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Just jump on the computer, punch in the applicant’s personal information and get a nice, neat report of any criminal records he or she may have. Sounds great, right? It would be, but it doesn’t work that way. Perpetuated by movies, television and other forms of media, there is a common misconception that this is how a criminal background check is done…it’s not.
First, it’s important to realize that there is no one, all-encompassing database that gives you this information; not even the FBI database. Relying solely on a national/multi-state criminal record database is extremely risky. Here’s why.
The Nationwide Criminal Database Myth
There are databases that tout “national” reach into criminal records, but it’s a bit of a misnomer. It is true that national databases include millions of records aggregated from various jurisdictions across the country, but only from those courts, law enforcement agencies and other government entities that sell that data and/or make it readily obtainable through public access. This means that millions more records are not included.
Additionally, the criminal records contained in these type of databases are merely a snapshot in time. Depending on them to be completely accurate and up-to-date is inadvisable. Why? Because records can frequently change for a number of reasons, such as the case was dismissed or expunged, the charge(s) was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, parole was violated and they were re-incarcerated, or a host of other common occurrences in the criminal justice system.
There is a false sense of security an employer can get when they think they are looking at the results of an all-inclusive nationwide check from these “national” criminal databases. And, while you can’t find every criminal record with one click of a button, there are employment background screening components that, used in combination, will give you a much clearer picture.
Here are four components (building blocks) you can utilize to get the most comprehensive criminal record background check on your applicants, so you are armed with complete, accurate and up-to-date information you need to make informed hiring decisions.
Block #1: Social Security Trace
A social security number (SSN) trace is the cornerstone of an employment criminal background check. It is essential in providing important information needed to conduct a thorough criminal record search as it reveals an applicant’s current and previous addresses so that you know where to search.
SSN traces also help identify any aka names/aliases the applicant may have used. The most common examples of this would be a maiden name or a name variation such as someone with the first name of James who goes by Jim. The more devious scenario would be someone who is deliberately trying to manipulate their identity for some reason. In either case, criminal records are first and foremost indexed and searched by name. Therefore, it is highly advisable to search all additional names in order to minimize the possibility of a criminal record being missed.
Block #2: County Criminal Record Search
After the SSN trace, the next block you’ll want to put in place is a county criminal record search. The vast majority of state and local criminal records are kept at the county level. This search is geographically targeted based on, at a minimum, the addresses identified from the social security trace, and could include a scope of the past 5, 7, 10 years or more depending on your screening practices and/or state reporting laws.
Most county-level criminal search reports include felony, misdemeanor and criminal traffic offenses and can provide the date of offense, filing date, the charge(s), the type of charge and the outcome.
Block #3: Federal Criminal Record Search
The third block to a more comprehensive criminal record background check is to conduct a federal criminal record search. Federal crimes fall outside of those crimes under state or local law or are crimes that would have normally fallen under state or local authority had they not occurred on United States federal property or on an Indian reservation. Examples of federal crimes include kidnapping, bank robbery, counterfeiting, assault on a federal officer, embezzlement, immigration offenses and child pornography, just to name a few.
As with the county criminal record search, the federal search is geographically targeted to federal districts (or states) based on the addresses identified from the social security trace.
There is often a lot of confusion around the term “federal criminal record search.” It is essential that you make the distinction between that and a fingerprint-based search or one of national coverage in nature. It is helpful to think of it like this: a federal criminal record search is for federal crimes prosecuted by federal attorneys heard by federal judges in federal courts.
Block #4: USA Criminal Database Search (National Database Search)
We’ve come full circle. The fourth block in a comprehensive employee criminal record search is a national/multi-state criminal database search. We at Clarifacts call it a USA Criminal Database Search. But wait, nationwide database searches are useless, right? Not exactly.
Now that the previous blocks of targeted criminal record searches have been set, there is considerable value in utilizing these type of searches as a supplemental component. The trouble happens when it is used as the sole component for the reasons we discussed above. Obviously not all crimes committed by an applicant will occur only in the jurisdictions in which they have lived or worked, so expanding the geographical coverage area and casting a wider net can be prudent.
As with any use of data in an employment decision, it must be compliant with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Specifically, the FCRA states that there must be reasonable procedures to maintain maximum possible accuracy. In relation to national/multi-state databases, Clarifacts (and our clients) comply by verifying any “hits” found at the original source to ensure we have the most complete and up-to-date information.
Deciding What Searches Meet Your Organization’s Needs
Using national/multi-state databases as your sole component of a background check is so appealing to many organizations screening potential employees, volunteers and/or independent contractors. It’s cheaper and faster. Which is often a disastrous combination in the world of employment background screening.
If you are serious about protecting your clients/customers, your employees, your reputation and your assets, consider the building block approach to a comprehensive criminal record search.
If you have any questions about employment criminal record searches, or want to discuss your organization’s background screening needs, contact us.
Please Note: Information and resources provided by Clarifacts are for educational purposes only and should not be construed as, or a substitute for, legal advice. Employers should consult legal counsel about their specific compliance responsibilities under federal, state and local laws and any other applicable legal and regulatory requirements.
Kevin Klimas is the president and founder of Clarifacts, an employment background screening company serving conscientious clients for nearly 20 years. As a founding member and former board member of the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA), Kevin is outspoken about screening the right way. In fact, he speaks on this topic at HR conferences and in various media outlets, sharing his enthusiasm for helping others understand all things background checks. Kevin is a member of SHRM and holds a Fair Credit Report Act Advanced Certification from PBSA. He has a Bachelor of Science in criminology and criminal justice from Arizona State University (Forks Up!) and has nearly completed his quest to visit every Major League ballpark.
Clarifacts is a pre-employment background check company specializing in personalized solutions for human resources leaders. From basic screenings to more specific services for specialized industries, Clarifacts has the experience, knowledge and technology to create a better background check experience, supported by a friendly, responsive, tenured team.
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