This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
More and more employers are using background checks to screen potential employees, and these checks now include personal information drawn from social media and other online sources. This means that anything you post online—and more importantly, anything that anyone else posts about you—can adversely affect you professionally. Worse yet, there’s no guarantee that the information in your background check is accurate. Stories of people being sabotaged by inaccurate background reports are unfortunately becoming all too common.
That said, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Below, we’ll show you how to review a copy of your background check and correct any errors. We’ll also provide tips on how to prevent social media or other online materials from negatively affecting your employment opportunities.
Why background checks are more important than ever
More and more companies are using background checks. According to an HR.com 2017 survey for the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS), 94% of American employers now perform background checks on prospective employees.
Companies are also starting to use these screenings every few years as a post-employment monitoring method. One reason for this is that more court systems and police departments are online, which makes it easier to gather the necessary data. Not long ago, much of this information was paper based.
Businesses are also performing more background checks to avoid negligent hiring liability. Increasingly, courts are holding employers responsible if one of their employees hurts someone else while on the job. In addition, the number of positions that legally require background checks has continued to grow. If you work with children or in a sensitive position, your employer will probably be required to conduct a background check before hiring you.
What information is included in a background report?
In addition to scanning your credit report and social media profiles, background checks pull much of their information from public records and people-search sites that search the web for your data and sell it to others. The information available on these sites includes:
- Phone number
- Real estate records
- Employment history
- Address history
- Lawsuit filing records
- Birth, marriage, and divorce records
- Driving records
- Criminal records
- Voter registration information
- Occupational licenses information
However, the information in these records is not always correct. In one instance, a background check company incorrectly mixed a job applicant’s name up with someone with a criminal record. In reality, the applicant had never been in trouble with the law. However, the company had already withdrawn the employment offer by the time the applicant was able to obtain a corrected background report.
Large criminal and credit databases often contain factual errors. According to a study by Kenneth Laudon for the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), only 45.9% of records the FBI’s National Crime Information Center records met federal standards for being “complete, accurate and unambiguous.” And a study of consumer credit reports by the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups showed that up to 79% could contain errors.
How to run your own background report
There are two ways to get a background report on yourself:
- You can hire a background checking firm to create a report for you: Use only Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)-compliant companies that are accredited by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS). Some firms that meet these standards include GoodHire, Justifacts, and Checkr. The cost of a background report varies widely depending on how many records you want to search. However, a basic criminal search (including a Social Security Number trace, a national criminal database search, and a sex offender list), starts at around $30, and turnaround times can be as short as 24 hours to as long as a few weeks.
- You can look up the information yourself: While what you find won’t be exactly the same as what a professional background checking firm might provide, you can locate the vast majority of the same information on the Internet. This is by far the less expensive option, and you should probably start here unless you know you have a background check problem already.
If you decide to create your own report, you will need to do the following:
1. Search your criminal records
To find evidence of a criminal history, you’ll have to search state and county court records for every place you’ve lived. If you have been arrested or have any convictions, then you can ask the court(s) where those charges were filed to provide a record. Otherwise, to obtain files from most county courts, you’ll have to visit the courthouse or county clerk in person—although some offer online services. You’ll also need to check federal court records.
Note: If you were arrested with no conviction more than seven years ago, then this record shouldn’t be visible in your criminal history according to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). You can contest this error if you find such a record.
2. Search your driving records
If you’re applying for a professional driving job, prospective employers will probably check your driving records, so you’ll want to do the same.
Each state has its own laws regarding the information a driving record contains. And some states charge fees for compiling this data. To find your own records, go to the DMV website for the states where you’ve had a driver’s license.
3. Search your educational records
You can find your educational information, including enrollment, certifications, degree attained, and graduation date, at the National Student Clearinghouse.
4. Check your credit report
According to the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction (FACT) Act, you can get a free credit report from Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion once every 12 months. To obtain your credit report, visit the annual credit report website.
Note: These reports don’t provide your FICO score. To see your FICO score, you can use the free Discover Credit Scorecard. You don’t have to be a Discover customer to use this service.
5. Google yourself
To find out any other information that might be visible on a background report, you should search for your name online. However, before doing so, make sure you sign out of your web browser so that your results aren’t influenced by your previous online activity.
If your search results present you in a negative light, then you will make a bad first impression on whoever is searching for your name. These negative items will also probably show up in a background check.
A negative online reputation can affect your offline life in many ways. For example, it can prevent you from:
- Getting into the college you want
- Renting an apartment
- Obtaining a job
- Paying more for insurance
- Being unable to collect on a claim
How to fix errors in your background check data
To correct any mistakes that might appear in your background check, you’ll need to contact the credit bureaus, public records, and people-search sites involved, since this is where the bulk of the information is coming from.
1. Identify and remove incorrect information from public records
See our article How to remove public records from the Internet in five steps for step-by-step instructions.
2. Identify and remove incorrect information from people-search sites
For details on how to find and remove your data from these sites, which scrape the web for your information and sell it to others, see our article How to remove yourself from the top people-search sites.
You should also consider opting out from people-search databases altogether. This is the best way to prevent irrelevant information from appearing in your background check. The procedure varies for each broker, but the above article explains how to remove yourself from some of the most common ones.
3. Find and correct any mistakes in your credit report
You’ll need to contact the three big credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. The Federal Trade Commission lists on its website the steps you need to take to dispute something in your report.
4. Monitor the web for new instances of your information appearing online
To simplify this process, there are a number of good tools you can use, including Google Alerts, Social Mention, and Buzzsumo. You can also use ReputationDefender’s ExecutivePrivacy service, which, in addition to finding and deleting your personal information from the web, continuously monitors for new mentions of your name.
5. Create a positive online presence
While the previous steps will help you eliminate factual errors in a background check, they won’t do anything to make you look like an appealing job candidate when employers Google you. For that, you’ll need to create a positive online presence. Check out some of our other explainers for information on how to get started: