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.

1 comment:

Jay said...

I just recently started up my own general contracting company and decided I would run background checks of prospective employees. Luckily I decided to do this because I found a couple potential hires with extensive records. Background Screening provided me the resources to conduct the check if anyone is interested in doing the same thing. I recommend this process.