Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Diploma mills are bringing a higher degree of liability to the workforce.

Diploma mills are churning out tens of thousands of “graduates” each year. Their “alumni” armed with authentic looking Bachelors, Masters and Doctorates degrees worth no more than the paper they're printed on. Regardless, their implicit value is tested when presented to employers looking for qualified applicants possessing those actual academic credentials. These unscrupulous individuals end up at your job fairs, in your interviews and often competing for your job. The following information, along with a diligent applicant screening program, is an employer’s best defense against modern day diploma mills.

What’s the difference between Diploma ”A” and Diploma “B”?
At face value each diploma represents the completion of an MBA program from an arguably prestigious school. Each degree signifies two years hard earned post graduate credits and a huge personal investment of time and money to furthering one's education. Each one defines the character of the person as someone striving to exceed the status quo and take their career to the next level. Beyond face value, "A" is everything mentioned above while "B" is simply a lie.

Why would someone purchase a fraudulent degree?
The long standing temptation lies in substantial financial gain and social status for those who don’t get caught. Add to that the desperation of job seekers to get an edge on the competition during a recession, and you have a significant percentage of applicants willing to step outside their ethical bounds.

How difficult is it to obtain fraudulent diploma?
Not difficult at all. Anyone with access to the Internet can find several options to order fraudulent credentials in a matter of minutes and have them shipped straight to their door. These websites will often market them as novelty items or replacements for lost documents. A few though, take the openly crooked approach and market “fake academic credentials” to “enrich your life”. A diploma for the academic achievement of your choice, full transcripts and even class rings are available to those willing to pay between $50 and $5,000.

Do people get away with it?
Yes, and in just about every industry. A small fraction of documented cases in which professional careers were gained through false academic credentials include; pediatricians, sex-abuse counselors, college vice presidents, child psychologists, athletic coaches, engineers, chemists and accountants. Even the United States Government is not immune to fraudulent academic credentials. A 2004 investigation by the Federal Government Accountability Office reported that 463 federal employees had degrees from diploma mills or unaccredited schools, including 28 senior-level employees.

Is it illegal to use false academic credentials?
A number of variables can make the difference between “ethically misguided” and a criminal offense. Unlike most countries with top tier universities, there’s no federal law in the United States that specifically prevents the purchase or sale of faux diplomas. Nor is there a federal law that makes it a crime to claim an unearned educational achievement on your resume. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Education simply lacks the authority to prevent deceptive businesses from using the term “university” or claiming their own (meaningless) accreditation. The FBI and FTC have made efforts to crack down on diploma mills, sighting consumer protections acts, tax evasion and deceptive practices, but the efforts are sporadic at best. Several states have taken it upon themselves to outlaw the practice within their jurisdictions. To date, 15 states have enacted legislation to make the sale or use of fake academic credentials illegal within their jurisdictions. These states include: Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, Virginia and Wyoming.

The following (real) scenarios demonstrate legal recourse that has resulted from employment gained using false academic credentials. In these cases, after the damage was done.
Scenario 1: An individual fraudulently claims to possess an MBA from an elite New York university and successfully obtains a position at a fast growing investment firm. His lack of education was discovered only after clients amassed losses in the millions due to bad investments and misappropriations of funds. The Securities and Exchange commission is seeking a permanent injunction against the employer while the U.S. Attorney's office has filed criminal charges on the individual for misconduct.
Scenario 2: A fraudulent doctorate degree leads to a position as a pediatrician at a specialty clinic. An 8 year old girl’s mom is advised to stop using insulin for her daughter’s treatment of diabetes as the “doctor” feels it’s not necessary with his new dietary recommendations. The girl’s mom follows the doctor’s advice and the girl dies within days. The false credentials were discovered and the "doctor" was charged and convicted on felony counts of manslaughter and practicing medicine without a license.

