How Does a Background Check Work?
A background search uses various online services and tools as well as publicly available information to uncover details about someone's background, like criminal history, location history, social media accounts, financial information, traffic and court records, education and employment history, and more. While it's possible to search public records manually, the process would be more arduous and time-consuming than using a background check service.
Typically, someone using a background check company would enter a person's name into the service's online search tool. The company would then deliver a detailed report with background information on the search subject. This process usually takes five minutes or less.
Some background check services also allow consumers to search by phone number, email address, physical address, or social media username. And while many providers require users to sign up for a monthly subscription rather than purchase a single report, some do offer trial periods.
Reasons To Use Background Check Services?
There are many reasons to use an online background check service. Some people conduct background checks on new neighbors or potential online dates to ensure their personal safety. Others use background screening services to connect with family or friends they've lost touch with or to look up their names to see what information is publicly available.
Background checks are also commonly used by employers to vet potential hires and by landlords to review possible tenants. But these screenings must be done through companies that comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and other federal, state, and local regulations.
Choosing the Right Background Check Company
When looking for a background check company, you have to consider what you'll be using the service for—like finding a lost relative or researching suspected spam callers—and find a subscription plan that will meet these needs and is within your budget.
For example, if you're looking to investigate criminal records, you'll want to be sure the service you use has access to federal, state, and local court databases. And if you need to use a background check service for employment or other federally regulated purposes, ensure you are using a service that is FCRA-compliant.
The background check service you choose should provide accurate reports, customizable searches, an easy-to-use web and mobile interface, and excellent customer service that's accessible by phone, chat, or email. It should also include a variety of available search term options, such as name, phone number, email, address, and social media username.
Here are a few important factors to consider when choosing an online background check company:
Accuracy of Report Information
You should research whether the online background check service has a reputation for delivering accurate information in its reports and is committed to privacy.
Some background check services will turn up information on people who are not the subject of your search or include information that's not associated with your target, like social media accounts, addresses, or phone numbers. User reviews should give you a good sense of how accurate a service's report information is. Of the services we tried, PeopleWhiz delivered the most accurate background checks.
Search customization is essential, especially for consumers who want to conduct a background check but only have someone's phone number, email address, physical address, or social media username.
Some background check services, like Intelius and PeopleFinders, give users various search customization options outside of people lookups or allow them to conduct a more tailored check—for example, running a criminal history search rather than a general background search.
Ease of Use
Your background check service should be user-friendly and provide information in well-organized, easy-to-read reports. This is especially relevant to users who want to conduct multiple searches. CheckPeople, for example, allows unlimited searches and delivers well-organized reports.
Many background check services will provide an online dashboard where you can save and organize your searches—some, like US Search, even allow you to print PDF versions of your reports.
Good customer support is vital for any online background check service, so users feel confident that any issues they may encounter will be resolved quickly. Find out whether the service offers online or phone-based customer support (ideally, both).
Carefully review the background check service's cancellation policy to determine whether they permit online cancellation or require you to call a service line to cancel your subscription—especially if you plan to cancel before your trial period expires. We found that TruthFinder and PeopleLooker offer outstanding customer support, with options to cancel your subscription online or by phone.
Legal Compliance and Privacy
When conducting background checks, it is crucial to understand the legal framework and privacy considerations involved. Employers and organizations must comply with federal and state laws, ensuring that the information they gather and use is permissible and used ethically.
Background checks typically involve searching through various public records, including criminal records, arrest records, and contact details. It's important to remember that these checks must respect the rights of the individual, adhering to regulations set by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and other relevant legislation.
Additionally, consent from the person being checked is often required. Transparency in the process and safeguarding the privacy and rights of individuals are key to maintaining legal compliance and ethical standards in background checks.
How Much Do Background Check Services Cost?
Pricing for background check services typically varies between $20 and $30 a month. And many require users to sign up for a monthly subscription for unlimited reports rather than allowing single-report purchases. Generally, the monthly price will be cheaper if you sign up for an extended subscription. However, many services require you to pay the cost of a full subscription (such as three or six months) upfront.
