When in Doubt, Go for Live Research

Have you ever wondered where background check information comes from? There are two primary collection methods that the background screening profession uses to procure information – databases and live research. Both methods have benefits and drawbacks. Let’s explore each…


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, it is becoming easier to find ways to collect information from multiple counties quickly and efficiently. Several companies have created databases of digitized county court records and sell access to those databases.

The benefit? With a compiled digital archive of criminal records, a background check can be performed on an individual in mere minutes. So, what would normally take days or weeks, now only takes moments. And because less people are involved in gathering information from a database, the cost associated tends to be lower, too. Hiring professionals find this to be a very attractive argument for using databases. On the surface, it seems like an efficient tool that yields quick results without a major impact to the bottom line. But, if it seems too good to be true – it probably is.

The drawback? There is NOT 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 are not getting the whole picture.

Another drawback is the lack of accuracy in the information contained in the database. When searching for information on an applicant, it is possible that criminal information exists but is not 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 may have situations where expunged records show up as still being active. And if you make an adverse hiring decision based on the expunged record, it may create a sticky situation for your organization.

Furthermore, there are multiple possibilities that the database used for your background checks is not compliant with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Some data sources contain unfiltered data from a large collection of sources and may contain arrest records. The FCRA tells us that this information cannot be used for employment purposes, although the data providers do not always make this apparent.

An older, but great example of this is a case from 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. 

Live Research

This involves an individual (yes, an actual person) going directly to the official county court records to search for any information on the person who is the subject of the inquiry. Since this information comes directly from the court’s record system and not a third-party, it’s accuracy and timeliness can be trusted. 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 of 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. But from our perspective – a better option.

So, which is best? Live research or databases? Obviously, there are pros and cons for both, but as a compliance-focused organization, we educate people on the benefits of live research and how those benefits heavily outweigh those of a database search. With live research, you are gaining access to a much more polished, “whole picture” report that includes all the information available on an individual – not just what was in the database you used. You are less likely to deal with misreported or otherwise inaccurate information in a database and can feel more confident in the due diligence of your process.

This information has been prepared by Validity Screening Solutions for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. The content is intended for general information purposes only, and you are urged to consult a lawyer concerning your own situation and any specific legal questions you may have.