What’s the difference between a “Novelty Diploma Store” and true “Diploma Mill”?
A diploma mill can also be a novelty diploma store, but technically not the reverse (regardless of the stores name). This is because a novelty diploma store sells academic “novelty” credentials from your choice of existing universities. You can buy a law degree from Harvard or an MBA from Wake Forest, etc. They can look extremely authentic and be accompanied with transcripts, leather bindings, class rings, etc. However, an education verification that is done properly will prove and document that the institution has no records to match the novelty diploma. The employment screening company will then work with the schools records department to verify if the credentials are in fact counterfeit. Modern day “Diploma Mills” take fake credentials to the next level. Diploma mills may offer novelty credentials to existing schools, but they also have an assortment of their own “educational institutions”. Some require only cash to obtain a degree of choice, while others make a feign attempt at legitimacy by requiring a short exam (everyone passes), essays on life experiences or even text book purchases. These small steps, along with your payment, will grant you a degree in a matter of days. A diploma mill’s pricier packages (which can put you out several thousand dollars) will include some or all of the following information, usually based on a nonexistent foreign university…

  • Diploma and Full Transcripts
  • Active website with information about the institution.

  • Active email address: to respond to emailed verification inquiries

  • Fax number: to respond to faxed verification inquiries

  • Toll free number to call center: to respond to live verification inquiries

  • Mailing Address: to respond to mailed inquiries and “exist” on map searches.
How can diploma mills afford all this?
There's actually very little costs in supporting a few websites, phone numbers and email addresses. Furthermore, the U.S. government estimates that top selling diploma mills are taking in at least 50 million dollars of annual revenue each.

How can anyone prove a university is not legitimate if all this information exists on the institution?
A skilled pre-employment screening agency has the tools and experience to judge the authenticity of academic institutions. Our tools include databases of known diploma mills, databases of illegitimate accreditations, databases of toll free numbers for known call centers, property records and much more. This doesn't mean a human resources professional, hiring manager, or small business owner can’t take steps to prevent these frauds from even getting to the applicant screening process. Here are a few red flags to watch for and steps you can take that may necessitate further research you can watch for in the preliminary stage of sifting through candidates resumes.

The name of the educational institution.

  • Is the name very similar to a well known university, but not exact?

  • Does the name and location imply a satellite campus of a popular college, but it doesn't specify the relationship?
Contact Information

  • Does the applicant list a contact number for the records office right on the resume or application form? As much as we love it when applicants provide thorough information on their past employers and education, the fact is people rarely take the time and effort to look up the records department of their alma mater for a job application. When an applicant has listed a diploma mill, they will usually provide the contact information (which goes to the diploma mill call center) to prevent the screening company from conducting further research.
  • Is the contact number toll free? Rarely will a university have a toll free number to their records department unless it's to a third party, such as "Student Clearinghouse", which is contracted by the school.

The location of the university in relation to the applicant.
Sure, some people go abroad to study, but it’s far less common for U.S. residences to obtain a degree overseas than it is for non-U.S. residents to come to the States for their studies. The United Kingdom is a haven for fictional universities because there is a high regard for the university level educational system in the UK, and it’s typically deemed more acceptable to employers in the United States if they haven’t heard of a specific foreign university.

Go to the website.
While diploma mills may have this aspect covered with all the bells and whistles listed above, there’s typically no depth to the “straw website”. Observe the content and click on the links.

  • Are there local contact numbers and specific email addresses for most departments, as opposed to the same 800 number and general email address listed multiple times?
  • Is the content flat,or is it dynamic and changing? Universities always have events, registration calendars, job fairs, alumni gatherings, etc.
  • Click the links. Are there active links for sports teams, clubs, student committees, faculty contacts, and alumni resources?
  • Observe the language used on the website to describe courses, schooling and their mission statement. Some diploma mills try to avoid law enforcement interference by never claiming (in publicly available information) that they are a conventional university. They leave out specifics of what they offer to students and who they are accredited through. When descriptions seem fuzzy or they emphasize life experience over curriculum, red flags should be popping up in your head.

Once viewed as a victimless crime or simple esteem booster, fraudulent academic credentials have become a dangerous and common fraud. This deceptive practice not only cheats deserving applicants that invested years into earning a quality education, it puts the reputations of good businesses and the safety of individuals at risk. Your best defense is a proactive approach. An applicant screening program should always include verification of education achieved. (the highest level achieved at a minimum) A reputable screening company will “sniff” out the diploma mills through diligent research and expertise, protecting your business from irrefutable harm that can quickly be inflicted by fraudulent “professionals”.