Some background check providers have cheaper subscription options for specific services—like Instant Checkmate's unlimited phone search option, which will only cost you $5.99/month. Others such as BeenVerified, also offer trial periods, making them practical for people interested in conducting a single search.
Information Included in Different Types of Background Checks
Consumers can conduct background checks for various reasons—from employment verification to gun safety checks and criminal history reports—where each check will unearth different kinds of information.
To help you key in on what you'll need, we've identified some of the most common types of background checks and what kind of data they usually uncover.
Criminal Background Checks
A criminal background check searches federal, state, and local court databases for information about felony or misdemeanor charges and convictions. Someone might conduct this type of search on a potential online date to uncover whether they've ever been convicted of a felony.
Background Checks for Employment
Employers will often run background checks on prospective employees during the hiring process to confirm their employment history, uncover any criminal history relevant to their job duties, and double-check their work eligibility. For example, someone seeking to hire a nanny might run a background check to confirm they've worked for the previous employers they listed on their resume.
Education verification is typically an element of a pre-employment background screening run by an employer on a potential job candidate. The employer might call the university the candidate has listed in their resume to confirm their graduation date and ensure the candidate isn't misrepresenting themselves.
A reference check is usually also an element of a pre-employment background screening. Employers may call a candidate's previous employers or colleagues to confirm their skillset, responsibility, and work ethic.
Universal Background Checks
People who want to buy firearms from a licensed dealer in the US must pass a background check to ensure they aren't restricted from owning guns for reasons such as domestic violence or other felony convictions. Gun safety advocates are pushing for universal background checks, which would close a loophole that allows gun purchases in some states from unlicensed sellers (such as gun show sellers or online sellers) without a background check.
OIG Background Checks
When hiring, employers in the healthcare industry typically search the US Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General's exclusion list for healthcare professionals who can't participate in federally-funded health programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Those on the OIG's exclusion list may have been convicted of serious charges like fraud, abuse, or neglect.
E-Verify Background Checks
E-Verify is an online background check system that allows employers to compare a job candidate's information against US government records, such as those from the Homeland Security Administration and the Social Security Administration. This check is used to confirm whether a candidate is eligible to work in the United States.
Credit Background Checks
Credit background checks review someone's credit report, which contains information like credit card accounts, debts owed, and on-time payment history. Landlords often run credit checks on potential tenants to ensure they're financially responsible, but these checks must comply with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Social Security Number Trace
A social security trace confirms someone's social security number to ensure they're not using a false or stolen identity. It will also turn up a detailed address history. Employers can use this trace to confirm a candidate's identity or to determine which law enforcement jurisdictions to search during a criminal background check.
Personal Background Checks
A personal background check is when someone runs a search on themselves to determine what kind of public information is available about them. This background check is a good option if you want to determine whether any false information exists about you, so you can dispute and correct it.
Professional Licenses Background Checks
Employers typically use a professional license background check to confirm that a potential job candidate's professional licenses are up to date and that the candidate hasn't misrepresented themselves. For example, an employer hiring an accountant might want to verify the candidate's certification with the relevant state regulatory agency.
International Background Checks
International background checks can uncover the same information included in a regular background check, like criminal history and employment history, but in any foreign country where the subject of the search has lived or worked. The type of information available will vary depending on local in-country regulations.
Social Media Scans
Social media scans search platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, along with numerous lesser-known sites, for evidence of an account associated with a person's name, phone number, or email address. Not all background check services provide social media scans; if they do, the number of platforms scanned may vary.
Sources of Background Check Information
There's no one public information source that powers a background check. Instead, the information in these reports comes from various sources, such as:
- Federal, state, and local court databases
- Professional certification and license databases
- Social media sites
- Motor vehicle records
- Credit reporting agencies
- Property records
- Online phone books
Are Free Background Checks Legit?
It's possible to conduct a free background check on your own if there's something specific you're looking for. For example, you could visit the local court website in the jurisdiction where a potential online date lives to search their name in the database for any criminal convictions.
However, the upside of paying for a background check service is that it will conduct a much more thorough and faster search by combing through a large number of public records in several jurisdictions within a few minutes.
Most online companies that provide background checks charge money, and though some websites say they offer "free" checks, they'll let you search for free but charge for access to detailed reports.
