What Exactly is a Background Check Looking For?

Information is power, and background checks have become integral to our lives. Whether you’re a job seeker, a tenant looking to rent an apartment, applying for a loan, or simply curious about the process, understanding background checks and why they happen is crucial. Someone is looking into your past and judging you for it. But what are they looking for, exactly?

Let’s unravel the mysteries surrounding background checks, shedding light on their purpose, the intricacies involved, and the legal policies governing them.

What is a Background Check?

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A background check is a tool individuals and organizations use to learn about someone’s history.

Think of it as a thorough investigation that examines different aspects of a person’s life. It involves checking things like their past jobs, any interactions with the law, their financial track record, and even their online presence. All this information creates a comprehensive picture of who they are.

But why bother with all this digging?

We make daily decisions in life, from hiring the right person for a job to finding a good tenant or even choosing a potential partner. Background checks help us confidently make these decisions, ensuring we make choices in our best interest.

Why Are Background Checks Conducted?

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At first glance, it might seem like a routine process—an investigator delving into your past, examining your digital footprint, or digging through your criminal record to make sure everything checks out.

However, behind each background check lies a unique set of motivations and circumstances. Understanding these underlying reasons can provide insight into why you might be scrutinized and how it can affect your future.

Employment Screening

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Employers conduct background checks to assess candidates’ suitability for a job. They want to know that someone is trustworthy and reliable and meets specific job requirements before offering them a job.

This process can include verifying past employment, checking for criminal records, and assessing an applicant’s credit history, especially if the job involves handling financial responsibilities or sensitive information. The goal is to make informed hiring decisions that minimize risks for both the company and its employees.




Tenant Screening

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Landlords use background checks to evaluate potential tenants’ rental history, credit, and criminal records. In doing so, they aim to protect their property and ensure all residents’ safe and secure living environment.

Running a background check helps landlords identify individuals who are more likely to pay rent on time and maintain the property responsibly.

Financial Transactions

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Financial institutions often perform background checks when extending credit or offering loans. These checks help assess an individual’s financial history, including their credit score, outstanding debts, and payment history.

Lenders use this information to determine the borrower’s creditworthiness and the level of risk associated with giving them a loan.

Security Clearances

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Background checks are crucial for granting security clearances in cases involving national security and government contracts. These checks delve deep into an individual’s history, scrutinizing their loyalty, trustworthiness, and potential vulnerabilities to espionage or blackmail.

However, some jobs and volunteer positions may also require it. If you want to work as a bank teller, for example, you may need to undergo a security clearance to ensure you can be trusted to handle customers’ money and financial transactions.

The goal is to ensure that only individuals with the utmost integrity and reliability can access sensitive information and classified materials.

General Curiosity

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Some people might just want to know more about you. It could be a neighbor checking if the neighborhood is safe for their kids or someone you met online making sure you’re not a catfish.

People you know might look you up online by searching your name, checking your social media, or trying to find public information about you. This curiosity can influence what they think of you, so it’s important to be careful about what you post online to make a good impression and protect your privacy.

Other Possible Reasons

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Here are more potential reasons why you could need a background check:




  • Running for public office
  • Becoming an adoptive or foster parent
  • Adopting a pet
  • Immigrating to another country
  • Acquiring a firearm
  • Supervising children or vulnerable populations
  • Starting your own business
  • Going into business with a partner
  • Applying for insurance
  • Attending high-security events

What Information Does a Background Check Include?

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Now that you know why you might have to get a background check, what details are actually being looked at?

There is no standard of what this process entails, as each check is done for a different purpose. However, here is the most common information verified during a background screening.

Social Security Number

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Your Social Security Number (SSN) is often the starting point for a background check. It helps confirm your identity and allows the screening process to access various records associated with your SSN. These records can include your tax history, employment history, and even criminal records.

By providing your SSN, you grant permission for background check services to delve into these records, helping to paint a comprehensive picture of your past.

Criminal Background Check

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This involves searching local, state, and federal databases for an individual’s criminal history, including arrests, convictions, pending charges, and probation or parole status.

Credit History Check

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A background check may require a review of your credit reports, which include payment history, outstanding debts, and credit utilization.

Lenders will most certainly look into your financial situation before giving you any money, but landlords and employers might also dig into this information. They want to see if there are any red flags or potential risks associated with your financial history that could impact their decision to work with you or rent to you.

Employment Verification

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Employers go the extra mile to check an applicant’s work history, job titles, and employment dates to make sure their qualifications and integrity check out. They do this by contacting past employers, using background check services, or even comparing your resume to your LinkedIn profile to ensure everything aligns with your application. So don’t lie!

Reference Checks

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Of course, you are going to do everything you can to show that you are a wonderful person, but what do others think?

Employers and property managers learn about your qualifications, personal qualities, and values by connecting with your references. This direct insight from those who know you both personally and professionally often paints a vivid picture of your character and integrity, contributing to a more well-rounded assessment.




Education and Training Verification

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Screeners want to be confident that your claimed educational achievements are not just words on paper but authentic qualifications. They will confirm your education, double-check that you have specific degrees or certifications needed for the job, and may even talk to licensing boards for certain professions.

Being honest about your education is important because not telling the truth can cause big problems. These issues could range from job disqualification and reputation damage to legal consequences, making transparency in education crucial for a trustworthy professional image.