If you have questions or comments on diploma mills, background screening services, or any statistics presented in this article, please contact…

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What You Need to Know About Pre-employment Background Checks!

Don't let a mistake from the past disrupt your career of the future. Now more than ever, people are changing jobs or looking for work. More so out of necessity than by choice. The applicant pools are bigger than ever so companies can be more selective in their hiring decisions.
More than eighty percent of employers do some type of background screening on new employees. I’ve been in the background screening industry for over thirteen years and in that time I’ve conducted tens of thousands of these background checks.
The fact is, one out of eight people have a criminal history. If you take into consideration all aspects of a background check such as past employment, education and professional licensing, you’ll find that the number of applications with (purposeful) misinformation increases to between 35 and 40 percent.
People call our offices all the time to see if we can run a background check on them before their potential employer does. They want to know if that misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge from college is going to show up on their record. They want to see what the manager they didn’t get along with is going to say about them when the new potential employer calls for a reference.
Below I’ve listed some important information that you should know about your background check and I try to clear up some common misconceptions. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a standard background check. Every company does varying degrees of background checks determined by the position, and based on what they’re willing to spend per applicant on due diligence.

Important Points About Employment Background Checks

Read the application carefully. It most likely asks if you’ve been convicted of a crime, not arrested. There’s no need to report arrests that did not result in convictions if the application does not ask for this information. Many will argue that an employer cannot legally ask if you’ve been arrested; however 36 states do allow arrest information to be factored into the hiring decision. Check with your state’s department of employment security to know for certain.

  • Often, people aren’t sure if their arrest resulted in a conviction. Simply put, if you plead guilty to a crime, then it is technically a conviction, even if you received probation or supervision. If you were found innocent, the case was dismissed, or there was no probable cause, “nolle pros” then the case is not a conviction. There are a couple of rare exceptions to this based on individual state laws.
  • Never assume a case has been expunged unless you actually paid an attorney to file for expungement and it was approved by a judge, or you filed the proper documents yourself. Applicants frequently call our office when they don’t get hired as a result of their background check and say “I thought that case was expunged”. If you did not go through the procedure of filing for an expungement and have it approved, then the record is still available to see.

Employers are NOT limited to 7 years on a criminal record search. Some states have their own Fair Credit Reporting Act rules that limit what crimes are reportable past seven years, often based on the position and how much it pays. By federal F.C.R.A. standards, however, a conviction can be reported indefinitely. The “7 year rule” usually applies to arrests that did not result in a conviction. Nevertheless, arrests are not indicators of guilt, so an employer should not disqualify you based on an arrest without further inquiry as to the circumstances.

  • Even a conviction does NOT automatically disqualify you from employment. The crime must have a direct relationship with the job you are applying for. (The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission states that employers must weigh a variety of elements when factoring convictions into hiring decisions. These include the nature and severity of the offense, the time that has elapsed, and whether the offense has any relation to the position advertised.) For example, a conviction for writing bad checks should not disqualify an applicant from driving a forklift. However, a conviction for aggravated assault could disqualify an applicant from almost any job that they would be working directly with other people. It’s up to the discretion of the employer in this case
  • Question: Will any criminal conviction record in my file be located no matter the place or year of occurrence? Answer: No, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t disclose it. A common misconception about criminal background checks is that they’re really easy and quick to do. Thanks to T.V. shows like C.S.I, people tend to think that you type a name into a computer and out pops every criminal infraction ever committed anywhere in the country.
  • The fact is, employers and background screening companies cannot access the N.C.I.C. system that the police and F.B.I. use unless the job requires a fingerprint check that gets sent to the F.B.I. electronically.
  • Our standard method of determining where to search for criminal records is by running your social security number through our databases which provides us the locations you’ve resided for the last ten to twenty years. This also informs us of maiden names that may be associated to you. It’s then determined by the background screening package (already in place) how in-depth the research will be and how far back the criminal record check will go.
  • As a background screening company, we would be thrilled it if every client company of ours could afford to have us search every jurisdiction that the applicant ever lived, but that’s not usually the case. We generally search between one and three of the most recent counties that the applicant resided in along with a “national” criminal record database search which contains over 500 million archived criminal records throughout the country. These “national” criminal databases are great secondary searches that provide broad coverage although they’re far from perfect. Many local and federal jurisdictions do not submit information to these private databases so they have many gaps in coverage. National database searches used for employment screening do not compare to the actual N.C.I.C. search that the police and F.B.I. use.
  • To make matters more difficult for the screening companies, federal records are kept completely separate from county criminal records or national database searches. We must access a different system to check for any criminal records located in each of the federal jurisdictions that the applicant resided in.
  • So is it possible that we could miss a criminal record that an applicant has? Of course we could. However, if we locate it, and you did not disclose it on the application when asked, you will most likely be disqualified for falsifying your application. This is true even when the record itself may not have eliminated you from the position. In my opinion, your best bet is to disclose any criminal record information.
  • Remember that most employers really want to fill the position and most don’t care if you made a mistake more than a few years ago. Many of our clients request that we not disclose cases that are older than 7 or 10 years unless they are felony offenses.

