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Online DIY Background Checks Are Risky

Introduction to DIY Online Background Check Services

In an increasingly digital world, online background check services have become a go-to solution for employers, landlords, and curious individuals. These services promise a quick turnaround on personal history checks, delivering extensive data ranging from criminal records to employment history. As convenient as they are, one critical element often missing is context.

The Mechanism Behind Online Background Checks Online background check services operate by scraping data from various sources. They compile information from public records, databases, and sometimes even social media. However, the complexity of understanding the subtleties and narratives behind each piece of data often exceeds the capability of algorithmic processing.

stack of files
Online DIY background checks are limited and provide no context

The Limits of Public Records In Background Checks

Accessibility Issues

While public records are, by definition, available to the public, accessing them is not always straightforward. Various jurisdictions have different rules about what is accessible and how. Some records can only be obtained in person, while others are scattered across multiple databases, requiring a significant time investment to compile a full report.

Potential for Incomplete Data

When individuals opt for DIY online background checks, they usually depend on the data that's readily available through internet searches or databases that aggregate public records. On the surface, it may seem like they're getting comprehensive information, but the reality is often different. The potential for incomplete data is a significant pitfall of DIY background checks for several reasons:

Selective Databases:

Not all databases are created equal, and each may have a particular focus. For instance, some might concentrate on criminal records while others on credit histories. Rarely does one database offer a complete view of an individual's background across all records.

Record Variability:

Public records vary in what they offer. Court records from one state or county may not include the same level of detail as those from another. Some records might include full legal proceedings, while others only list the final judgment.

Updating Frequencies:

The frequency with which records are updated can lead to significant gaps in data. An individual could have a recent incident that hasn't yet been entered into the public record, which means it would not appear in a DIY check.

Limited Scope:

Most DIY background checks only cover criminal records within a specific jurisdiction and may omit history from other states or countries. Similarly, they might not include other types of checks such as education or employment verification, which are crucial for a comprehensive background screening.

Exclusion of Informal Data:

Background checks that professionals conduct might also include references from past employers or landlords that aren't part of the public record. These sources can provide additional insight into an individual's character and reliability.

Accessibility Challenges:

Even if records are technically public, they may not all be digitized or indexed in a searchable way. Some older records require manual searching at a local courthouse or government office.

User Error:

The person conducting a DIY check might not know all the relevant search terms or databases for a particular type of record, leading to incomplete research and missed information.

Because of these factors, DIY online background checks may provide a fragmented view of an individual’s history, increasing the risk of oversight and subsequent issues. This is why many organizations and individuals rely on professional background check services, despite the allure of instant results promised by online DIY tools. The professionals understand the complexities of sourcing data and have the means to cross-reference information for a more complete and accurate picture.

Misinterpretation of Data

The interpretation of legal documents and public records requires expertise. Without the proper background, you might misinterpret what you find, leading to incorrect conclusions about an individual’s background.

Varied Sources and Contexts

Background information can come from a multitude of sources, including court records, financial history, property ownership, and online footprints. Each type of record requires context to understand fully. For example, a court record could show a case was dismissed, which a layperson might misinterpret as a sign of prior criminal involvement without recognizing the individual was actually found not guilty or the case was dropped due to insufficient evidence.

Legal Jargon and Complexity

Legal documents are rife with terminology that can be confusing. Terms like "nolle prosequi" or "adjudication withheld" are not self-explanatory. Without a clear understanding of such terms, a person might misjudge the significance of a record, leading to incorrect assumptions about a person’s criminal history.

Educational and Employment Verifications

Verifying education and employment history also presents challenges. Transcripts, diplomas, and resumes need to be checked against official records from educational institutions and employers. A DIY check might overlook the nuances of accredited versus non-accredited institutions or fall for fraudulent claims of employment at companies that are difficult to verify.

Contextual Understanding of Data

The data's meaning often depends on its context. For instance, multiple residences in a short period might seem suspicious in a background check, but there could be straightforward explanations such as work relocations, study requirements, or personal family circumstances.

