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Can You Run a Criminal Background Check on Anyone?

By Michael Klazema on 4/5/2018

In the simplest terms, yes, you can run a background check on anyone. If you have a person’s name, it is possible to look into their history, check their criminal record, find details about their driving record, and more. However, there could be legal implications to running a background check on someone without their consent. 

Background Checks in a Professional Setting

The most important question to ask yourself before running a background check on anyone concerns the purpose behind the check. Are you conducting a background check in a professional setting? Perhaps you are screening a job candidate you are thinking about hiring for your business. Maybe you are a landlord who wants to do background checks on potential tenants before you approve or deny their applications.

In either of these situations, you are planning to use a person’s background check information to make important decisions about them and their future. There are numerous laws that dictate what you can and cannot do in this kind of setting. Crucially, you must obtain the consent of the person you are vetting before you move forward with the background check. Otherwise, you are failing to comply with the law. You are also disrespecting the legally-protected rights of a prospective employee or tenant. 

Breaches of compliance on this level can lead to legal action. For instance, employers are required to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) when conducting background checks for job purposes. The FCRA has several detailed steps and policies that employers must follow. These requirements concern everything from the consent form to the process an employer should use to notify a candidate about an adverse hiring decision.

Ultimately, you can run a background check on anyone in a professional setting—but only if you go through the proper channels to disclose your intentions and obtain authorization. Most employers use background checks to screen all new hires. These employers are extremely careful about following the FCRA to the letter, as failing to do so can be an extremely costly mistake.

Background Checks in a Personal Setting

Vetting prospective employees has become one of the most popular applications for background checks. Not all background checks occur in the employment setting—or even in a professional setting. If you wish to run a background check on someone for personal reasons, it’s an entirely different ballgame than screening a potential tenant or job applicant. 

Here are a few potential background check scenarios that fall more on the personal side of the spectrum:

  • Personal relationships: Perhaps you met someone online or via a dating website or app and you want to know more about them. You are considering starting a personal relationship with this person, but want to make you can trust the person first. In this scenario, you might run a background check on your would-be significant other to make sure they are who they say they are.
     
     
  • Babysitting: You are looking for a babysitter who can care for your children after school or in the evenings. No one you know personally can take on the responsibility, which means you need to hire someone you don’t know. You might run a background check in this situation to look for potential red flags. You want to have peace of mind that your children are in good hands, and a background check can give it to you.
     
     
  • Curiosity: You recently moved into a new neighborhood and have noticed some suspicious people hanging around the neighbor’s house. You think the neighbor might be involved in some sort of criminal operation, but you aren’t sure how to find out for sure. In this situation, you might be interested in running a background check on the neighbor just to see what you can learn about them and their history.
     
     
  • Self-checks: You are preparing for a job interview and want to know exactly what an employer will see when they run a background check on you. As a precaution, you run a background check on yourself to make sure your record looks the way it should.

The rules around these types of background checks are less understood and typically less enforced than the rules around professional setting background checks. When an employer runs a background check on you, they know they need to obtain your consent to avoid problems with compliance. If you asked the average person whether applicant consent was necessary for an employment background check, they would say yes. Answers would probably vary a lot more if you asked someone about background checks for babysitters or significant others, though. Do you need consent if you want to run one of these checks?

The answer is complicated. Criminal history information (and most other information that background checks find) is public record. You can sometimes find this information just by doing a Google search of a person’s name. If you don’t need to consent to Google someone, do you need consent to order a more formal check through a background check service—many of which are online?

If you want to run a name-based background check on a significant other, a neighbor, or someone else for purposes that are relevant exclusively to a personal relationship, you can do so without consent. If there is any element of an employer-employee relationship at play, you need written permission from the person you are vetting. 

Hiring a babysitter to watch your kids might be a less formal process than hiring someone for a full-time job at your business. However, you are still serving as the “employer” for the person you choose to hire for this role. As such, it’s always wisest to get consent. The same rule of thumb applies to anyone you hire to provide a service for you and your family—from housekeepers to investment brokers to realtors


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