Whether you need to hire someone for a job or you want to look back at your own history, you might wonder if there are any options for a free background check service. While some providers tout such “free” solutions, the reality is more complicated than choosing between a free or paid option. This post will explore free criminal background check options, including their pros and cons.
Background Checks: Free vs Paid
Is there really such a thing as a free background check service?
A simple Google search will show that there are websites that claim to offer background information on individuals at no cost. In theory, these services work because most of the information they access comes from public records. Criminal records, court data, and other similar sources are all public. Because they aren't strictly confidential, anyone can access or view them in most cases. However, a closer look at these services often reveals hidden fees for access to detailed data.
There is a distinct difference between a free background check and a paid one. While criminal history information is public record, for instance, that does not mean that there is no cost to compiling reports based on that information. Contrary to popular belief, there is no central criminal records database that you can explore. Comprehensive background checks take time and effort to produce. Consider the scope of the process.
Arrest and conviction records usually originate at the county level, meaning that crime records in the United States can come from more than 3,000 counties. Sometimes, county courthouses report into state repositories, which pull together criminal records databases for whole states. Sometimes, that information may end up in larger multi-jurisdictional databases containing records from multiple places. However, none of these larger databases are comprehensive.
Typically, a site offering free background checks online provides you with a search of a multi-jurisdictional database. However, accessing the best databases usually require a paid search, as it costs money to compile, update, and maintain those resources. Paid searches can also cover court costs and associated fees for direct criminal records checks at county courthouses.
When Should I Consider a Paid Background Check?
When should you consider choosing a paid background screening rather than trying to run a free background check? Always.
Accurate, up-to-date background checks cost money. While these checks access public records, the size and complexity of the systems involved mean that finding relevant information is more complex than most realize. The best background check service will always be a paid service: you aren’t just paying for the records but also for the expertise of a company that knows where to look and how to share information in an understandable format.
Free online background information databases are often incomplete, out-of-date, or otherwise unreliable. They have minimal controls to protect against false positives. Relying on them may mean mistakenly overlooking newer convictions or other apparent red flags. Free systems rarely have a professional team standing behind the reports they provide, leaving you on your own. The best services can provide guidance, share resources about relevant regulations such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and answer any questions that you might have.
At backgroundchecks.com, we provide many services ranging from criminal background checks to civil court records searches to Social Security Number validations and more. We have reasonably priced these services for the information that they provide, and we are vigilant about providing reliable information to our customers.
Reliability is worth the investment, whether you are running a background check on someone else or yourself.
How to Run a Free Background Check Online
If you want to perform research about yourself or someone else, the internet can be a useful tool, but it is not always dependable. Individuals who use online dating services, for example, may need to know more about their next potential date. While it is not as thorough as a full background check, this step can provide some peace of mind. Here are a few channels to consider if you wish to conduct a free background check.
Googling someone won’t cost a cent. If you are looking for a “free background check,” Google might be the best place to start. Social media profiles, blogs, YouTube videos, and bios on personal or employer websites are just a few of the resources you may find through a simple Google search.
If the results are inconclusive—often a problem if you are Googling someone with a common name—you might try narrowing your search. Add the subject's middle name or initial, hometown, profession, or other information that might narrow your results towards the correct individual.
Typically, search engine research is most effective if you already have some knowledge about the individual. Knowing where they work, how old they are, and how they look will make it easier to tell whether you’ve found your target. However, if you are searching by name alone and little else, you cannot know whether you've found information about the right individual or someone who shares their name. That makes free criminal background check products less desirable.
As with using Google, accessing social networks and searching for individuals on them are cost-free options. The free-access nature of social media makes it a standard tool for no-cost vetting.
Over the past 20 years, it’s become much more common for users to share intimate details online about themselves and their lives. Along the way, it’s also become more common for employers to use social media to find out prospective hires. You can do this, too. You may be able to learn more about a new neighbor, coworker, or potential romantic connection using social media.
However, social media background checks have some of the same shortcomings that search engine checks do. You are much more likely to encounter false positives by relying on websites such as Facebook or Instagram as the basis for a background search.
For employers, this type of search has serious shortcomings. On social media, users may share very personal or private details about themselves. Some of these details—such as sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on—can risk introducing bias into the hiring process. Thus, employers typically may not consider such information. Businesses with plans to look at social profiles as part of a screening process should tread carefully. Strict controls are necessary to avoid allegations of discriminatory hiring.
The biggest exception to social media checks is LinkedIn, which was developed to create a professional online database. Many professionals and job seekers are active on LinkedIn, maintaining profiles that contain up-to-date resume information and endorsements from past employers. LinkedIn can be a valuable tool in some employment situations for recruiting and research.
Most “free” online background checks use purchased compilations of criminal background records. Very few of these services are actually free: many claim to offer an instant and free background check but will demand payment as soon as you enter a name. These sites let you begin a search but demand payment to see the actual details. These databases are rarely reliable, and you should not trust them, especially in hiring situations and for other formal considerations such as housing or loan applications.
For best results, hire an experienced background screening company to handle your criminal background check needs.
Often, you will have better luck searching public records if you go directly to the source. Free-to-search databases are inconsistently updated and not as broad as you might assume. County courts, DMVs, and other direct data sources cover a narrower range of information in one geographic area, but they are more accurate.
In some cases, you may be able to search these records online for free. In other cases, you may need to pay a fee or travel somewhere in person to complete a search.
Frequently Asked Questions
What types of information are available in a background check?
The answer depends on the type of background check. Most online background databases that offer free background checks focus on criminal history, which may include arrest records or details about convictions. However, the best background check services will provide options beyond only offering criminal information.
Other checks include driving history checks, verifications of resume information (including work history, education, and professional licenses), civil court records searches, reference checks, and credit history checks. Most of these background screenings are not available from websites that offer the so-called “free” searches.
Are free criminal background check services accurate?
A free background check will never be as accurate, thorough, or up-to-date as a paid check. Many of the processes in a background check service involve time and labor—such as pulling public records, sending runners to courthouses, and maintaining proprietary databases. The best background check will require you to pay someone to spend that time and labor on your behalf.
Can I run a background check on someone without their permission?
In some cases, such as researching someone you have met through an online dating service, you do not need to obtain that person’s permission to do a background check. However, you are legally obligated to notify them of your intent if you vet someone for a job, housing, a loan, or any other official purpose. You must obtain their signed permission in writing before moving forward with the check. A “standalone disclosure” of your intent to conduct a background check is also a legal requirement for employers. Failure to follow the guidelines outlined in the Fair Credit Reporting Act can result in lawsuits. Compliance is a chief concern with free criminal background check solutions.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments