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Originally Published: Sep 01, 2023
Originally Published: Sep 01, 2023 Last Updated: Jan 10, 2024 16 min read

If you’re looking to rent an apartment or are applying for a new job, a background check will almost certainly be a part of the process.

Background screening can involve different types of searches and the information they show will depend on the purpose of the investigation and the person that requests it. They can also vary widely due to provisions in the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which regulates some of these checks, but not all.

Read on to learn more about what a background check is, the searches it can include and how you can deal with potentially adverse information that may arise.

What is a background check?

A background check is an investigation used to find out more information about someone’s past. The subject of this type of investigation is most often an individual, but can also be a company and its officers.

There are different types of background checks and, while they all have certain factors in common, they vary in the number of searches they include and how far back they can go. The elements involved in a particular background check will depend on the purpose of the search.

Here are some of the most frequently requested types of background checks.

Pre-employment checks

Pre-employment checks — that is, background searches meant to screen candidates for a particular job — are probably the most frequent type of background search. These can be requested by HR departments for companies of any size or by individuals seeking to hire household help, such as nannies or other domestic workers.

These investigations must follow federal provisions and should be conducted by FCRA-compliant background screening companies, also known as consumer reporting agencies.

Under FCRA provisions, background screeners need signed consent from the individual being checked before proceeding with searches. The law also sets a limit to how far back these searches can go — typically between seven to 10 years, depending on the position you’re applying for or local regulations that can apply to specific searches.

(Note, however, that some states do allow pre-employment background screeners to report felony convictions that are older than seven years.)

Pre-employment checks could include some or all of these searches:

  • Credit report
  • Criminal records (felonies, sometimes misdemeanors as well)
  • Civil records (including tax liens, judgments and bankruptcies)
  • Employment verification
  • Education verification
  • Motor vehicle records

Tenant checks

Also called rental background checks, these investigations should also follow FCRA provisions. This means that a landlord must, in addition to your rental application, give you a separate disclosure detailing the extent of the background search that will be conducted and asking for your authorization to do so.

These searches could include:

  • Address traces
  • Credit report
  • Rental payment history
  • Civil records (specifically evictions)
  • Criminal records
  • Employment verification

Note that not all landlords will run all these searches. Additionally, while landlords can make decisions based on the results from a background check, housing laws prohibit the usage of background screening to discriminate against protected classes.

Due diligence investigations

Another type of background check is the due diligence or risk management investigation. These checks can be performed on individuals or on a particular company and its officers. They are typically requested by a business or individual investors before an acquisition and/or prior to entering into a business partnership. They can also be used to screen vendors, potential franchisees, suppliers or potential borrowers.

These searches are usually extremely comprehensive and are meant to mitigate the risk of fraud or liability. Since they are not conducted on prospective employees, these investigations do not have to meet the same requirements as pre-employment searches and can be conducted without signed authorization.

That also means that screeners cannot obtain the subject’s credit report or MVR (motor vehicle record), since those specific searches always require signed authorization.

They could however search for the following:

  • Address traces
  • Lawsuits and other civil records
  • Criminal records (both county and federal)
  • Media searches
  • Bankruptcies
  • Tax liens and judgments
  • Education verification
  • Professional licenses and certifications
  • State sex offender registries
  • Asset searches

While most of the time these searches are limited to the previous 10 years, some might go back further than that, especially if a particularly high-stakes transaction is in play.

People searches

The other kind of background searches are often called “people searches,” a more informal search that can be requested from many background search sites. These searches don’t need signed consent and can be used to learn more about potential dates or partners, neighbors or even find long-lost relatives.

Note, however, that federal law specifically prohibits using these people searches on potential tenants or employees, including domestic workers and babysitters. Additionally, people searches cannot provide the same comprehensive results that FCRA-compliant searches can. And without signed consent, they cannot obtain a credit report or MVR.

What do background checks show?

