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The Skinny on Fingerprint Background Checks

The Difference Between Traditional Background Checks and Fingerprint Background Checks

We get asked a lot of questions about fingerprint-based background checks, also known as FBI background checks. Many people might think that because of the association with the FBI that these checks must be the best in the business. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

But to understand why, you first need to know a little bit about how traditional background checks are conducted.

While there are many ways to check for criminal records, the best and most comprehensive method is to go directly to the source: county criminal records searches. These records are maintained by county courthouses where the files are updated in real time. If you’re ordering background checks from Tracepoint, then the information you get comes directly from these county searches, and you never have to worry about the information being inaccurate, incomplete, or not up-to-date.

So where does the FBI get their information from? In short, the same exact place.

The fingerprint/FBI checks pull data from the FBI’s database called the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which in turn gets its data from state and county court records--the same source of data as traditional background checks.

So what’s the problem with the FBI checks if the data source is the same?

The problem for the FBI and the NCIC is that many of the state and county courts fail to send in the most up-to-date, completed records. So many of the files in the NCIC are just arrest records without convictions or dispositions. This kind of incomplete data can be very harmful to applicants and your business. Think about an applicant who was wrongfully arrested on charges of which he or she was completely innocent--charges that were later dismissed. If you were getting your records from a fingerprint search, you have a good chance of only seeing the arrest record without the final disposition! You may not hire that applicant who is otherwise a perfect fit for your company. And that applicant could then bring FCRA violation charges against your company for using incomplete information to make an adverse hiring decision.

But you might be thinking, “how many incomplete records can there be in the FBI’s database?”

The statistics are jaw-dropping. Reports by the United States Department of Justice revealed that nearly 50% of criminal records contained in the FBI’s NCIC were inaccurate and/or incomplete. 50 percent! That’s a lot of bad reports!

The reason many people mistakenly advocate for fingerprinting checks is that with a fingerprint, you can definitively verify that certain records do in fact belong to an applicant. Companies are worried, and understandably so, that records linked to an applicant might actually belong to another person with the same name. But traditional background screening firms, if they do their job right, will apply other identity verification factors, such as date of birth, social security number, and address history to ensure that no one is erroneously linked to charges of someone with the same name. So it really isn’t necessary to use fingerprints to verify identity.

So it turns out the FBI’s crime database is riddled with errors--errors that could cost you and your applicants big.

The good news is that as of right now the FBI’s database is not available for use by most private companies, except for those in certain select industries. However, there has been a lot of recent political lobbying in favor of opening up these FBI checks for private businesses. We think it’s important to educate the public on the amount of misinformation surrounding the fingerprint checks. The fact is there is no silver bullet with background checks, but the safest and best way to proceed is to rely on traditional background checks, which obtain information directly from the source.

 
 

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