What does a background check involve? This Guide to Background Checks explains the 10 most common types of background checks, including background checks for employment.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in June 2018. It has been updated with new information.
Want to avoid unpleasant surprises when applying for a job or apartment? Consider doing a background check on yourself. This can help confirm the information in your records is accurate and prepare you for any potential problems.
Find out how to run a background check on yourself, why it’s a good idea, how long it takes, and the different types of background checks you might want to run.
If you’re seeking a job or a new apartment, it’s almost certain a background check is in your future. To prepare for that likelihood, and to avoid surprises, you may want to consider running a background check on yourself.
A background check compiles personal information about you to determine your eligibility for employment or housing.
Background checks are gaining popularity as screening tools for landlords, and they’re fast becoming universal hiring tools.
Ninety-six percent (96%) of U.S. employers run checks on prospective hires, according to a 2020 survey by HR.com for the Professional Background Screening Association.
This article will provide an overview of different types of background checks, what’s involved in running a self background check, how long it takes, and why you might want to run a background check on yourself.
Why Background Checks Happen
Specific reasons for conducting background checks vary depending on who needs to run the check.
Employers typically use background checks in hopes of avoiding financial loss through fraud or theft, to protect company reputation, and to avoid running afoul of laws banning undocumented immigrants and others ineligible for employment. In addition, employers in some regulated industries are forbidden from placing persons with certain criminal convictions in certain jobs.
Landlords and property managers also run background checks, typically because they want to avoid tenants who don’t pay their rent. To minimize this risk, they may screen for dodgy credit histories. Many landlords may also run checks to avoid renting to people on sex-crime registries or with histories of domestic abuse or other violent crimes.
There are several benefits to running a self background check. It can help you:
- Anticipate and address questions that could arise in the course of an employment or housing screening.
- Uncover errors and inaccuracies in financial and legal records compiled about you, and gives you a chance to correct them.
- Save time and money when compared to retrieving all your personal records individually.
- Equip you with a report you can share that documents your history and any supplemental information you care to provide.
What to Check
Most personal records compiled about you in background checks are yours. You have the right to see them, and to dispute or correct any inaccuracies they may contain. You can request personal records one at a time as a way of previewing what will turn up in a background check.
Information you can check in this way includes:
Social Security Number (SSN) Verification: Background checks will report the names associated with your SSN, reflecting marital and other legal name changes. You can get this information free by setting up a user account at the Social Security Administration website.
- Summarize your debt and detail your payment history, indicating any payments that were missed or made 30 or more days late, and any accounts lenders have turned over for collections.
- List past and current debt, including outstanding loans, loans you’ve paid off, open credit card accounts, and any accounts you’ve closed.
- Reflect bankruptcies for up to 10 years after their filing dates, and list other public records including some civil judgments and tax liens against your property.
Address History: Background checks typically identify addresses associated with your name and Social Security number from sources such as credit card statements and magazine subscriptions. They typically cover your last seven years of residences. These addresses may be used to cross-check other records and may, in part, determine the scope of motor vehicle and criminal checks. It’s important to make sure there aren’t any incorrect entries in your address history. While you may be able to find this information through any of several free “white pages” directories available online, these sources aren’t 100% reliable, especially if you’ve moved frequently.
Driving Records: You can visit your state department of motor vehicles to obtain a copy of your driving record, or order a copy online. If you’ve had a license from other state(s) in the last 25 years, you should check those state records, too.
Criminal Background: Criminal convictions, imprisonment, parole, and probation will be reflected in a criminal background search. If you were arrested in the past seven years, even if charges were dropped or you were found not guilty, that may show up, too. If you’re applying for a position with a salary of $75,000 or more, the FCRA allows employers to seek arrest information older than the FCRA limit, but they must explicitly say they’re doing so in their background check consent form. Some states permit employers to obtain arrest information when hiring for jobs with salaries as low as $20,000; other states forbid disclosure of any non-conviction arrests. The legal services website Nolo.com has a good breakdown of specific rules by state.
