10 Questions About Background Checks You Always Wanted to Know But Were Too Afraid to Ask

Nadav Shemer
10 Questions About Background Checks You Always Wanted to Know But Were Too Afraid to Ask
A background check is a process that reveals information about a person from publicly available records. Background checks can reveal all sorts of interesting information about a person, from phone numbers, addresses, and education records to criminal history, traffic violations, and civil court rulings.

In short, best background checks will tell you if a person is who they thought you were to be and help you determine if they are someone you can trust.

Here are 10 questions you may want to know the answers to before going ahead and running a background check on someone.

1. Are background checks legal?

The short answer is: yes, background checks are a legal and legitimate way to find out information about someone. 

Remember, background checks only show you information from what’s on the public record. Technically, you could go out and obtain all the information yourself; it’s just a lot quicker to use a background check service to do it for you. 

While background checks are legal, it is important to follow rules governing getting a person’s consent and how you can use a person’s information, such as in a professional setting (see question 3).

2. What shows on a background check?

The answer to this is potentially a lot, although it depends how much information you need. A good background search utilizes public information from a wide range of publicly available sources including governments, corporations, and social networks.  

According to CheckPeople, one of the top background search services, its background searches include information from:

  • Criminal records
  • Lawsuits
  • Civil cases, e.g. child custody, personal injury, or restraining orders
  • Bankruptcies
  • Traffic violations
  • Liens or seizures of property
  • Sexual offender registries

3. Can you make a hiring decision based on a background check?

This is where you have to be careful. While it is legitimate to run a background check on a prospective employee, there are a lot of rules to follow. 

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you must:

  • Not use the information from a background check to discriminate against an applicant or employees because of their race, national origin, color, sex, religion, disability, genetic information, or age;
  • Get an applicant’s or employee’s written permission to run a background check; and
  • Tell the applicant or employee you might use the information for decisions about his or her employment.

4. Can you do a background check on someone without their permission?

If you’re planning to run a background check for professional reasons–such as hiring an employee or screening a prospective tenant–then you are legally required to get permission. If you are running a background check for personal reasons, then the rules are less strict and less enforceable.

The easiest way to figure out if you need permission is to see who offers the service. The background check services listed on Top10.com mostly operate background checks for personal reasons. To run a professional background check (such as a pre-employment background screening), you’ll likely need to use a FCRA-compliant service.

As an example, here’s who TruthFinder, one of the top background check services for personal reasons, allows you to look up:

  • Neighbors
  • New relationships
  • Sex offender database
  • Family members
  • Parents of your kids’ friends
  • Friends
  • Former classmates
  • Social media connections
  • Online sellers
  • Unknown numbers
  • Celebrities

And here’s what you cannot use TruthFinder for:

  • Screening employees
  • Screening tenants
  • Screening domestic workers such as babysitters, nannies, or gardeners
  • Screening professional services such as tutors, doctors, or personal trainers

5. Will someone know if you do a background check?

Unless you tell the person, then the answer is no: the target of your background check will be none the wiser that you’ve been reading up on them.

6. What information do you need to conduct a background search?

If you’re using a background search for personal reasons, then you only need one of these two things to begin the search: the person’s name or phone number (known as a reverse phone lookup). You can also add the person’s city or state for additional accuracy.

7. Are online background checks accurate?

The best background check services are as accurate as the public records from which they gather the information. If the counties keep accurate court records, then you’ll receive accurate court records too. 

Where mistakes can be made is in presenting information from the right person. If the person you look up has a common name, then their details could be mixed up with the details of someone else with the same name who lives nearby. 

Obviously, some background check services are more reliable than others. If 100% accuracy is a priority for you, then it pays to do a comparison shop and select from only the best services.

8. Is there a totally free background check?

Like most online services, background checks come in a range of price points–from free to premium.  

Free services cap the number of times you can make a search and offer only basic information about a person. They’re useful for occasionally looking up the identity of spam callers but aren’t good for much more. Some free services let you conduct your first background check without registering, which is great for when you want to find out the identity of a spam caller. 

9. What are the advantages of paid background checks?

Paid background checks let you make unlimited searches and reveal as much information about a person as they can possibly find.

As an example of what a paid background service can do for you, here’s what Instant Checkmate promises:

  • Unlimited searches with one monthly fee
  • Scours data from specialized sources (such as social media, police records, civil judgments, contact information, and more) to give you valuable information in one place
  • All searches are secured with 128-bit encrypted connection and verified Norton protection.

10. Can you do a background check on yourself?

You can, and you probably should. Running a background check on yourself shows you what other people can discover when they run a background search on you. 

Background searches serve many purposes

There you have it–our answers to the 10 most frequently asked questions about background searches. We hope you got something out of this article. For more information on the how, why and where of background searches, check out our reviews of the best background checks.

Nadav Shemer
Nadav Shemer specializes in business, tech, and energy, with a background in financial journalism, hi-tech and startups. He enjoys writing about the latest innovations in financial services and products.
Note: Some or all background check 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.