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Are Fingerprint Background Checks More Trick Than Treat?

Hand leaving fingerprints on glass

Trying to decide between fingerprint background checks or private background checks? Background checks based on FBI fingerprint data are often outdated or incomplete, putting employers at risk. Private background check companies are federally regulated and go straight to the source (county and federal courts).

Learn why private background checks can be more reliable than fingerprint checks.

Ride services Uber and Lyft have pushed back against fingerprint background checks – and propelled them into the headlines.

Several states and cities want ride-service drivers to undergo an FBI fingerprint-based background check (as many taxi and limo drivers must) instead of court records-based background checks conducted through a screening company. Ride-service companies argue that background checks based on court records offer better data quality and faster results.

Who’s right? Unfortunately, much of the news coverage on the issue simply reinforces misperceptions and misinformation around the reliability of FBI fingerprint background checks. 

In fact, the government’s own assessments raise many questions about fingerprint checks.

The Problems With Fingerprint Background Checks

In February 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the FBI’s criminal records repository and on background checks produced from FBI fingerprint data.

Although the GAO concluded that FBI fingerprint-based background checks weren’t up to snuff, the report received little attention.

In 2006, the Justice Department made a similar inquiry into the reliability of FBI background checks, and found that “users may not want to rely exclusively on an FBI and state repository check and may also want to check other record sources, such as commercial databases and local courthouses to get complete and up-to-date information in support of criminal history background screening.”

So, the federal government takes the position that fingerprint-based background checks are not an ideal solution.

But why?

Incomplete And Out Of Date

The FBI database contains a huge volume of records, yet many are woefully incomplete. The federal reports noted that arrest records in the FBI database often lack a final disposition. That can create an entirely misleading (and unfair) picture, particularly if the arrest didn’t result in a conviction.

Without disposition information, a “rap sheet” simply shows that the person was arrested. It doesn’t indicate that a person actually committed a criminal offense. And, due to higher arrest rates, minorities are disproportionately affected.

All this leaves employers who rely only on fingerprint background checks in a risky situation, especially in states that outlaw use of non-conviction history for employment decisions.

Data Quantity Doesn’t Mean Data Quality

The FBI database houses more records than those of a private background check vendor. But quantity does not equal quality. In fact, the more incomplete data that appears on a background check, the higher the probability that an adverse decision is made against the subject of the report.

And while adverse decisions based on current and complete information are perfectly acceptable, decisions based on low-quality data are a disservice to both the subject of the report and the employer. For example, the employer may be misled into thinking that a potential job applicant has a criminal record when the case was ultimately dismissed for lack of probable cause.

How Can FBI Data Be So Lacking?

The phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” is fitting here. A lot of moving parts and players come together to provide data to the FBI following an arrest. Relaying criminal record data from the local level to the FBI requires a concerted effort between courts, prosecutors, state agencies, and the FBI.

This “relay” process isn’t uniform, and each state/locality may have unique methods for transmitting arrest, disposition, and sentencing information. That means while one jurisdiction might report complete and timely data, other jurisdictions might not.

Slow Improvements

Fingerprint-based background checks from the FBI are getting better. From 2006 to 2012, states made progress in providing complete criminal history records (which include the arrest and the final disposition) to the FBI.

According to the GAO, the number of states providing more than 75% of their arrest records with final dispositions increased to 20 in 2012 from 16 in 2006. Still, when improvement means that 25% of records sent to the FBI repository are still lacking final dispositions, that’s cause for concern.

Why The Government Recommends Private Background Checks

Both the GAO and the DOJ recommended using private background check companies, at least to some degree, when performing a background check. Private background check companies (like GoodHire) don’t pull criminal record data from the incomplete FBI database. Instead, they go directly to the source: county and federal courts.

Private background check companies are also highly regulated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which requires that they use reasonable procedures to ensure maximum possible accuracy. The Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau monitor their procedures and intervene with fines and orders if a background check company fails to produce quality background checks.

Compare this to FBI fingerprint checks, which aren’t regulated by statute and return all data housed in the repository that matches a fingerprint, with few safeguards for accuracy or completeness.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If you’re choosing between fingerprint background checks or private background checks, consider the pros and cons of each. False positives aren’t an issue with fingerprint-based searches, but the data returned may be outdated or incomplete.

Private background check companies will occasionally return false positives because they use a name and date of birth matching system. However, the results provided are complete and current. You’ll also want to consider cost, turnaround time, the inconvenience to the candidate, and compliance issues to consider.

Choose the screening option that best suits your organization’s needs, but make sure you’re informed before making that choice. Misinformation around the value of an FBI fingerprint-based background checks is everywhere. Make sure you can separate the facts from the fiction.


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.

About the Author

Headshot of Elizabeth McLean

Elizabeth McLean is GoodHire’s General Counsel, an FCRA-compliance attorney and expert in the background screening legal landscape. She monitors all things FCRA and EEOC. That means she follows new legislation and court decisions and advises the company on processes that follow compliance best practices.

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