Background checks can show a wide array of information, depending on the reason they’re conducted. While the information they show can be extensive, it’s important to note that the material is mostly obtained from public records. The exception would be a credit report, which can only be obtained with consent.

People searches (informal searches that you can conduct on acquaintances without signed consent) will typically show results from court records available online, sex offender registries, current and former addresses, aliases and other identifying information. These could potentially turn up some criminal and civil records, bankruptcies, judgments and, sometimes, certain types of licenses, such as fishing or hunting licenses.

On the other hand, searches conducted by consumer reporting agencies — those that are meant for employment or tenancy purposes — can show any or all of the following:

Current and former addresses

The background screening service will conduct address traces using public records and the information provided about the person being checked. These traces will serve to confirm the individual’s current address and disclose former addresses. Searches are typically conducted in those jurisdictions where the person lived for the past seven to 10 years (depending on how far back the investigation will go and the searches involved.)

Criminal records

Searches will almost always include searches for felony convictions and arrests in the counties where the person lived for the investigation period. Searches can also include searches of federal courts or national searches. Some employers might also check for misdemeanors.

These searches go back between seven to 10 years, depending on the position. But, while arrests that occurred before that period cannot be reported, many states do allow the reporting of felony convictions regardless of how old they are.

Civil records

In addition to criminal record searches, many investigations involve searches of civil records, tax liens and judgments. Civil records could include any lawsuits you’ve been involved in, restraining orders or evictions.

Employment history

Searches can include verification of employment history, which consists of contacting previous employers and confirming dates of employment and the positions held.

Education history

Most employers will verify the academic qualifications you provided in your resumé and/or application. Many use a service called the National Student Clearinghouse, which verifies degrees on behalf of universities. They will confirm the degree you received and the year.

There’s no time limit attached to this search, and screeners can go back as far as needed to confirm the degree. It’s also important to note that discrepancies between what an applicant reports and what the school can confirm is usually a red flag for employers. This makes it essential to be as accurate as possible in providing academic information in your job application and resumé.

Credit history

A pre-employment or tenant screening will usually include a credit report check. This, as stated above, can only be obtained with your signed authorization. A credit report will show your payment history, any unpaid debt in collections, open lines of credit and sometimes tax liens or judgments, if you have any.

While poor credit might not count against you in most positions, it could be a red flag — and potentially disqualify you — if you’re applying for a high-ranking financial role or are trying to rent an apartment.

Driving records

If the job you’re applying for involves driving (and sometimes even if it doesn’t), the prospective employer might request a motor vehicle records report. This report could show traffic infractions, the status of your driver’s license, speeding tickets and driving under the influence (DUI) incidents.

Professional licenses and certifications

Employers that are hiring for positions that require certain certifications or licenses will almost surely check whether your licensing is current and in good standing.

How do background checks work?

Different background screening services work differently.

Some providers, especially websites that specialize in people searches, are fully automated. This means that, once you enter a name into their search query, it will pull results from all the databases it has access to and provide results instantly.

This also means, however, that it’s up to you to sort through these results and determine which ones are truly relevant or whether they even pertain to the person that you’re looking for. If you’re searching for a person with a common name, for example, you might get numerous results that aren’t necessarily about the specific person you have in mind.

Some background screening companies, on the other hand, might use a hybrid automated/manual model. In these cases, while they might pull results from online databases, they could have trained investigators sorting through results to make sure they’re accurate and relevant and pertain to the subject of the investigation. They can also request manual searches of courts that aren’t available online.

FCRA-compliant companies are more likely to use this hybrid approach, as the provisions of the law stipulate that background screeners must make a concerted effort to provide accurate results.

After they obtain your signed consent, screeners will conduct some or all of the searches above in the jurisdictions where you’ve lived for the past seven to 10 years. They will typically return results within a few business days, although delays can certainly happen.

If the results contain information that causes the potential employer or landlord to not hire you or rent to you, then, per the FCRA, they must send you a notice of adverse action and a copy of your report. They should also provide you enough time to dispute any inaccuracies in the report.

