical errors in databases by allowing someone to dispute and correct inaccurate records. A common problem is database entrants with the same name. If your name is, say, Michael Richards from Wisconsin; your good name may be incorrectly tarred with a felony committed by another Michael Richards from Wisconsin and, without recourse, whoever searches for your name through an “Online Background Check” may get a misleading result.

An ‘Instant Criminal Background Search’ or ‘Online Background Check Service’ searches against a proprietary database of criminal, arrest, and warrant records. These databases are compiled using data gathered from the courthouses in each county. The problem is that not all of these counties publish their court records electronically! So how are those records supposed to be found? The short answer is, they’re not.

Another issue that comes into play is the frequency at which these databases are updated. Some are quarterly, weekly, monthly, some require a fee to be accessed (and so may be entirely missing or greatly outdated), therefore there can be large gaps in a person’s history within that state or county.

Even worse than that, some jurisdictions require consent from the subject of your search in order for the details to be released. This means that you may never see pertinent information, much less, know that there is any, if their crime was committed in one of these jurisdictions. You would to positively know that there had been a crime committed in that place to even know to ask!

This is not to say that instant criminal checks are worthless – they’re not! They’re excellent starting points. Just be aware that there’s a chance you’re not getting the full picture because they don’t have all the data.

It’s totally fine to use a service like this as a starting point, but it is always worth checking with your local sheriff’s office about a police background check if you’re concerned – just so you know the result you got was accurate. Remember, these instant criminal checks (unless stated otherwise) are non-FCRA compliant and can’t be used in credit, housing or employment decisions. Click here to read more about FCRA compliance!

In the end, a bad guy may get lucky if their crime was in a county that doesn’t make their court documents available online, so a good guy should always do their homework and know what they’re getting when they investigate someone’s background or criminal history.

The authors of the information presented on this page are not attorneys nor are they affiliated with attorneys. The information presented on this page does not constitute legal advice. Before acting on any of the information obtained from this page or any others on this website, please consult your own legal counsel.
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