Distinguishing Between Similar Names

One of the most common areas of misinterpretation arises from identifying information. Without the tools or expertise to distinguish between people with similar or identical names, a DIY background checker may attribute the records of one person to another, leading to damaging consequences.

Cultural Awareness

There is also a need for cultural sensitivity and awareness. Names, addresses, and other personal information must be treated with an understanding of cultural differences in naming conventions and living arrangements.

In sum, the interpretation of data gathered in a DIY online background check demands a level of expertise that goes beyond just reading off a screen. It involves a discerning eye, attention to detail, and a considerable measure of legal and procedural knowledge. This interpretation is necessary to form an accurate representation of a person's history. Otherwise, the consequences of misinterpretation can be unfairly detrimental to the subjects of such checks, influencing job prospects, personal relationships, and more. Thus, the potential for misinterpretation is a strong argument for the use of professional background check services, especially for decisions with significant consequences.

The Danger of Outdated Information From Background Checks

Case Study 1: Employment Opportunity Lost

Situation: John, a software developer, applied for a job at a tech startup. During the hiring process, the startup conducted an online background check using a popular DIY website. They discovered a criminal charge related to property damage from over a decade ago when John was in college.

Outcome: The charge was actually dismissed, and John had no criminal record. However, the startup misinterpreted the old data as a conviction. Due to the perceived criminal history, they decided to go with another candidate. John lost the opportunity and, upon learning why, had to engage in a lengthy process to correct the misunderstanding.

Lesson: This case underscores the importance of accurate, up-to-date information and proper interpretation. Old or out-of-context data can significantly impact someone's career opportunities.

Case Study 2: Rental Rejection

Situation: Sarah was looking to rent an apartment in a competitive market. The landlord performed a background check using a free online service. The check pulled up a record of a legal dispute with a previous landlord that Sarah was involved in several years prior.

Outcome: Despite the dispute being resolved in her favor, the record did not provide the resolution details, only the initial filing. Based on this incomplete data, the landlord rejected Sarah's application, leading to a missed housing opportunity and a mark against her as a potential tenant.

Lesson: This incident illustrates how old, unresolved records can misrepresent an individual's current situation, affecting their access to housing and further emphasizing the need for comprehensive data review.

Case Study 3: Misguided Business Partnership

Situation: Two entrepreneurs, Alex and Brenda, considered partnering to launch a new business venture. Brenda performed a quick online background check on Alex and found a past bankruptcy filing from eight years ago.

Outcome: Without delving into the details and without realizing the bankruptcy was the result of medical bills from a health crisis, Brenda questioned Alex's financial management skills and backed out of the partnership.

Lesson: Old financial data, when not updated or explained, can result in misjudged business decisions and potentially lost opportunities for both parties involved.

Case Study 4: Volunteer Position Denied

Situation: A retired teacher, Mrs. Gonzalez, applied to volunteer at a local charity. The organization's director conducted an online background check and found an arrest from her youth during a political protest.

Outcome: The record was old and related to an event that was not a reflection of her current character or reputation. Nonetheless, the charity chose to reject her application based on this information, depriving them of a valuable and experienced volunteer.

Lesson: Not only can old data influence professional and housing opportunities, but it can also impact community service and volunteering prospects, showing the broad reach of its potential negative impact.

These case studies reflect the various ways in which relying on outdated or incomplete data from DIY online background checks can lead to trouble. They exemplify the harm done to individuals when old data is not correctly contextualized or updated. For organizations and individuals alike, these scenarios highlight the risk of making decisions without the full picture and reinforce the value of thorough, professionally conducted background checks.

Legal Compliance and DIY Checks

Understanding the FCRA

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) sets strict guidelines for background checks. DIY methods often overlook these regulations, potentially landing users in legal hot water.

Consequences of Non-Compliance

Ignorance of the law is no defense, and non-compliance with FCRA guidelines can result in hefty fines and legal action.