2) Past Employment Verifications /Reference Checks

Past employers are unlikely to criticize you. It’s true, believe it or not. Even though you’re old manager, Doug, may have called you a slacker three times a week and thought you stole the pens from his desk whenever he left the office, chances are that he’s not going to disclose that information. At least not if your old company has a human resources department. Big companies want to play it safe. They don’t want to deal with the ex-employee that doesn’t get the next job because of something they said. Standard policy is to say as little as possible and not state opinions. Most often, when our researchers call a company, they are immediately directed to the HR department which will only release the standard information such as
i. Dates of employment
ii. Job Title
iii. Salary
iv. Occasionally they will disclose if you are eligible for employment in the future.

The exceptions to the rule are small businesses and legal obligation.

  • When we call a small business that doesn’t have a human resources department or legal counsel, we may talk directly to the owner or someone that worked directly with the applicant. In this situation we tend to get far more detail, which could be positive or negative. If you left a small business on bad terms, and you have to list them as a reference to avoid a big gap in your employment timeline, it may suit you to provide an explanation to your potential employer. They will most likely still call the past employer, but at least you’ve taken the time to clarify what happened and they will know that any negativity expressed in the report may be more emotional than factual.
  • The other exception is the legal / ethical obligation an employer has if you were terminated due to illegal or outright dangerous behavior. The past employer can be open to civil litigation if they do not disclose that you harmed someone, acted negligently or committed a crime that caused your dismissal

3) Credit Checks

Contrary to popular belief, an employment credit report will NOT negatively affect your credit score!

  • A pre-employment credit report provides the employer the exact same information as a consumer credit report that an auto dealer or bank might run when obtaining a loan. However, a pre-employment credit report does not display your credit score. Employers are not allowed to pass judgment based on your credit score.
    The main purpose of a credit report is to be a gauge of potential irresponsibility and propensity towards theft. For example, if you have extreme amount of debt due to credit card balances and several accounts in collection status and you’re applying for a job managing cash, you could be seen as a high risk for internal theft. Likewise, if you’re applying to be a financial advisor and your credit report clearly shows your incapacity for managing your own money, they’re unlikely to trust you with their client’s money.
  • If you’re turned down for a job after undergoing a background check, the company you applied with should provide you with a pre-adverse action letter stating you might not be hired due to something discovered during the background check, as well as provide you a copy of the report. If they don’t, be sure to ask for a copy. The background screening company is required to provide a toll free number to their offices in case you have questions or want to dispute a finding. Most credible background screening companies will act quickly to re-check any information you dispute and correct the report if necessary.

The more you know about the background screening process going in, the better your chances of providing complete information without fear of shooting yourself in the foot. Always remember, the employer isn’t out to get you, but their priority will always be protecting themselves from liability and obtaining a quality employee. So emphasize the good, explain the bad and don’t try to cover up a mistake as it could do more harm than good!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Can People See When I've Visited their Website???

You visit a competitors website, or your kid's/spouse's/friend's MySpace page and suddenly you get this sinking feeling. You think...hmmm....are they gonna know I was here? Are they gonna see how many times I checked it out? What pages I visited? How long I was on? Does that "cookie" thing know my name? And why is it called a cookie anyway?

