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Don’t Waste Your Time With Instant Criminal Record Databases

November 28, 2016


November 28, 2016

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Many people are seduced by the idea of instant criminal record databases. This is because they seem to offer the ultimate background checks dream i.e. quick results, with no inconvenience, and at minimal or no costs at all. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy such benefits? Nobody, right?

Unfortunately, these apparent benefits are mere illusions. Instant criminal databases are potential ticking time-bombs. Relying on them  alone is basically setting yourself up for background check lawsuits. Many companies have found this out the hard way.

We shall examine the pitfalls of using instant criminal record databases in a moment. First, to ensure that we are on the same page, let’s explore what these databases actually are. Understanding them is the first step towards avoiding getting ensnared by them.

What Are Instant Criminal Record Databases?

In a nutshell, instant criminal databases are typically online databases which claim to contain criminal records from all the states. Their distinguishing feature is that they offer an opportunity to conduct criminal searches instantly. These databases promise results within a few minutes (typically 2 to 5 minutes). Some even give results in a matter of seconds.

Another feature of instant databases is that they promise “nationwide” coverage. They can claim ‘nationwide’ because they have some information from each state. From one state it may be 20 counties, from another, two counties. The database information may not be updated on a timely basis either, causing them to contain stale records. They also may contain records that are not allowed to be utilized for employment purposes in many states, such as arrest records and other non-conviction data.

The final distinguishing feature of these databases is that they are incredibly cheap. Most offer an unlimited number of searches for a few dollars. One website, for instance, offers a weekly plan which costs $4. For this amount, you can conduct any number of criminal searches.

So, what is the Problem With Instant Criminal Databases?

There are several problems, actually. Let’s first summarize them below, and then examine them one by one. In a nutshell, the main problems with instant databases are the following:

  • Some don’t require permission from the person being searched, violating the FCRA if used for employment purposes.
  • They use limited sources of information.
  • They may return incomplete records.
  • They may return records that may not be considered for employment purposes.
  • They are not vetted for accuracy.

How Is Not Requiring Permission A Problem?

What most people find attractive about instant databases is that you can search them anonymously. In other words, you can conduct a search without a person knowing about it. This actually seems an advantage. So, how exactly is it a problem?

The answer is simple: it is ILLEGAL. Accessing someone’s background information without their permission for employment and many other purposes is illegal. If the information is intended for use in hiring decisions, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) explicitly requires seeking written information from the person. Many employers have been sued and ended up paying millions in settlements for conducting unauthorized background checks.

What does using “Limited Sources of Information” mean?

Not all states or counties sell their criminal record files. Unfortunately, this leaves out numerous sources of information. Most court records and some police records are release on a ‘pay per record’ system. They are not accessible digitally. This means that such records aren’t available to instant criminal databases.

Some criminal records, even when they are available digitally aren’t placed online. They are kept offline for security purposes. To access these records, you need access to the offline computers on which they are kept. Again, such records aren’t available to instant databases.

Basically, instant criminal record databases contain information from limited sources. This has dire implications for someone looking for an exhausting criminal background history on a person. Let’s look at the implications next.

What is the problem with Limited Sources of Information?

The problem is that you can end up with incomplete criminal records. As such, you cannot rely information from instant criminal databases to make critical decisions. The information could be incomplete. And the most damning criminal records are the ones which could be left out. The problem is that you don’t know this.

Therefore, for making crucial employment decisions, instant criminal databases aren’t the best idea. You need something which can offer you an exhaustive criminal background information on an applicant or employee. You’re unlikely to get that from instant databases.

How Can Instant Criminal Databases Return Erroneous Records?

The answer is simple: limited search parameters and outdated information. Most instant databases offer 4 search parameters: first name, last name, city of residence, and state. The problem with such limited parameters is that they can easily return the criminal records of another person with similar names. Additionally, if records were expunged or sealed, often the database is not updated.

This problem has led to legal problems in the past. Both employers and background check companies have been sanctioned for decisions made on the basis of erroneous criminal background check information. For instance, Delhaize America had to pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit, while background check firm General Information Services (GIS) was fined $13 million for providing wrong background check reports. In both cases, the problems arose when background check reports contained criminal records belonging to someone else.  

What Causes The Errors?

The errors are caused by the fact that results from instant criminal databases aren’t vetted before being handed over. Now, this actually sounds false – because almost all websites with such databases assure users that their results are “verified”.

The problem is that it is impossible to verify results within a matter of seconds. The reason for this is simple: vetting must be conducted by a screening firm that is familiar with the original jurisdiction of the record, and knows how to validate that the record is correct.

For vetting to be effective, it needs to be carried out by experts who understand the nuances of different criminal record systems. For such detail, verifying the records takes time. Of course, such options aren’t available for instant criminal records.


In a nutshell, using instant criminal record databases is a bad idea. The information such databases return is likely to be incomplete, inaccurate and unvetted. Basically, it isn’t the kind of information you can rely on to make employment decisions – unless, of course, you are looking to get sued.

Source: Background Check Errors Cost Money and Jobs.

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