You can read about one story where the background check went terribly wrong by clicking here. This case went all the way to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

Accuracy and Verification Challenges

Accuracy is the key issue for these buy here-pay here DIY background check sites

Identity Verification Issues

Ensuring you have the correct person is foundational to a reliable background check. DIY searches can easily mix up individuals with common names, leading to false associations.

Identity verification is a critical component of conducting accurate and reliable background checks. In DIY online background checks, this process is often fraught with issues that can compromise the integrity of the results. Here's an exploration of common identity verification issues encountered during such checks:

Misattribution of Records

One of the most prevalent issues in DIY background checks is the misattribution of records to the wrong individual. This mistake can happen due to several factors:

  • Common Names: Individuals with common names may have their background reports confused with others sharing the same name.

  • Data Entry Errors: A simple typo or error in entering the person's name, date of birth, or other identifying information can yield incorrect results.

  • Lack of Identifiers: DIY background checks may not use or have access to all necessary identifiers to distinguish between individuals accurately, such as Social Security Numbers.

Out-of-Date Personal Information

Personal details such as addresses, phone numbers, and employment history change over time. DIY background check tools might retrieve outdated information, leading to incomplete or irrelevant results.

Limited Access to Sensitive Data

Certain personal records are protected by privacy laws and require consent or specific credentials to access. DIY checks may skip these data points altogether, providing a report that lacks depth and accuracy.

Dependence on Self-Reported Data

In some cases, individuals are asked to provide their own personal information for the background check. If the individual intentionally or unintentionally provides incorrect data, the DIY service will process the wrong information, potentially missing critical details.

Inconsistency in Public Records

Public records themselves can be inconsistent, especially if they are not regularly updated or if they have been digitized from older, paper-based systems that might contain inaccuracies.

Impersonation and Fraud

Identity theft and impersonation can pose significant challenges in the verification process. If an individual has been a victim of identity theft, their records might be contaminated with the fraudulent activities of the impersonator.

Cross-Jurisdictional Challenges

People move between states and countries, and their records are distributed across various jurisdictions. A comprehensive check that ensures accurate identity verification requires searching beyond local databases—a step that DIY tools may not perform due to limitations in their scope or reach.

International Records

For those who have spent considerable time abroad or have immigrated, verifying identity against international records is essential. Many DIY services lack the capability to access international databases, raising the possibility of overlooking an individual's history in other countries.

False Positives in DIY Background Checks

A false positive occurs when the background check incorrectly reports the presence of a criminal record or other derogatory information that doesn't belong to the individual being searched. This situation can happen due to:

  • Similar Identifying Information: People with similar names, birthdates, or even addresses can have their records confused, leading to someone else's history being erroneously attached to their profile.

  • Database Errors: Information from various databases can be incorrectly merged due to technical errors or incorrect reporting from data sources, attributing someone else's negative information to an individual.

  • Outdated Information: A failure to update databases with the latest court outcomes, such as expunged or sealed records, can result in the presence of an outdated record that should not legally be reported.

These false positives can damage an individual's reputation, lead to job loss, or even cause legal issues if not addressed and corrected promptly.

The Illusion of Saving Money

DIY online background checks can appear to be a cost-effective solution for individuals and organizations looking to save on expenses. The upfront costs are usually lower compared to professional screening services, and they seem to offer quick and easy access to personal histories. However, this perceived saving is often misleading and can result in hidden costs down the line. Here's an expansion on why DIY background checks may ultimately be more costly than they appear:

Accuracy Costs:

  • Corrections of Mistakes: The costs of correcting false positives or negatives that arise from a DIY background check can quickly add up. If someone needs to hire legal services to address incorrect information, the expenses can surpass those of a professional check.

  • Decision Based on Bad Data: Making critical decisions based on inaccurate data can have severe financial implications, such as the wrongful hiring or rejection of a candidate, leading to turnover, training, and potential litigation costs.

Compliance Costs:

  • Legal Risks: Non-compliance with employment law due to inadequate background checks can result in legal actions and penalties. Professional background screening firms usually ensure compliance with local and federal laws, which can save money in legal defense and fines.

