Welcome to the fourth entry in my “Ultimate Guide” series here on The Simple Dollar. If you want to hop back to the first three, here are some quick links:
Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Term Life Insurance Policy
Ultimate Guide to Choosing an Internet Service Provider
Ultimate Guide to Amazon Discounts
This fourth entry is about background checks, a topic that I’ve touched on quite a few times on The Simple Dollar but never really dug into.
Why background checks? Background checks are an absolutely vital part of the process of finding a roommate or a boarder or hiring someone. If you’re looking for someone to rent out a room in your home or you’re thinking about hiring someone to do some work on your property, you need to have a sense of who this person is and what their background is. It’s a simple matter of protecting your own safety.
The level of background check you do is really up to you. Many of the steps you can take are things you can do on your own for free, but a professional service can often do a deeper job. Let’s dig into what you can do on your own first.
Before You Start…
Before you start checking on someone’s background, you need to obtain some information from the person you’re searching. For some situations, like choosing a roommate, there are reasonable limits on what you can ask or what you can expect them to provide – info like a current address and current employment is reasonable, but a Social Security number is not.
I would suggest that having at least a person’s full name, their place of employment, and their current address should be the minimum information I would want before engaging in an arrangement with them.
The first thing to do is to browse through information that people have shared about themselves online, which is often a surprising amount. There are several tools you can use very easily to find this shared information.
Google is an obvious first step. Just type in their name and see what comes up. Of course, you always need to apply some common sense to the results because there are often multiple people with the same name. This is where current places of employment and residency can be important.
Another place I often check is LinkedIn. Individuals with a professional history often list their entire professional record and educational record there, which can help to verify what info you find from other sources.
Another good site for the aggregation of public information is PeekYou. It peels information from a lot of different public sites and attempts to put them all together for you in one swoop.
Generally, these sites only include info that people choose to share about themselves online, but you can usually find out quite a bit. Just be sure that the person you look up is actually the same person you’re checking up on.
You’re also going to want to examine the legal history of people. Have they been involved with run-ins with the law in the past?
One key place to start is the National Sex Offender Registry, which keeps track of where convicted sex offenders currently live and what crimes they’ve committed.
Another useful tool is your state’s court records, which varies from state to state. You can start this journey by visiting the National Center for State Courts and use that site to find your own state’s court system website.
These tools should help you find out about a person’s legal past.
Hiring a Background Check Service
Some people may just prefer to have a professional do this kind of work. In that case, there are background check services that will use many of the tools above and other ones to find information about a person as per your request.
First of all, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you can only use authorized credit reporting services if you’re doing this type of check, and it must be authorized by the person that you’re checking. If you’re doing this with an unauthorized service and then use that information to reject the person you’re checking, you can wind up in hot water.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides a handy list of such services.
Generally, you should only request this type of search if you’re entering into a formal business arrangement with someone where significant money will change hands – a landlord or an employer. If you make such a request of a potential roommate, they likely will not sign off on such a thing and won’t provide the needed information even if they’re completely on the up-and-up because of the amount of trust required by them.
As for paid background checking services, they generally provide a mixed bag of results, usually with a bunch of false positives, and if you want to screen all of those, you’re moving beyond the realm of a background check and into the realm of private investigation, which can be very expensive and is somewhat outside the realm of what’s necessary when checking out a prospective tenant or roommate.
Which Service Should You Use?
It really comes down to the kind of information you want.
For the most part, the free court checks described above will find legal information about a person and won’t cost you a dime. I would consider those free searches along with references (which I would check) to be adequate information about a roommate.
If you’re bringing in a tenant or hiring an employee, I would want to also do a credit check, which you would need authorization for. Here’s an example of such an authorization, but I would work with a lawyer to make sure that you’re on firm legal ground before asking for such information.
Naturally, sketchy people will be able to avoid many of these checks, but that’s true no matter how deep you go. These are simple steps to keep you safer, but nothing keeps you perfectly safe.
Also, you may sometimes find information about people that you find surprising or shocking, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not the right match for the type of relationship you’re seeking with them. There’s also the concern that you might not be finding information about them, but about someone with the same name or a similar name. Save hard judgments for hard facts.