Need to conduct a criminal background check on someone (a prospective investor, a potential date, a suspicious-acting neighbor, etc.)? Good news: The U.S. Is one of the few countries in the world where you can check to see is someone has a criminal record without their express permission (provided you are not using the criminal background check for employment or credit-granting purposes). In other words, criminal records are generally considered public records here. But though public access to criminal records is more open in the U.S. than in most countries, it’s still less comprehensive than it could be. The only truly comprehensive repository of U.S. criminal records is the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, which is national in coverage and updated daily. But private citizens and businesses do not, as a general rule, have access to this FBI database. Instead, the public must search on a state-by-state basis, or in some states, on a on a county-by-county basis (the latter occurs in a few states which do not provide statewide criminal records searches to the public). Today, you can easily order criminal background checks online, through any of innumerable websites offering this service. But before you jump, read on. You really need to understand the type of info that’s available to the public and the types of searches that can be conducted before you plunk down your money. Frankly, there are more than a few online companies out there that do shoddy, incomplete criminal records searches, and may well report that your subject is “clean” when in fact he/she has a rap sheet a yard long! Knowledge is power — learn a little about criminal background checks BEFORE you order one. DATABASE VS. ON-SITE SEARCHES There are two ways to run criminal background checks — by means of statewide database searches or by having a researcher personally visit courthouses and search the records for you in person. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method. Statewide database searches are quick and relatively inexpensive. But these statewide databases have to be compiled from information submitted by the counties, and this takes time. So such databases are always somewhat out of date. Also, there may be some counties in a state which fail to report their data, in which case the database search is providing less-than-complete results. BUYER BEWARE: Virtually all Internet websites offering you “instant” criminal background checks are using statewide databases. BE CAREFUL to review the “Coverage” of those databases. You may be surprised to find that a search claiming to cover California, for example, is in reality covering only half or less of California’s counties. That’s why database searches alone are not adequate for situations where timeliness and completeness are vital, such as pre-employment screening. Although database searches allow you to search a wide geographic area inexpensively, it’s a good idea to utilize the other type of criminal search as well — hiring a researcher to search courthouse records in person. In on-site searching, timeliness and thoroughness are assured. But this type of criminal search method also has a disadvantage — you only get results for a single county (assuming you’re only having the on-site search done in one county). HOW TO SEARCH For many applications, the best strategy is to use both methods of search, that is, to order an on-site search for the subject’s county of residence plus a database search for his/her state of residence. That way, you’re getting very timely and complete results for his/her county and at the same time searching a wider area as a precaution (you can of course also order nationwide criminal database searches online). You should always start with a Social Security Number Trace (SSN Trace), which will reveal your subject’s address history, i.e., Where has he/she resided within the past seven years? Once you know this, you know where to search for criminal records. Seven years is the maximum time period generally used in pre-employment screening. However, if your search is not employment related, it may be permissible to search even further back. ALIASES Also, always conduct searches on any aliases your subject has associated with his or her SSN. For example, if the SSN Trace reveals that your subject Pat Warner has also used the name Ron Warner (Ron being his middle name), search on the name Ron Warner as well. This costs a little more but is necessary for completeness, for the obvious reason that your subject may have committed a crime and then been convicted under an alias. If your subject has more than one alias (which is unusual) you should search on all of them. Note that a female subject should be searched using her maiden name if she’s gotten married within the past seven years. BUYER BEWARE: Most criminal background checks you can order on the Internet simply skip this vital step of checking aliases and maiden names. That way, these websites are able to offer you a low price for what seems to be a valid criminal background check. However, such searches are completely unreliable. Make sure that, whomever you order these searches from, they’re doing a complete and thorough job! An incomplete criminal background check may well turn out to be much worse than none at all.