If you have conviction or disclosable arrest records in your history, you can see how they’ll be reflected in a background check by requesting your records from the courts and corrections departments that govern them.
Education and Job History: Many background checks also verify education and employment history to confirm that you attended or graduated from the schools listed on your job history, that you obtained any degree(s) you claim, and that you worked for the companies listed on your résumé during the year(s) that you say you did.
Specialized Lists: Many background checks also include specialized record searches that are not available to the general public. These may include:
- Watchlists for sex offenders maintained by state and local jurisdictions, and for suspected terrorists maintained by the federal government.
- A National Crime Information Center (NCIC) search combs 21 databases that U.S. law-enforcement agencies use to share information. It includes names of fugitives, persons suspected of identity theft, known gang members, and persons with outstanding arrest warrants.
- A National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is the check law enforcement officers and firearms dealers use to screen individuals who are legally barred from possessing or purchasing firearms. If your name is similar to that of someone included on the list, you may be subject to approval delays even if your record is clean.
When Buying a Background Check Saves Time and Money
While you can freely request and obtain your public records, they are seldom actually free. Securing copies of public documents often involves administrative fees—and your time to track them down. Costs vary by state and municipality, but they can range from a few dollars to more than $25, per record, and printing and postage costs may be extra. The time required for you to receive each record varies as well, from a couple of days to two weeks or more per record.
In light of the necessary investment in costs and time, using a commercial service to run a self background check often proves faster, simpler, and even more affordable than taking the do-it-yourself approach.
If you’ve lived in multiple states and jurisdictions, the cost of retrieving driving records alone can quickly equal the cost of a commercial background check that’s often simpler, faster, and more comprehensive than a do-it-yourself check.
What Kind of Check to Run?
If you decide to use a commercial service to run a self background check, how do you decide which service to use? Ideally, you’ll want to use a service comparable to the one used by a potential employer or landlord.
While it’s virtually impossible to know exactly which screening service a potential employer or landlord will use, it is possible to narrow the field to services that are similar. Here are a couple of guidelines to consider:
Find a provider that also supplies background checks to employers and landlords. Background screening services that cater only to consumers may not have access to the proprietary resources and specialized databases many employers require, and they won’t show you the same depth of information.
Eliminate services that do not comply with the U.S. Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Pre-employment and housing screenings in the U.S. must comply with the FCRA, which specifies the nature of the information that can be included in background checks, and defines your rights concerning the use of that information.
Among its provisions, the FCRA requires that:
- A prospective employer or landlord must get your written consent before running a background check on you.
- All background check reports must include a summary of your rights under FCRA.
- If an employer is considering not hiring you based on information in a background check, they must provide you with a copy of the background check report and give you an opportunity to respond before they finalize their decision.
The FCRA also specifies that certain information should be excluded from pre-employment background checks. An arrest that didn’t lead to conviction is excluded from your criminal history after seven years, for instance. Bankruptcies and civil judgments may be stricken from your credit history after seven to 10 years as well. Non-FCRA-compliant background check services may not exclude this information, and so could give you a distorted view of the information employers and landlords will receive.
GoodHire’s FCRA-compliant self background check tool is an example of background check service widely used by employers.
How Do You Run a Background Check on Yourself?
Running a self background check is about as easy as buying a book or movie online. In addition to a payment card (or PayPal account), all you will need your Social Security number and a valid email account.
In the case of GoodHire’s personal background check service, you start by choosing one of three tiered self-check options: Starter ($19.99), Basic ($29.99), or Standard ($59.99).
- The Starter check searches nationwide criminal records databases, plus a national sex-offender list.
- A Basic search includes all the Starter searches, and adds a Social Security number trace for residential history, and a domestic-terrorist watchlist search.
- The Standard search is most similar to the background checks employers see, and includes all the Basic check database searches, plus a county criminal court search that uses human researchers to physically pull records in the counties where you’ve lived.
