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Published: Dec 27, 2023 9 min read

A background check can yield basic information about a person (such as their full name, aliases and age), but can also show an individual’s education history, past employment, criminal history and credit reports.

However, not all background check reports are the same. The type of information they’ll show largely depends on the purpose of the investigation and, in some cases, might even be regulated by federal law. For instance, checks that are conducted in order to make employment or tenancy decisions must follow the provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Keep reading to find out what exactly shows up in a background check, common background check errors and how to fix them.

To learn what an employment check shows, check out our explainer.

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What information is included in a background check?

There are different types of background checks, and the information included in each will depend on the purpose of the check.

One type of check is often called a “people search”, which anyone can use to look up information on acquaintances, potential partners, neighbors — essentially, anyone you don’t plan on employing or renting to. These searches typically involve automated searches of court records and other publicly available information, and might disclose the following information:

  • name
  • phone number
  • address history
  • age
  • relatives
  • aliases
  • social network profiles

Anyone can use a people search service to search for this information. In fact, some people search sites offer free trials so consumers can try out the service and get a free background check. However, these checks can’t be used for employment, tenancy or domestic worker screenings. Doing so would be a violation of the FCRA.

Other types of background checks include pre-employment and tenancy screenings. With these types of checks, potential employers or landlords can verify an individual’s identity, criminal records, employment, education and credit history.

Searches could also include driving records and professional licenses, depending on the industry.

Read on to learn more about what the five areas cover.

Criminal history

A criminal background check is a search of county and federal court records that shows if someone was arrested, convicted or acquitted of a felony or misdemeanor. Although some employers may choose to run felony and misdemeanor checks, some only screen for felonies.

Reports can include information on the offense, verdict, sentence and settlement. However, those conducting the screening can only legally report charges filed within the seven years prior to the screening.

Do note that while dismissed felony charges can be expunged or sealed, felony convictions can remain on a person’s record indefinitely. Additionally, criminal history reports include information found on sex offender registries and other watchlists.

Employment history

Employment verifications help potential employers corroborate past job titles, employment dates and responsibilities. Employers use these checks to verify past employment information and to validate whether a candidate has the work experience needed for the role.

Education verification

Similar to work history checks, an education check can help confirm a candidate attended the university they listed on their application or resume. This verification also confirms the dates of attendance and the degree obtained.

Companies verify a candidate’s academic credentials by contacting the university directly or using a degree-verification service such as National Student Clearinghouse.

Credit history

Pre-employment and tenancy screenings usually include a credit report. Note that, in order to obtain it, they must obtain your signed consent to do so.

Your credit report shows current and past credit card accounts, loan balances, credit limits and payment history. Additionally, the report may include public record information such as bankruptcies, liens and foreclosures. Overdue child support payments may also appear in a credit history check.

Not all employers place the same importance on the credit report; however, if you’re applying for a financial position, a poor credit history might impact your chances. You can get your credit report by contacting all three major credit reporting agencies to request a report or get a free copy from www.annualcreditreport.com.


A reference check involves reaching out to a candidate’s former employers, managers and/or co-workers to validate their past employment. This check also serves to learn more about the candidate's skills, character and the scope of their responsibilities in previous roles. However, some states regulate what employers can disclose about former employees.

While employers might delegate the other checks on this list to third-party services, reference checks are typically conducted directly by the employer or landlord.

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What does a background check report look like?

A background check report is often an overview of an individual’s financial, educational and legal history. The reports often present the information in tables along with a summary. However, the report’s format will vary based on the background screening provider, the purpose of the check and local regulations.

Pre-employment background checks provide an overview of a person’s legal, professional, educational and financial history. Many providers will divide the report into areas, with each section of a report dedicated to a specific aspect of the candidate’s history.

  • Employment section: work history verification, often accompanied by information obtained from reference interviews.
  • Education section: degrees obtained, majors and enrollment dates.
  • Financial section: tax liens, bankruptcies, information obtained from the credit report (usually excluding the credit score).
  • Criminal and/or civil litigation: felony and/or misdemeanor convictions or arrests, judgments, sex offender registry

Legal requirements for background checks

Per the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), if an employer uses information in your background check as a reason for not hiring, retaining or promoting you, they are obligated to provide you with a copy of the report and inform you of your rights under the law.

Rights and duties of job applicants and employees

Under the FCRA, employers must obtain the job candidate’s signed consent before conducting a background check. Additionally, if the employer decides not to hire the candidate based on information in the report, the candidate is entitled to a copy of their background check report.

If an applicant runs into background check problems, such as inaccuracies or errors, they have the right to dispute the information. Under the FCRA, background check companies are required to investigate and correct or remove any errors within 30 days from the dispute date.

Common background check errors

Even the best background check sites aren’t 100% accurate and an error can have serious consequences on your ability to get a job or secure a rental. Knowing some of the most common errors in these types of reports can help you spot and dispute them.

Some common background check errors include:

  • inaccurate name spellings
  • incorrect dates (date of birth, employment dates, etc.)
  • missing information or details (about past employment or education)
  • confusion with another individual (similar name)
  • outdated information
  • identity theft
  • incorrect criminal records

Under the provisions of the FCRA, an employer or landlord must provide you with a copy of the report along with the name and contact information for the background check company.

You should examine the report carefully and address any inaccuracies with the background check provider. If a background check company refuses to investigate the issue, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as this refusal may violate federal law.

Reviewing your credit report periodically can also help you spot errors or inaccuracies so you can dispute these quickly. Additionally, signing up for a credit monitoring service allows you to keep track of your credit file from the three major credit bureaus.

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Background Check Show FAQs

How much does a background check cost?

Prices for people search background checks — that is, searches you can conduct on people that are not potential employees or tenants — are usually subscription-based and range between $20 and $60 for a one-month subscription. On the other hand, the price of pre-employment and tenancy background checks will vary depending on the comprehensiveness of the screening the customer wants. Baseline prices for one background check report can range from $29 to $80, but this price can easily go up because add-ons such as license certification or drug testing will cost extra.

What does an employment background check show?

Not all background checks for employment show the same information for all types of jobs. However, pre-employment checks typically provide an overview of a person’s employment history, education, criminal records and credit history. A background check may also verify that the candidate has the corresponding license or certification if the position requires it.

What should you do in case of a background check error?

If you notice an error in your report, contact the background check company and file a dispute. From that point forward, the company has 30 days to correct or remove the error. If the background check company refuses to do so, you have the right to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). There’s a chance they could investigate and fine the company if it did violate the FCRA.

What type of information doesn’t appear on a background check?

A background check should not include medical records, as these are confidential and protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Additionally, while background checks can include education verifications, school transcripts won’t appear in the results. Similarly, military service records won’t appear on a background check.
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