5 Background Check Myths: Are You Running the Right Screenings?

Lauren Woodyard
September 07, 2023
6 min read

Criminal background checks are the backbone of candidate screenings, helping to confirm candidate eligibility, understand organizational risk, and stay compliant with legal regulations. But not all background screenings are created equal. In this article, we’ll explore how common misunderstandings about employment screenings may lead to confusion about the results or create liability in your screening program.

A national criminal search is the most common background check–but it’s not the most comprehensive. A recent analysis of Checkr criminal record data comparing a national vs. county criminal search on the same population of candidates showed that more than half of the individuals had an additional record that would only surface if an unlimited county search was conducted.

Not only is it important to conduct background checks, but choosing the right searches is an important component of mitigating risk. Learn how scope, lookback periods, and aliases can impact your background check results and why comprehensiveness may not mean what you think.

Myth: A national background check covers the entire US

False! While a national criminal background check is extensive, it doesn’t cover every record in the US.

A national criminal search is often the foundation of a screening program. It searches millions of records sourced from state and county agencies nationwide to report crimes prosecuted in those courts. This may include state databases, some county and township records, Department of Corrections, and Administrative Office of Courts.

There are several limitations that affect the coverage of this search:

  1. Roughly 40% of counties report into these databases which impacts the comprehensiveness of the results.
  2. Only digitized records are included. Digitization efforts vary by state and the age of the record. This means in jurisdictions that still require a court researcher or assistance from a court clerk to search records will not return results on a national background check.
  3. Records may not show a person’s complete identifying information or the final disposition (outcome) of the case.
  4. Federal criminal history is not included which excludes any applicable records across the 94 federal United States district courts.
  • Bottomline: Searches of the national criminal database without additional county-level searches may not meet your compliance or business needs.

Ready for better background checks?

Myth: A national background check returns the most detailed results

False! National background checks may not include a person’s complete identifying information, detailed case information, or up-to-date disposition information. At Checkr, we think of a nationwide criminal search as a “pointer” search because it casts a broad net which can help identify which counties to search for a candidate’s potential criminal history. With that information, a county background check is often paired with this search to confirm potential hits and provide additional information.

  • Bottomline: To ensure you’re taking action based on the most up-to-date information, national background checks paired with county checks will provide the most detailed results.

Myth: Background checks always return a complete criminal history

False! There are several nuances that may affect how far back a background check goes. In general, background checks include seven years of criminal and court records. The lookback period may also depend on your location, the candidate’s location, and the type of background screening you’re performing (criminal background checks may have a longer reporting period than MVR records).

When conducting background checks through a consumer reporting agency (CRA), the report must comply with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

These regulations restrict the following to a 7-year lookback period:

  • Arrests
  • Civil judgments
  • Tax liens
  • Most credit report information.

These restrictions do not apply to:

  • Criminal conviction information (may be reported indefinitely)
  • The role’s expected salary is $75,000 or higher
  • Bankruptcies, which have a 10-year lookback period

Additionally, state laws may impact reporting. For example, Massachusetts and Montana restrict the reporting of convictions to seven years.

Checkr’s compliance tools are built to account for federal, state, and local laws. All records that appear in a report are aligned to regulatory requirements. And, when it's necessary to take adverse action, compliance is built into the workflows for communicating with candidates.

  • Bottomline: Lookback periods vary based on the search type, along with applicable federal, state, and local laws.

Myth: All reports are equally comprehensive if the same scope is applied

False! Both screening type (i.e. national vs. county) and package selection may impact the comprehensiveness of the results.

To illustrate the scope of national vs. county searches, Checkr conducted an analysis of nearly 450,000 background checks to compare the results based on the scope. Here’s an example comparing Checkr’s Basic+ and Essential packages:

With this example, the same candidate population was screened across both packages using the same 7-year scope. Each sample returned accurate results but the Essential package delivered a more comprehensive view of the candidate population. In fact, 50% of individuals had an additional record that would only surface if an unlimited county search was conducted. By adding the Unlimited County Search, over 66,000 additional records were found. Nearly 60% of counties do not report into the National Criminal Database, which is why adding searches at the county level increases the comprehensiveness of the results.

Checkr is committed to delivering the most accurate background checks. We utilize machine learning to analyze data quickly and accurately, while also continuously incorporating feedback to improve accuracy in real-time. Incorporating process automation reduces errors and inconsistencies, improving the final reports' accuracy.

  • Bottomline: Data shows that limiting your search to a national background check will return accurate, but not comprehensive, results.

Myth: Screening vendors search all variations of a candidate’s name by default

False! When a candidate provides their consent to conduct a background check, they often only provide their common name which may be the only name a screening provider will search. If the candidate has changed their name or entered a nickname, their other names will not be searched for results.

For example, Mia Wong may provide her name as such, though her aliases may include her full name “Maria” or her maiden name. In this instance, only results that match “Mia Wong” would be returned.

  • Bottomline: Requesting aliases, and including them with your searches, will help ensure more comprehensive results.

Don’t be fooled: Choose the best searches for your business needs

The type of background checks your organization requires may vary depending on your industry, the different positions for which you are hiring, and your risk tolerance. This makes understanding what each screening entails critical to be able to interpret the results and make informed hiring decisions.

Checkr makes it easy to create your ideal suite of background searches. We offer several packages to get you started, and you can customize them with add-on screenings to ensure both comprehensive and applicable results for your organization. No matter your business size or background check needs, Checkr helps improve your efficiency, reduce costs, and provide accurate results. Get started.

Ready to try Checkr?


The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

Headshot of Lauren WoodyardHeadshot of Lauren Woodyard

About the author

As Content Marketing Manager at Checkr, Lauren develops resources to educate employers about background checks, hiring best practices, and related compliance. She also writes about Checkr’s company news and product updates.

Keep reading

Ready to get started?