We all here the terms "cookies" and "I.P." addresses. We all know that there's several security settings on our web browsers but few of us know how to use them or what they really do. So, without using any internet "cloaking" software or changing the settings on your browser, what does the average website or webmaster know about you when you visit their website?

First off, let me say that tracking consumers web surfing and buying habits is a multi-billion dollar business and it's NOT really what we're talking about here. When it comes to marketing companies tracking your online activity just know this. If you are "logged in" to any online service or website, yes your activities are being tracked to an extent by that company. Even if they don't use the information themselves, it is valuable information that most will sell to other companies for marketing purposes or use to display adds relative to the websites you visit. Read the terms of service agreement to any service such as AOL, Yahoo, Google, MSN and you'll see their potential uses of your information.

Back to what we're really talking about. Let's say you're at your home computer. It doesn't really matter in this case if your signed in to a service or your connection is "always on" via a broadband router. You visit a few friends (or enemies) through their Facebook / MySpace pages. Can they tell you we're there? The answer in this case is no. Even if you're signed into the service, neither Facebook nor MySpace makes that information available to the public or other users. Of course the MySpace and Facebook web servers (the big computers that host the sites)do record that information, and if your signed in, they do know your name (via your profile) and they have a record of where you've clicked. However, this information would only be released to law enforcement under order of a subpoena.

You'll seee add on applications for both MySpace and Facebook that claim they will show you who's been looking at your profiles but all they actually tell you is the I.P. address and region which I'll discussed in more detail below.

Let's go a slightly different route. Say you're a business owner or an investigator and your checking out a website of another business that your gathering data on. You visit their site several times and go to just about every page to gather info. The webmaster (which may be the owner of the company if it's a small business) will probably have analytics software that tracks visits. This software will tell them quite a bit of information on you, including...

  1. What service provider you use such as Verizon, Comcast, Sprint, Ameritech, ATT.
  2. What search term you entered on Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc that led you to their site, or if you simply typed the domain name into your browser bar.

  3. What site you came from which could be a banner ad, search engine, a link within another site, etc.
  4. What pages you visited on their website and how long you were on each one.

  5. What page you exited from.

  6. Statistics on how many times you visited over a period of days, weeks, months.
  7. The "IP" or Internet Protocol address of your computer, router, server or network
That all may sound a little intrusive and downright nosey but there is a bright side for those who appreciate privacy. Even with all this information, they probably don't know exactly who you are.

People often think that if someone has your I.P. address they can trace it and find out who you are but it's just not that simple anymore. I.P. stands for "Internet Protocol" and basically there's one assigned to any device that is part of a network, or in this case, the Internet. It's essentially the address for the device so information can be routed correctly to and from it.

The original purpose of the assigning I.P. addresses was to have one unique to every computer online which would make for easy identification. And in the early days of the world wide web it was commonplace for the "viewable" I.P. address to be that of an individual computer. The explosive growth of the internet and private networks along with the need for privacy and protection from hackers ultimately changed its role. These days, your computer is most likely part of a network that uses internal I.P. address. The network sits behind a router which has its own static or dynamic I.P. address which means it can change routinely in order to route information on the clearest paths.

Long story short, larger businesses/universities and government agencies can often be identified. But the IP will only reveal the businesses central acccess point or network, not an individual computer. (Once again, by law enforcement subpoeana this information can be obtained from the "ISP" internet service provider)

Smaller businesses or home computers will generally display an I.P. address of the internet service provider and the region of your connection. By using an I.P. trace (Several can be found on under "Website Research"), someone can indentify general geographical information but even this info can be skewed. Roughly 90 percent of the time the location shown will be within 40 miles of the actual computer and the name will simply be the Internet service provider such as Comcast or ATT. Not very useful for finding a person or address.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Free criminal background checks on the Internet? Is it true?

The FREE Background check has been one of the most frequently advertised and often misleading products on the Internet since the beginning of World Wide Web time. A safe rule of thumb is...If someone is paying to advertise it, then it's not free. You will have to give up a credit card number to see the results of the "search" which may or may not be relevant.