  • Audits and Violations: If a DIY background check misses out on important legal compliance requirements, the cost of audits, investigations, and rectifying compliance issues can be significant.

Operational Costs:

  • Time Investment: The time spent by individuals or internal teams in conducting these checks is often underestimated. This time, if accounted for, can often outweigh the cost of outsourcing the task to a professional service.

  • Training and Resources: Ensuring that staff members are adequately trained to perform and review background checks requires resources and continuous education, which incurs further costs.

Opportunity Costs:

  • Missed Talent: Relying on erroneous or incomplete data may result in missing out on qualified candidates, or conversely, hiring unqualified ones based on false negatives. The cost of a bad hire or the loss of a good hire is a significant factor to consider.

  • Damage to Reputation: The reputational damage from mishandling background checks can have long-term financial repercussions, affecting customer trust and market position.

Liability Costs:

  • Negligent Hiring Lawsuits: If a DIY check fails to uncover a history that could foreseeably lead to harm, the hiring entity may face negligent hiring lawsuits. Such litigation can be costly in terms of settlements, legal fees, and increased insurance premiums.

By considering these potential costs, organizations and individuals can better assess the true value of a background check method. While professional services may have a higher initial price tag, their comprehensive approach often ends up being more cost-effective when considering the broader implications and potential financial liabilities of inadequate screening. This thorough understanding helps to dispel the illusion that DIY background checks are the more frugal choice in the long term.

The Complication of Cross-Jurisdictional Checks

State vs. Federal vs. International Checks

When information spans various jurisdictions, the complexity multiplies. Understanding the nuances between state, federal, and international laws is vital for a comprehensive background check.

Cross-jurisdictional checks are essential for thorough background screening, particularly in a globalized world where individuals may have lived, worked, or studied in various states or countries. However, conducting these checks is not straightforward and involves navigating complex terrains of legal and bureaucratic frameworks. The complications in such a context often present themselves as follows:

Variation in Laws and Regulations:

Different jurisdictions have distinct laws and data privacy regulations which can affect the availability and accessibility of information. For instance, some states or countries may restrict access to certain types of records or require explicit consent from the individual, while others may have more open policies. This variation requires a nuanced understanding of what is permissible to ensure legal compliance in data acquisition and use.

Diverse Record-Keeping Practices:

There's no uniform global standard for record-keeping practices; therefore, background checks that span multiple jurisdictions must account for various systems of documentation. Records may be digital or paper-based, centralized or distributed across different agencies, and vary in their update frequency and accuracy.

Language Barriers and Translation:

When records are in different languages, they need to be accurately translated to ensure the information is correctly understood and assessed. Language barriers can add complexity, time, and cost to the background checking process.

Technological Limitations:

Not all regions have records that are digitized and searchable through online databases. In some cases, obtaining records may require direct contact with local authorities or even physical visits to courts or other record-holding institutions, significantly complicating the check process.

Time Zone and Communication Challenges:

Effective communication across time zones is necessary to collect global background information. Delays in communication can prolong the background check process, which can be detrimental when timely hiring decisions are required.

Different Definitions of Criminal Activity:

What constitutes a criminal record can differ widely between jurisdictions. Activities that are considered illegal in one country may not be in another, and vice versa, which necessitates a careful interpretation of the findings.

Resource Intensity:

Cross-jurisdictional checks are often resource-intensive, requiring specialized knowledge about where and how to access the necessary information. They may involve coordination with international law enforcement, government bodies, educational institutions, and previous employers.

Risk of Incomplete Checks:

Given the complexity of cross-jurisdictional checks, there's a heightened risk that such checks conducted on a DIY basis may be incomplete, as individuals without expertise might not even know which jurisdictions to include or may assume that a national check is sufficient when it is not.

Reliance on the Individual's Disclosure:

These checks often rely heavily on the accuracy of the information provided by the individual, such as previous addresses and employment history. Inaccuracies or omissions in this self-reported information can lead to gaps in the background check.