Challenges associated with background checks

While they can be great tools to manage risk for both companies and individuals, background searches can also bring up a series of potential issues.

Inaccurate or incomplete information

Background reports, screeners and even government records aren’t infallible. Mistakes are certainly possible if records for different people with similar or the same names are mixed up, for instance.

Because of FCRA provisions, however, you have certain rights as the subject of an investigation. This includes the rights to obtain a copy of the report, to be notified if something in the report causes a landlord or employer to take adverse action against you and to dispute any inaccuracies the report might contain.

Discrimination and bias

While some states forbid discrimination due to criminal records (provided the type of offense involved isn’t related to the position), this area of the law is complex and can vary depending on the state or the positions you’re applying for.

At least 37 states have passed “ban-the-box” legislation which aims to protect applicants with criminal records from discrimination in hiring. These types of laws can apply to government entities but also private corporations.

If you feel you’ve been discriminated against due to results from a background check, it’s a good idea to consult an attorney or file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Privacy concerns

No doubt about it: having strangers look into your past can feel invasive. Although background searches use publicly available records, some can also include your credit report, which can give an idea of your private life.

Precisely because of this, federal law states that signed authorization is always required to obtain your credit report. It’s also good to remember that many searches and your credit report can only go back seven to 10 years, but not indefinitely.

When are background checks required?

Background checks are becoming more prevalent. These are some of the situations that might require you to undergo an investigation.


Many employers, but especially those that handle sensitive information such as banks or accounting firms, will set passing a background check as a condition of employment. Note that higher-paid managerial positions might involve a more comprehensive search than entry-level positions.

Volunteer work

Volunteer positions often require a background check for approval, especially if you’ll be dealing with children or the elderly. Some institutions may require volunteers to renew their clearance after a certain number of years.

Rental applications

Almost all landlords will request your credit report; however, some will go a step further and order employment verification along with searches of civil and criminal records. Since these searches are conducted for tenancy purposes, they must be carried out by an FCRA-compliant company and obtain your signed consent before proceeding.

Professional licensing

Background checks are common practice in the process of professional licensing for certain industries. One example is the bar association application process, which involves a thorough background investigation that includes criminal, civil and even mental health history.

Professional partnerships and investments

Entering into a business partnership will often require passing a background check. These types of searches are outside the scope of the FCRA, do not need signed consent and can be a lot more comprehensive than pre-employment checks. See the section on due diligence investigations for more information.

Adoption and foster care

Anyone interested in adopting or fostering a child will undergo an extremely comprehensive background check by the government agency in charge. The process varies by state, but it will typically involve searches of criminal and civil records, employment verification, home inspections and extensive reference interviews, among other steps.

What is a background check FAQ

What can cause a red flag on a background check?


There are a few things that could be considered red flags in a background check. These include discrepancies between the information you provided in the application and what the background check uncovers. It could also include a poor credit history if you're applying for a financial position or applying for an apartment, or a felony conviction for an offense that's directly related to the type of job you're seeking.

Can an employer refuse to hire me after a background check?


Yes, an employer can decide not to hire you based on information uncovered in a background check, especially if the company finds inconsistencies between the information you provided and what the background check shows. Certain criminal records can also cause employers to decide against hiring you. If the potential employer decides not to hire you based on information from the background check, it must send you a notice of adverse action, share the report with you and give you enough time to dispute any inaccuracies. Additionally, note that many states have passed legislation banning discrimination against people with criminal records, if the offenses they were convicted for are not directly related to the role they'd be hired to perform.

However, it's illegal for employers to base their hiring decisions on criminal records, evictions or credit history details unrelated to the job.

What shows up on a background check?


The information on a background check can vary widely, depending on the searches being conducted and the purpose of the investigation. Overall, the searches could show criminal arrests and convictions, lawsuits, evictions and/or sex offender status. If the check is for the purpose of employment or tenancy, and you signed a consent authorizing them to do so, background screeners could also pull your credit report or motor vehicle record report.