The Difference Between Databases and Live Research

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the difference between databases and live research

A common question asked of us at Validity is “why do certain background checks take several days while others return results almost instantly.” While there are multiple factors that go into the turnaround time of a background check, the one thing that always seems to have the largest impact is the source of the information.

So, where does background check information come from?

There are two main collection methods that the background screening profession uses to procure information – databases and live research. Both of these methods have benefits and drawbacks.


The average criminal background check used in employment screening searches criminal record data at the county court level. Official felony and misdemeanor records are maintained  either locally at each of these courts or at a county archive. As counties modernize their record keeping processes by digitizing their records, it is becoming easier to find ways to collect information from multiple counties quickly and efficiently. Several businesses have taken the opportunity to create databases of all digitized county court records they can get their hands on – selling access to those databases.

The upside…

With a compiled digital archive of criminal records, someone can run a background check on an individual in mere minutes. What would normally take days or weeks, now only takes moments.  Because less people are involved in pulling information from a database, the cost associated with using them tends to be lower as well.

Hiring professionals find this to be a very attractive argument for using databases. From the surface it seems like a great tool that gets quick results without a major impact to the bottom line. But, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The downside…

Believe it or not, there isn’t a single repository that maintains all criminal records in the US – electronic, paper, or otherwise. While some have tried to create repositories that act as a single source, none have been able to create a perfect system. So what does this mean for background checks that are sourced from databases? It means that you aren’t getting the whole picture.

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Another flaw is the lack of accuracy in the information that databases contain. When searching for information on an individual, it’s possible that criminal information exists but isn’t in the database being used for your background check. According to research from the National Employment Law Project (NELP),

“the latest data on state arrests reported to the FBI database shows that about half the states failed to include complete disposition information in at least 25 percent of their cases, and 10 states did not have updated information in 50 percent or more of their cases.”

Even if the database includes records from the same county as your applicant’s criminal record, it may not be updated frequently enough to catch the criminal record if the conviction happened recently.

Since database records can go some time without being updated, occasionally you can have situations where expunged records can show up as still being active. If you make an adverse hiring decision based on the expunged record, it can create a sticky situation for your organization.

Furthermore, there’s the possibility that the database being used for your background check isn’t compliant with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). There are multiple ways this is possible. Some data sources contain unfiltered data from a large collection of sources and may contain things like arrest records. The FCRA dictates that this information can’t be used for employment purposes, though the data providers don’t always make this apparent.

A great example of this is a case from back in 2012 where Spokeo settled with the FTC after allegedly marketing it’s people search engine – a non-compliant database service – to recruiters and employers to be used for employment purposes. People search engines do not adhere to the FCRA and as such are only permissible for personal use. Employers may not use these databases to look up applicants or employees.

….so, what’s the alternative?

Live Research

This involves an individual going directly to the official county court records to search for any information on the person who is subject to the inquiry. Since this information comes directly from the court’s record system and not a third party, it can be trusted as more accurate and timely. If there is a criminal conviction tied to an applicant’s name, the chances of it being missed in a search are slim.

Live research involves searching actual court records and isn’t an instantaneous process. Unlike database searches, you can expect live record searches to take a couple days depending on the counties where information is being collected. Since it is a more involved process, live research tends to be more expensive as well.


So now you are probably left wondering which is better – live research or databases? There are pros and cons for both:

  • Databases are a quick tool for screening applicants that is relatively cheap, but they can be non-compliant and don’t give the full picture since records could be missing or outdated.
  • Live research provides more accurate and timely information that gives the full picture at the expense of time and money

As a compliance focused organization, we try to educate people on the benefits of live research and how those benefits heavily outweigh the those of a database search. With live research, you are gaining access to a much more polished report that includes all the information available on an individual – not just what was in the database you used. You are less likely to have to deal with misreported or otherwise inaccurate information in a database and can feel more confident in the due diligence of your process.