Gone are the days of the Yellow Pages — you can find everything from a new roommate to a romantic partner 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.
That's not always as easy as looking someone up on Facebook, Falconer says. You’ll need to do some sleuthing of your own to find all the information you need.
Here’s how to do exactly that.
Free search options
In the age of information, the first step to gathering background on someone is a requisite search on Google and social media.
Start by putting their first and last name in quotes, says Santa Monica, Calif.-based private investigator Michael Miller. If you can’t find anything worthwhile, or if the person has a common name, optimize your search by adding relevant keywords and the person’s location (for example, try “Katie Ryan” singer, Seattle if your upcoming Tinder date claims to be a musician).
For more in-depth research, you can 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 records search
The information on background check websites is usually accurate, Miller says, but it’s not always comprehensive.
Criminal court websites can reveal convictions ranging from petty theft and vandalism to assault and murder. Civil records contain info about restraining orders and family disputes. Some states, like Wisconsin, allow you to search for offenses across the whole state. Others, like Texas, make you narrow your search by county. The Associated Press (AP) has a state-by-state list from InfoTracer on how to find records near your location.
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 range from $0 to more than $100.
A note: Sex offenses don't always appear as criminal or civil offenses, but that info can be found online (for free) through local sex offender registries.
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 another type of 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 childcare professional who will be driving your kids around, 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 get the potential employee's written consent in a standalone document to do so. 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 also advises running a formal reference check by asking 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 First Advantage.
“Bad credit doesn’t make a bad person, but it’s good to know someone is generally responsible,” Falconer says.