Driving Record

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A driving record check tells us about how someone drives. It includes checking if they have a valid driver’s license, have any traffic tickets or accidents, and have been caught driving under the influence.

This check is vital for jobs involving driving and for landlords or insurance companies to see if someone is a safe driver. Keeping a clean driving record is crucial for getting these roles or good insurance rates.

Online Social Media Presence

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When someone checks your online and social media presence as part of a background check, they look at your public profiles on websites like Facebook, TikTok, and LinkedIn to see what you post, share, and comment on. This helps them understand your behavior and what kind of person you are. They also make sure that what you say online matches what you’ve told them in your application.

Even though they can only view what you’ve shared publicly, you need to maintain a positive and respectful online presence nowadays, especially when applying for jobs where your online conduct is relevant. You never know who might be watching, when something could be documented (like a screencap), or what might appear in a Google search about you.

Additional Information

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Speaking of Google searches, here are a few more aspects of your life that may be uncovered during the vetting process:

Dating Profiles: Beyond their intended purpose, dating profiles can also be a valuable resource for anyone looking into you. By creating a detailed dating profile, you’re essentially providing a way for others to double-check the information you share.

Property Records: Property records can reveal information about your real estate holdings and ownership history, offering a glimpse into your financial situation.

Personal Websites or Blogs: Blogs can be used to understand more about a person’s hobbies, interests, and perspectives. However, this can work against you if the content is questionable.

Family Background: Understanding an individual’s family background can help grasp their upbringing, values, and cultural influences, providing valuable context about them. Although this can border on discrimination, it would be relevant during an adoption process, for example.

Online Reviews and Comments: Those comments and ratings you leave online might not seem like a big deal, but they can say a whole lot about how you present yourself publicly and communicate. So leave the drama for your next movie night and keep your online presence squeaky clean.

Mutual Contacts and Social Circles: Examining mutual contacts or social circles can help gauge an individual’s connections and relationships with others, offering insights into their social life and community involvement. For example, being Facebook friends with sketchy and uncredible people could be a big red flag you want to avoid.

Medical Records: While typically not part of standard background checks due to privacy regulations, some specialized positions may require access to an individual’s medical history or health-related information, usually with explicit consent or legal authority.

How Long Do Background Checks Take?

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Waiting for your background check results to come back can be nerve-wracking. After all, the outcome can drastically change your fate. You are probably already imagining your first day at your new job or exploring your new neighborhood in your head, wondering when it will become a reality.

The time it takes to complete a background check can vary, so it’s hard to give an exact answer. Most are completed within a few days to a few weeks. However, to give you some idea, here are the approximate timelines to expect:

Employment Background Check:

  • Standard check: 2 to 5 business days
  • Extensive or international check: 1 to 3 weeks

Criminal Background Check:

  • Instant online database check: Minutes to a few hours
  • County or state-level check: 2 to 7 business days
  • Federal-level check: 1 to 2 weeks

Tenant Background Check:

  • Standard check: 2 to 5 business days
  • In-depth check or eviction history: 1 to 2 weeks

Gun Purchase Background Check:

  • Instant check for most cases: Minutes to an hour
  • Delayed or extended check: Up to 3 business days

Financial Background Check (Credit Check):

  • Instant online report: Minutes to a few hours
  • Detailed credit report: 1 to 3 business days

Security Clearance Background Check:

  • Basic clearance: 3 to 6 months
  • Higher-level clearances (e.g., Top Secret): 6 months to over a year

Volunteer or Non-Profit Background Check:

  • Standard check: 2 to 5 business days
  • Extensive or international check: 1 to 3 weeks

Adoption Background Check:

  • Domestic adoption: 2 to 6 months
  • International adoption: 6 months to over a year

Although a lot of these hold-ups are out of your control, to help speed things up, pick references who are easy to reach and eager to help, and make sure you’re submitting thorough and accurate documentation.

While the waiting period can feel like an eternity, it’s important to remember that background checks are conducted with care to ensure accuracy. Rushing through it could work against you.

Background Checks Explained

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You can’t avoid them, so you might as well learn the ins and outs of background checks. They have different purposes, like ensuring safe workplaces and protecting financial transactions.

Empower yourself by understanding their reasons, what they involve, and your rights to safeguard your personal information. Knowledge is your key to success in the world of background checks!

Companies that Hire Felons and People with Criminal Records

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Finding a job is challenging in itself. Finding a job when you have a criminal record or a felony is even more difficult. But it’s not impossible. Before you start applying, it’s important to know what felon-friendly employment opportunities are available to you. Otherwise, you will be wasting your time applying for jobs you are ineligible for and will end up feeling more discouraged.

That said, there are still plenty of opportunities to find meaningful work. The best place to start is knowing what companies and types of jobs are felon-friendly.

Amanda Kay, the founder of My Life, I Guess, provides valuable career advice and support for anyone striving to make a living and, more importantly, make a life. Whether it's navigating job searches, learning new skills, overcoming unemployment, or dealing with debt, My Life, I Guess has been a go-to resource for career guidance and financial stability since 2013. Amanda's expertise and relatable approach have been featured in trusted publications such as MSN, Credit.com, Yahoo! Finance, the Ladders and Fairygodboss.




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