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Identity & Technology

Background Checks for Identity Verification

Until I learned otherwise, I assumed that there was some master database somewhere that held all the personal information about me, going all the way back to the time I had to sit out at recess because I wouldn't share my crayons with Beth in second grade. Stupid Beth, she would always tear the paper and ruin my crayons. I hated sitting next to her. Anyway, I assumed that all of my grades, every time I got detention or a parking ticket - all that stuff went on my permanent record, somewhere. I thought a background check was a comprehensive check of a my entire history and I guess I got that from TV or movies. I never really thought about where the data was coming from.

As you can see, this document is to "cdrtify" that I was promoted to grade 2.

As you can see, this document is to "cdrtify" that I was promoted to grade 2.

But the reality is quite different. Records are stored with dozens of different governmental and civilian agencies. If you have lived in different counties or states, the records will be in different locations. Many of these records are only available in their physical form, available at the courthouse or records office where they're filed. Each state, and often each county, has different rules on how much information is available and who can access background check data. This doesn't mean they are useless, it just means they aren't nearly as helpful as most people think they are.

Where Does the Information Come From?

Because there are so many different kinds of background information, the answer is "it depends". Information is typically sourced from public records created by government agencies and county courts, state courts, state Departments of Correction, and state Administrations of Courts. On a national level, the Social Security AdministrationDepartment of Homeland Security, and National Sex Offender Registries keep public records that are used in background checks. Other sources of publicly available information created and maintained by the state include vital records, immigration records, property records, address histories, real estate records, bankruptcy information, and criminal records. Some are available online, some are not.

The list of potential sources broadens substantially for criminal record checks. There are a number of databases, including the FBI Identification Record, the National Instant Criminal Background Check for gun purchases, the Interstate Identification Index System, and more. A background check may also include a Terrorist Watch List check, sex offender and child and elder abuse registry checks, and checks with various financial regulatory agencies.

Are They Useful for Identity Verification?

There are some limitations. A thorough background check is expensive. You need to know every place the person has ever lived so you can check with each and every county. This will sometimes mean a person has to go to that county courthouse to fill out forms to request copies of paper documents. A detailed background check is expensive. If it doesn't cost at least $100, they probably aren't being very thorough. And you are still dependent on the source - the person you are checking. If they omit a location where they have lived, you won't check that county and will likely get incomplete information.

And doing a background check right takes time. For example, when the Department of Defense does a background check to see if a person qualifies for a security clearance, it takes months to years. So if you are getting a background check result quickly, it's probably not comprehensive. Some data is only available to law enforcement and government officials.

Why Bother with Background Checks?

A background check can reveal information that wouldn't come up during in-depth interviews or reference check. There are many data sources that can be checked quickly and inexpensively. It's not so much that they serve no purpose as that they can give people a false sense of confidence. Nothing is 100% when identity is concerned.