These days, it's more common than ever for people to find new roommates, employees, and significant others online.
But entering into any kind of relationship sight-unseen can be daunting at best — and dangerous at worst. Whether you're in the market for a new nanny or a new date, it's important to do some research first.
“Background checks can be useful anytime you’re bringing a stranger into your life and the lives of your family members," says David Falconer, a private investigator (PI) in Ontario, Calif.
There’s no one-stop-shop for gathering all the information you need, Falconer says. You’ll need to put some puzzle pieces together to see the big picture.
Here’s how to do exactly that.
Free background check
Depending on which state the person you're looking up lives in, you can find everything from social media accounts to mugshots on good ol' Google.
Start by putting their first and last name in quotes, says Michael Miller, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based PI. If you can’t find anything worthwhile, or if the person has a common name, try adding any relevant keywords and the person’s location (for example, try “John Smith” baseball, Portland if your upcoming Tinder date claims to have played the sport in college).
To dig a little further, try a dedicated background check website like TruthFinder or Spokeo. On some sites, you can get basic information like a person’s age and the cities they've lived in for free; details like birthdate and current address will usually run you about $20.
Miller says most of these sites will surface similar results. If you do go the paid route, make sure the website has been around for a few years — and online third-party reviews from a site like the Better Business Bureau proving it's not a scam — before handing over your credit card info.
Criminal background check
The information on background check websites is usually accurate, Miller says, but it’s not always comprehensive. That’s where criminal and civil background checks come in.
Criminal court websites can reveal crimes ranging from theft to trespassing to murder. Civil records contain info about restraining orders and family disputes. Some states, like the Wisconsin Court System case search, allow you to search for offenses across the whole state. Other states, like Texas, make you narrow your search by county. The Associated Press (AP) recently shared a good state-by-state list from InfoTracer on how to find records in your particular area.
This process is usually easy to navigate online, Millers says, but if you can’t figure it out, he suggests reaching out to the county clerk in the area you're searching. Depending on where you live, accessing these records could be free, $1, or $100 plus.
Keep in mind that sex offenses might not show up as either a criminal or civil offense, so it’s a good idea to check the local sex offender registry, if that’s a concern.
Employee background check
The hiring process is another important time to research someone’s background. Big companies have human resources departments to take care of this, but if you're looking for a new nanny, tutor, or home health aide, you'll have to do the legwork on your own.
Websites like Care.com include background checks, but Miller cautions against relying solely on those.
He suggests running your own civil and criminal record reports on any potential caretaker. Some of these checks might even be worth running on people who never set foot in your home — after all, a virtual assistant or other remote employee might not meet you or your family in person, but they'll likely have access to sensitive data.
If you’re hiring a new babysitter, or anyone who might be shuffling members of your family around in a vehicle, it's probably worth looking into their driving record, too. You can do this through your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and you’ll need to have the potential employee sign a release beforehand.
You can also enlist the services of an employee background reporting company like GoodHire, but keep in mind that, as per federal regulations, you're obligated to tell the potential employee in a standalone document that you're doing so, and to get their written consent. Likewise, there are certain things you're never allowed to ask an applicant — like most medical information — so be sure to read up on those.
Dating background check
Apps like SafeDating have made it easier to vet a potential date. And some dating apps, like Tinder, take their own steps to verify users are who they say they are.
These tools are helpful, Miller says, but it’s always smart to do your own homework – especially when you’re meeting up with someone for the first time.
“Dating sites don’t do very thorough checks, even if they say they do,” he says. Start by putting their name through a Google search to see if their identity can be verified through a social media account or LinkedIn Page.
To confirm a date is the person in their picture, run a reverse image search on Google; go to Google Images, click on the camera icon, then upload or paste the URL of the photo in question.
Other background check tools
For both new roommates and new employees, Falconer advises running a formal reference check, too. Ask for references who have known the applicant for more than a year, he says.
A credit check can be a good indicator of character if you’re searching for a tenant or roommate specifically. But since social security numbers are involved, you'll need to use a third-party site like Cozy.
“Bad credit doesn’t make a bad person, but it’s good to know someone is generally responsible,” Falconer says.