Understanding Different Levels of Background Checks
Employers in certain industries conduct different levels of background checks depending on the type of job they're hiring for.
While most employers will want to confirm a candidate's educational and employment history, some jobs require additional levels of background checks beyond that.
For instance, someone hiring a moving truck driver would likely want to check a candidate's driving history, and someone hiring for a financial role might review criminal history records for any fraud allegations. Here are the different levels of background checks:
- Level 1: Identity verification. Most employers typically run a social security trace to confirm a candidate's name and date of birth. A social security trace will also provide a detailed address history.
- Level 2: Criminal background checks. Many organizations will conduct a criminal history background check by searching federal, state, and local court records for any felony or misdemeanor charges or convictions. But federal and state laws regulate how criminal history can be used in making employment decisions.
- Level 3: Credit history and score checks. Some employers may conduct a credit history check, which will include credit card accounts, debts owed, and history of on-time payments, especially for roles where financial responsibility is an integral part of job duties.
- Level 4: Motor vehicle record. Certain companies will use state motor vehicle records to check a candidate's driving history. If the job duties involve driving, an employer will check specifically for any history of infractions.
- Level 5: Educational and professional background checks. Educational and professional background checks confirm a candidate's degree with their university or by calling a former employer to verify their position and job duties.
- Level 6: Fingerprint checks. Some professions conduct fingerprint background checks for a more thorough criminal background check, such as in government or security sectors. Someone's fingerprint can be checked against the FBI's database to search for criminal records.
- Level 7: Verify legal work status in the US. There are employers who use the government's online E-Verify system to check a candidate's information against Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration records. This check ensures a candidate's eligibility to work in the US.
How Long Do Background Checks Actually Take?
Online background check services typically provide results in less than five minutes, although some take longer. Background screening searches that scan large amounts of information usually take the longest.
Employment background checks that require contacting former employers, academic institutions, or officials can take days or weeks. International background searches can take much longer, depending on the country's process to access public records.
Factors That May Result in a Failed Background Check
Everyone conducting a background check should determine what findings would constitute failing a background check for the subject of their search. For example, an employer hiring for a driver position may decide that anyone with a major moving violation or drug offenses would fail their pre-employment background check.
Ultimately, failing a background check will depend on the type of background check (in this example, a pre-employment screening) and why this check is being conducted (e.g., to find a responsible driver). Offering up fake or misleading information to a potential employer that's uncovered by a background check will most likely make you fail it.
Additional Background Check Sites We Reviewed
Beyond the 10 sites, we've included here—all of which, for transparency purposes, are partners of Top10.com—there are a variety of other online services we've reviewed that are also worth checking out. Consider these background check services if you're looking for more options:
- SearchQuarry - Best for searching license plates or VINs
- Persopo - Best for learning more about one's family genealogy
- SentryLink - Best for users looking for an FCRA-compliant service
- Spokeo - Best for searching social media and dating sites
- DeepSearchPro - Best for scanning billions of records going back decades
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Final Verdict: Discover the Truth in Minutes
Our picks for the top 10 best background check sites are BeenVerified, Intelius, PeopleFinders, US Search, PeopleWhiz, TruthFinder, PeopleLooker, CheckPeople, InstantCheckmate and IDTrue.
Background checks are a crucial resource for many people—whether you're an online dating app user looking to vet a potential match, an employer trying to confirm a candidate's credentials, or a genealogy enthusiast hoping to connect with distant family members.
Whatever your reason, an online background check service can make the process easier by sifting through a multitude of public records for you, often delivering results quickly—without costing you a fortune.
Still, while most subscriptions are affordable, you need to compare a variety of companies and understand their utility to ensure you're not wasting your time or money. By following the advice we've presented here, you'll be well-equipped to conduct an extensive check on anyone you need.
Note: Some or all background search services featured on this site are not subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 USC 1681 et seq., ("FCRA") In order to make decisions about consumer credit, employment, insurance, tenant screening, or any other purpose that would require FCRA compliance, make sure you choose the appropriate service for you. Be advised that only consumer reporting agencies may provide consumer reports. This is applicable, but not limited to, a background search, credit background check, criminal background check, and/or driving record.