Once you’ve selected the check you want, you complete a short online form by entering your full name, current address, and Social Security number. After reviewing some disclosure information, as required by FCRA, you set up an account with a password that you’ll use to log in, view your report, and annotate it as desired. Then, just give a final authorization and wait for the check to run.
The Starter and Basic searches will be complete and ready to review in a matter of minutes, as will the database portions of the Standard search. The county criminal court check can take a few days to complete; you’ll receive an email when the results are in.
Correct the Record and Clear the Air
Once you’ve received the results of a self background check, what do you do with them? It’s important to verify that the information in the report is correct, and then consider whether you want to add any supplemental or explanatory information to the contents of your background check report. This is your opportunity to explain apparent gaps in your job history, or comment on circumstances or atonement surrounding any legal infractions.
Inaccuracies can appear on background checks for reasons including:
Confusion over records for persons with similar names: If you’re John Jones or Susan Smith, you’ve probably experienced small-time hassles over mistaken identity. Mixups can happen with less common names as well. When this confusion involves financial or legal matters, they can be anything but minor.
FCRA-compliant background checks, such as GoodHire’s, include guidelines you should follow for filing a dispute and reporting inaccuracies. The reports also note their data sources. You may want to contact the providers of any inaccurate information, so they can correct any inaccuracies as well.
Identity theft: Fraudulent use of your name, forged signature, and/or Social Security number can generate undeserved blemishes on a background check. They’re relatively rare, but bogus unpaid loans and credit cards, warrants issued over bad checks you never wrote, and suspended licenses falsely obtained in your name can all surface in self background checks.
If your background check reveals signs of identity theft, follow the guidelines provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission for reporting and addressing the matter.
Once you’ve ruled out any inaccuracies in your background check, take a good look at the accurate information. Try to view it as a hiring manager or landlord would, and identify anything that might be a source of concern.
An unexplained gap in your work history could be an issue for an employer, for instance. Missed loan payments or a bankruptcy might worry a landlord. And criminal records could raise red flags with either one. None of these is necessarily a deal-breaker in your search for a job or housing, but hoping they go unnoticed, or that they just won’t matter, probably isn’t your best strategy.
Your better approach might be to take ownership of these matters and address them proactively with a potential manager or landlord before they run a background check on you.
- Offer Explanations (But Not Excuses): If there’s a jobless stretch on your résumé, let your potential boss know why. Maybe you were at home with an infant or an infirm parent during that stretch—or if you may have been traveling, waiting tables, or whatever. Explain how you managed to make ends meet during that time, and how you kept on top of industry trends during that interval.
- If You Messed Up, Admit It: You can offer mitigating circumstances if there were any, but also emphasize what you learned, and how you’d do things differently the next time. If you missed that credit card payment when your roommate stiffed you on his share of the rent, you can say so—but also explain how you’ve organized your savings so that can never happen again.
- If You Made a Seriously Bad Decision, Admit That Too: If you ran afoul of the law and wound up serving time or on probation, it’s probably better for a prospective manager or landlord to hear it from you than from a background check. Explain how you’ve learned from your mistake or how you’ve made amends.
If you run a GoodHire personal background check on yourself, you’ll have the opportunity to enter explanatory notes, or Comments for Context, right into your background check report. When you do, those comments become a permanent addition to your GoodHire profile. If your prospective employer uses GoodHire’s services, they’ll see your remarks automatically when they review your background check.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that your potential employer or landlord will be one of GoodHire’s 80,000 client companies. But, even if they aren’t, you can give them a copy of your annotated report to supplement whatever checks they run themselves.
Getting ahead of potential concerns can help you acknowledge and move beyond past missteps. Being proactive and forthright might even make more of a positive impression, overshadowing anything questionable in your past.
Running a self background check that shows you what employers and property managers will see when they run a background check is a great way to prepare for a job or apartment rental search. It’s important to confirm that your public records are accurate, and it’s helpful to see yourself through the eyes of a hiring manager or landlord. Thinking through questions they may ask and how you can respond to them can be a healthy form of self-evaluation, and may give you a leg up on securing the job or residence you want.
The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.