A Quick Guide to Background Check Searches

May 20, 2021
Checkr Editor

Background checks are an integral part of the hiring process. But it hasn’t always been clear what exactly happens during a background check. 

Candidates applying for jobs authorize a check to be run, but then what? Most people have heard that background checks include criminal records and a few other types of searches. Today, we are going to clarify some mysteries of the background check by breaking down often used searches.

Different industries have unique background check requirements. So, each company or organization will run sets of searches based on their needs. Simplifying the background check process allows organizations and candidates alike to clearly understand what’s happening during their check, the nuances of each type of check, as well as the scope. 

Before we dive into the different types of searches included, let’s make sure we define what constitutes a background check. 

What is a background check?

A background check is a process used to search for public records or to verify certain information about a person. The check can include a series of different searches such as criminal record screenings, education checks, and employment history verification. The types of searches run will differ based on the requirements of the organization, industry or role. 

Who runs background checks? Consumer Reporting Agencies, or CRAs, run background checks and are required under federal law to have reasonable procedures to ensure maximum possible accuracy when producing a background check report. Turnaround time varies for checks because it may require searching across many sources. 

Let’s start with the first piece of a background check, what is commonly called a Social Security Number (SSN) trace. 

The first step

The first step for many background checks is an SSN Trace. After a candidate submits their name and SSN, this information is used to run the check. The SSN Trace searches information from credit reporting databases like credit bureaus, tax records, directories and more to find potential previous addresses, potential aliases, and acts as a pointer for the rest of the background check. 

Now, let’s define the searches that may be included in a background check, discuss the nuances, and understand the timeline of reporting for each. 

What searches are included in background checks?

It’s important to note that not all background searches are the same. The list presented below is not exhaustive but rather represents some of the most common searches. 

Your background check may include all of the following searches or one or two based on the position. To start us off, we’ll cover one of the most common checks, criminal searches. 

Criminal searches

Definition: Criminal background checks are the backbone of screening packages. They use a combination of databases such as national criminal databases, sex offender registries, global watchlists, etc., paired with county courthouse searches to identify a candidate’s criminal background, if any. 

Nuance: While criminal searches can include national databases, often, the county is the single source of truth for criminal records. However, the process of searching at the county level varies. Some county searches are returned the same day, while some take several days or more, depending on the search methodology. 

At the county level, some counties have all their data online and it’s complete and up-to-date. In this case, CRAs can use an electronic Public Access Terminal (PAT). If a court has no electronic data, the CRA works with people on the ground in that city to provide the data, also called furnishers, to capture the information. It’s up to each jurisdiction to determine what kind of database they hold. 

Timeline: Generally, the standard look-back period for criminal searches is seven to 10 years, but this varies from state to state as well as by industry.

Sex offender registries

Definition: The sex offender registry is a public safety and community notification service. It allows the public to search for convicted sex offenders living in their area, and is also used by law enforcement to keep track of offenders in their jurisdictions. 

Nuance: Post-incarceration, a sex offender is required to register with the county sheriff upon establishing residence.

Timeline: Typically, the individual has to register for a finite period, but the length of time varies, depending on the laws in that state. 

Global Watchlist

Definition: The Global Watchlist is a collection of domestic and international government and regulatory databases that identify individuals and companies who are prohibited from certain industries or are on varying criminal lists. 

Nuance: The sources checked during a Global Watchlist search include:

  1. Office Of Inspector General
  2. European Union Consolidated List
  3. Drug Enforcement Agency Fugitives
  4. Government Sanction Databases
  5. Various other lists

Timeline: The frequency with which these federal databases are updated depends on how often each individual source updates their records. For example, a state healthcare sanctions database might update every 30 days, whereas an international criminal database might update every six months.


Employment verification

Definition: Verifying past employment history validates a person’s work experience. It can also be useful in identifying gaps in the candidate’s employment history.

Nuance: Employment verifications do not equal reference checks. Instead, it verifies a person’s past employment history and employment dates. 

Timeline: Employment verification typically checks up to three past employers in the last seven years.

Education verification

Definition: Education verification verifies a candidate’s certifications or educational claims. They confirm where the candidate went to school, the type of degree obtained, the major, and sometimes the graduation date. Education can be verified for colleges, universities, high schools, and GED equivalency exams.

Nuance: When an education verification is requested, CRAs will check public education databases first, such as the National Student Clearinghouse. If they’re unsuccessful, they usually make anywhere from three to five attempts to verify the information over three business days. While three business days is the standard, this number may vary. The last step would be to ask the candidate to upload documents verifying their degrees. Keep in mind it can be difficult to verify GED and GED equivalency, so the candidate may need to provide documentation. 

Timeline: Generally, the education verification search will cover a person’s entire academic history up to their highest degree. 

Motor Vehicle Reports (MVR)

Definition: A Motor Vehicle Report checks a person’s driving history as reported from the state Department of Motor Vehicles or similar government entity which issues driver licenses. 

While this may vary from one state to the next depending on local reporting practices, information reported in MVRs includes driver license status and class, convictions, restrictions, and other information related to driving records and credentials.

Nuance: MVRs can help identify candidates with unsafe driving records to assess the risk of potential and current employees. Some convictions may show up on MVRs and may not always show up on criminal searches, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Timeline: Generally, the look-back period for MVR is five years, while some states look back to as little as three years. This number is determined by each individual state. 

Final thoughts on background check searches

There are other types of background searches that can be run based on the industry, company, or job role a candidate is applying for. For example, some companies require drug testing. 

The searches presented above are not a complete list of potential searches, but reflect some of the most common. While background checks can feel confusing, there are resources available to help you understand exactly what happens during a background search. 

Download our free resource, The Beginner’s Guide to Background Checks, for a deeper dive into what goes into running a background check. 

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