The good news is, YES YOU CAN do a free background check online if you know where to look and you don't mind doing a little leg work. Please note: If you're a corporation conducting background checks for employment screening purposes you should always use a professional background screening company that is well versed in federal and state F.C.R.A (Fair Credit Reporting Act) compliance and has references to prove their track record. The Securities Exchange Commission and Department of Labor have steep financial penalties for companies that do not follow the rules when conducting background checks. Not to mention civil liability from the applicant. End of Warning :)

Now...onto the occasional background check you want to conduct on the guy/girl you met at the coffee shop, the neighbor that's been eyeing your new lawn mower, or the accountant that was referred by a friend of a friend. How can you check them out without hiring a professional or using a service that you don't know a lot about?

Step 1: Get a Date of Birth (if possible)
To do an accurate criminal background check on anyone, especially if they have a common name, you need to know their date of birth. The exception to this requirement is Sex Offender Records which you can search NATIONALLY with just a first and last name as well as Federal Inmate Records. We'll get to these parts shortly.

One easy way to find date of birth information online is a free search such as Keep in mind that although this free database is very accurate, not all persons' date of births will be found in it. If you have no luck there, try one of the following to get your subjects date of birth...

  • Social Networking Sites such as Myspace, Facebook, Linked In, Twitter, Bebo, etc. often display a date of birth in the user's "profile" page. Go to each one and search for the person by name within your state.

  • If the person is a licensed professional, search State Licensing Agencies as their date of birth is often public record. You can typically search by occupation and name.

  • As a last resort, just ask em! What the heck, tell them you want to buy them a birthday present or put their D.O.B. on your Outlook calendar. You can even be sneaky and say you want to see how good their driver's license picture looks. Be creative.

Step 2: Search Sex Offender Registries
Okay, so you have their name and date of birth, what next? A good first step for any background check would be the National Sex Offender Registry. Here (as we mentioned above) you can search with just the first and last name and then narrow it down by state, city, etc. All sex offender records have pictures in the detail so if you do come across a record on the person you'll know if it's them and likely get their date of birth as well if you don't already have it. Of course you also might be ending your search at that point and changing your phone number.

Note: Make sure you search by any known version of their name such as Bob, Robert, Bobbie, Rob or Dick, Richard, etc. Alias names will show up if they're known by the arresting authority but better safe than sorry.

Step 3: Search FEDERAL Inmate Records
Use the Federal Bureau of Prison's Inmate Locator to search for people that have served time in a federal prison between 1982 and present. This search requires only a first name and last name to search but you can enter an age to limit your results. I don't recommend limiting your search with an age or middle initial unless you get too many results to sift through. It's always better to make your search as broad as possible, then narrow it once you see the results. Federal crimes can include many financial or white collar crimes, internet related crimes, and other crimes that fall into multiple jurisdictions.

Step 4: Search STATE Department of Corrections Records
Move on to individual state Department of Correction's records. On we list and link to all the searchable Department of Correction's sites. Be sure to search the Department of Corrections for every state you know the subject has lived, has immediate family in, as well as neighboring states if they lived near the border of other states. Of course the more states you search the better, but we're putting this in terms of a reasonable expectation of time. Note: You may find that some states will only show information for current inmates, but most will have past inmate records as well.

Step 5: Search Available County and State Court Databases
Common Question: Wouldn't County convictions result in time served in a state prison?
Answer: Not always. Many convictions result in probation or supervision. Even if a defendant is sentenced to up to a year in jail, that sentence may be served at a county jail as opposed to a state facility.

Use the County and State criminal record search links found here (Free County and State Databases) on Virtualgumshoe. We only link to the ones that are free and searchable. Even if your search lies in a state that has free statewide criminal record search online, use the county level search as well if available. Free state databases (there's only a few) such as Wisconsin and Missouri are great but they still rely on updates from the individual counties which are more current. If you know the cities but not the corresponding counties, you can use the "Investigators Tools" section of Virtualgumshoe to locate the county by entering the city. Note: Make sure you follow the instructions and proper search format on each county site such as (last name, first name). Once again, be sure to search any available county or state database that is available for every location the subject has lived. The more jurisdictions you cover the better. Professional background screeners determine this information by tracing the social security number, but that is not publicly accessible information.