Unpredictability in Processing Times:

The processing times for obtaining records from different jurisdictions can be unpredictable and subject to various administrative delays, which are often out of the control of the person conducting the check.

Considering these challenges, it becomes clear why professional background checking services are valued. They have the expertise, resources, and systems in place to navigate the complexities of cross-jurisdictional checks. DIY attempts may not only fail to save time and money but could potentially expose the organization to unforeseen risks and legal ramifications. For comprehensive and compliant background screenings, the meticulous approach of professionals adept at handling cross-jurisdictional intricacies is indispensable.

Misconceptions About DIY Background Checks

Debunking DIY Background Check Myths

There are many misconceptions about the efficiency and comprehensiveness of DIY background checks. Debunking these myths is important for understanding the value of professional background check services.

The rise of online data access has led to the proliferation of do-it-yourself (DIY) background checks. While these services advertise ease and instant results, several misconceptions cloud the true nature and effectiveness of DIY background checks. Here's a closer look at these misconceptions:

Equivalency to Professional Checks:

There's a common belief that DIY online checks are as comprehensive as those conducted by professional firms. However, professional background check services often have access to information sources that are not publicly available or are only accessible to licensed private investigators.

Completeness of Data:

Many assume that a DIY background check can unveil all necessary information about an individual's past, including criminal history, employment records, and education verification. In reality, these checks may only scratch the surface, overlooking deep-web information and detailed records.

Instant Results Guarantee:

The promise of instant results with DIY checks is appealing but misleading. While some information may be obtained quickly, a thorough vetting process requires time, especially for records that need manual retrieval or authentication.


Though DIY checks seem cheaper, the true cost must account for the potential repercussions of inaccurate data, the time investment required for a proper check, and any legal issues arising from non-compliance.

Simplicity and User-Friendliness:

The notion that DIY background checks are easy to perform and interpret is another misconception. Extracting accurate information from vast amounts of data is complex, and without proper training, it’s easy to misinterpret the results.

One-Size-Fits-All Solution:

No two individuals are the same, and a background check may need to be customized to account for varied histories and specific job requirements. DIY platforms may not offer the same level of customization as a professional service.

Legal Compliance:

Many people are under the impression that if the information is online, it is legal to use for background checks. However, the use of personal data for employment screening is heavily regulated by laws such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) in the United States, which DIY checks may not always adhere to.

Consent and Privacy:

There’s a misconception that consent isn't required for conducting DIY online background checks since the information is publicly available. In truth, ethical and legal considerations often require informed consent from the person being searched.

DIY Checks Are Enough for Important Decisions:

When making critical decisions based on background checks, such as hiring or renting, some may believe a DIY check is sufficient. This misconception fails to recognize that the stakes of such decisions warrant the most accurate and comprehensive information available.

DIY Checks Offer Global Coverage:

Individuals may presume that DIY background checks can provide global coverage. In reality, international background screening is highly complex and typically beyond the scope of DIY services.

Accessibility to All Public Records:

A common misunderstanding is that all public records are readily available and accessible through an online search. However, many public records are kept in databases that are not digitized or indexed for online search engines.

Understanding of Legal Records:

Interpreting criminal records requires specialized knowledge. DIY users might not fully understand the implications of different legal terms and outcomes, which can lead to erroneous hiring decisions or discrimination.

Clearing up these misconceptions is crucial for anyone considering using a DIY background check. Recognizing the limitations and potential pitfalls of these services is important for making informed decisions and ensuring the safety and integrity of the environments for which the background checks are being conducted. It’s often in an individual's or organization's best interest to rely on professional, legally compliant background screening services to avoid the hidden costs and risks associated with DIY background checks.

Final Thoughts on DIY Background Checks

The convenience of DIY online background checks is a double-edged sword. While they offer quick and easy access to some information, they fall short in many critical areas necessary for making safe and informed decisions. Professional background checks might seem more expensive at first glance, but they provide the accuracy, legal compliance, and peace of mind that DIY methods cannot guarantee.


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