Now, is every county or state going to have a free and searchable database for the general public to use online? No, they're not. Although criminal records are "public information", that doesn't mean the state or county can't charge a fee or make you subscribe to a service to get that information electronically. The ones listed on Virtualgumshoe are indeed free and online. Those listed on Virtualgumshoe and most other counties not listed will let you walk into the actual courthouse and search a public computer terminal for criminal records. It's just not realistic for most people to take the time to go to the courthouse, learn how to use the computer terminal correctly and do the search on site. Especially if you have multiple jurisdictions to search.

Step 6 Optional (Moving Beyond the Criminal Record)
If you have the time and the patience to do a little more detective work, and depending on the situation, there's a few options. Above, I mentioned the State Licensing Agencies. If the person is a "professional" such as an Accountant, Doctor, Lawyer, Investigator, Nurse, etc. You can find registered complaints against the person or their office. If the person is with a financial institution, check out the "Got Money, Then Protect it" post on the Virtualgumshoe Blog for instructions on how to conduct due diligence on brokers, financial advisors and banks.

Earlier we mentioned the use of Social Networking Sites to locate a possible date of birth. We'll if you haven't already, you can also use those sites to gain a lot of character information as well. Many people carelessly post pictures and comments that reveal far more than they might wish to outside their immediate circle of friends. Of course take it with a grain of salt; everyone is entitled to being a little crazy when they don't think the world is looking.

Another much overlooked method to checking on someone's online activity and character is simply using Google. Searching their name is a good start, but also search any known email addresses they use and change or break them up a little bit. For example, if the person's known email address is "", search for the whole email address on Google but also search for "vixen123456" by itself. You might find the person set up a secondary account under hotmail, yahoo, or other service for posting in more discreet chat rooms. Trust me, it happens.
Overall, the key to a successful background check is to use the above suggestions as an outline more than an instruction manual. The best resources to use will change depending on the subject of your search and the information you seek. Use keyword searches on Virtualgumshoe to find additional free sources of information in other areas. Remember, the resources we link to on Virtualgumshoe are all free. Free is great, but it takes a little work, so weigh your options accordingly. If you're considering a paid search to save time, read the following. Otherwise, good luck with your searching!

Are the Paid Criminal Record Searches any different from what I can do for Free?
They are quite different. For example, the "Guardian Report" or any true "Nationwide Criminal Record Search" you see advertised online is a database compilation search that combines any criminal record information we could gather electronically and update fairly frequently. So there are hundreds of government sources feeding into our "Guardian Report" search totaling over 500 million criminal records. These sources include most all of the county, state, department of corrections, and sex offender registries mentioned above plus many others that do not make their information available online. We have to contract with these jurisdictions and pay fees to access their data. You can see the exact coverage and update frequency of our National Database on Guardian Report Coverage page.

Which is better for me. Free or Paid Criminal Record Searches?

To most people, free is always better, but the do it yourself method has its limits as does the pay search. If the states and counties your subject has lived in have online access, stick to free. You can then search as many variations on the name as you like and check back as frequently as you'd like. However, if you have time constraints or the places the subject lived are not accessible online, than check the coverage page of the Guardian Report or other online database and see if the areas are listed and updated frequently. Just be careful when selecting a pay service for an instant background check. They are not all created equal and some are NEVER updated. Note: NO CRIMINAL RECORD SEARCH YOU'LL FIND ONLINE CONTAINS ALL CRIMINAL RECORDS FROM EVERY JURISDICTION. Any advertisement that makes this claim is likely a scam. Make sure that the online service you use does the following.

  • They list their full criminal record coverage detail online for every jurisdiction.

  • They list an active phone number and physical address in their contact information.

  • They have sample reports to view online.

  • They have a terms and conditions statement availably for printing.
Tip: Watch out for phony "Top 10 Site Reviews" or "Consumer Reviews" of the best criminal record databases. Unless the reviews are through a well known source these are usually advertisements for fake databases or subscription services.

Just remember, the Internet is becoming more and more of an amazing resource for information. We can conduct research in minutes that would have taken months, or years just 10 yrs ago. With its growing accessibility and popularity, scam artists naturally follow. When conducting your own research, be skeptical of any site that offers to find out anything about anybody for a small fee. Always call and ask questions

If you have questions regarding background checks, please feel free to email for more information.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Got Money? Then Protect It!

We've all received the call from the Broker who has a hot tip on a new IPO and they really truly honestly want you to take advantage of this information for the good of you and your family. "Don't miss the boat" they'll tell you. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity" "Don't you deserve to live the good life?" Who are these people? And if they know this stock is going to take off, why are they calling me? It's like knowing which horse is going to win the race and calling a stranger to convince him to bet on it.

This practice of cold calling by brokers is a legitimate sales tactic as long as they don't mislead you, but who's really policing what they say? The common sense factor hopefully keeps most people from investing a penny from anyone that they've only spoken to by phone or by email.

My point is (finally) that you can check out the people you entrust your money to even in less shady circumstances such as Financial Advisers, Brokers, Banks, and other investment funds. We've listed these FREE (as always) searches on under the category "Investor and Banking Disciplinary Actions".

Check the Background of Your Investment Professional through the FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) Broker Check. Here you can search background information on over 660,000 registered brokers and 5,100 registered securities firms. Info on formerly registered brokers and firms is also available." It's a fan-freakin-tastic search for an investor or an investigator. I've found detailed complaint information on investment professionals here many a time. Most people will never know these databases exist and that's the way some shady brokers would like to keep it. Take advantage of it!

Other Investor and Banking Disciplinary action databases listed on Virtualgumshoe include...

Use the FDIC: Enforcement Decisions and Orders link to search for...
  • FDIC-insured state chartered banks that are not members of the Federal Reserve System

  • FDIC-insured branches of foreign banks

  • Officers, directors, employees, controlling shareholders, agents and certain other categories of individuals (institution-affiliated parties) associated with such institution

Use the The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency link to search...

  • National banks

  • Federal branches and agencies of foreign banks

  • Institution-affiliated parties (IAPs), including:
    a. Officers, directors, and employees,
    b. A bank's controlling stockholders, agents, and certain other individuals

I won't list them all here. For more, just go to and view the "Investor and Banking Disciplinary Actions" category.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Why Search Corporate Records? WHY NOT???

We've updated all of our Corporate Records and UCC filings links!

Corporate records are a widely available, usually free, and completely underused source of information. When would they come in handy you ask? Any of the following would be a perfect example of when you should look into corporate records.

Your hiring a contractor.
Your looking into a dog walking service.
Your putting a loved one in a "retirement community"
Your partnering with another business.
Your looking to purchase something on the Internet.
Your investigating a person or company.
Your considering using a company your unfamiliar with.

The reasons are ENDLESS. The fact is, any company with a little cash can put out a commercial, a pay per click ad or other means of getting your attention. That doesn't mean they're trustworthy. Companies pop up every day and companies shut down every day. Check them out with a few simple steps.

If they don't have a physical address listed online, that's a red flag right off the bat. If they do, search corporate records in that state. See how long they've actually been around. See if they are doing business as a different name than their legal name.

Then search "DBA" (doing business as) names, "Fictitious" business names and their legal name through Google. Look for comments made by people online via blogs, newsgroups, and sites such as the the Better Business Bureau ,, Yelp, and other consumer review sites.

If the corporate records list the principals of the companies, search them through the same means but go a step further. Run their names through any criminal record and civil litigation searches available in the states they do business in.

Be proactive not reactive, it will save you a lot of misery!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Political Contributions Dont Lie!

Religion and Politics are two subjects your not supposed bring up unless you already know the answer, or you're in the mood for knock down drag out debate. Which makes us all the more curious about who falls into what category even though we pretend it doesn't matter.

Now while there's no public database (yet) to divulge the religion of those new friends and neighbors, you can still take a peek at their political allegiance to satisfy your curiosity.

We've recently updated the Virtualgumshoe links directory with the best of the best in political contributions search databases. Check out the Huffington Post FundRace for the Celebrity angle on political contributions or click over to the Federal Election Commission's database for a basic first and last name search of your friends. You can even search by zip code at

Just don't hold it against 'em if your new friend happens to fall on the wrong side of the fence. Whichever side that might be.