Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research
Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research

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How To Conduct a Background Check

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


Originally published in Law Office Computing (October/November 2004) under the title, "Background Checks Online." Revised to reflect resources and strategies current as of the date appearing at the end of the page.


10 February 2005, with minor text revisions on 15 October 2007. "What online sources should I use to conduct a background check?" the young lawyer sitting across from Lawyer X asks.

"I assume I should do more than a Google search," he adds in jest, having heard Lawyer X lecture on the subject. "Should I just search the public records databases on LexisNexis or Westlaw? Or is there more to it?"

Lawyer X asks, "Did the partner tell you why he wanted the research or what he meant by a 'background check'?"

"Well, no, not entirely," the associate answered thoughtfully. "But the man -- the individual we want to investigate -- has approached our client about making an investment in a new company. I have his name and the name of the new business."


Lawyers and clients use the phrase, background check, as a catchall for many types of investigative research involving people or companies. To some, it encompasses a criminal background check. To others, it means finding general information about a business' products and services, reputation, legal status and competitors. For this reason, it helps to understand the context of the request or the specific problem that needs to be solved. More importantly, if the research involves a person, there are legal and ethical reasons for knowing why someone wants a background check.

Several federal laws govern access to public records and personal information. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLB) regulates the disclosure of personal information in records maintained by financial institutions. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) governs access to consumer reports. The Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) regulates access to personal information in driving records. Additional federal laws contain privacy provisions that restrict access to public school and medical records, as well as other records maintained by government agencies.

States also regulate access to government records and personal information. Consequently, records that are public in one state might be restricted in another. Voter registration records are public in Maine, for example, but it would violate Pennsylvania law to use state voter registration information for non-political purposes, such as locating a missing heir.

Even when government records are generally available to the public, there might be restrictions on how you use the information. Some states, for example, do not allow employers to consider arrests unless the arrest resulted in a conviction. In fact, if a client wants background research on a current or prospective employee, the privacy provisions of the FCRA kick in, requiring consent and disclosure.

Researchers who investigate people, therefore, should be familiar with these various laws and their exceptions or permissible uses. Permissible uses differ under each law, but many allow access for litigation-related purposes.

After establishing the perimeters of the research and identifying permissible uses, you should obtain personally identifying information -- name, date of birth and Social Security number. Even if the client provides this information, you should verify it. Moreover, some types of investigative research, including criminal background checks and asset searches, require knowing where an individual has lived or done business. The process of obtaining or verifying personally identifying information, therefore, might also include finding an address history.

Of the major research systems selling access to public records -- LexisNexis, Westlaw, AutoTrackXP (Choicepoint) and Accurint -- Accurint generally provides the most complete information about address histories. But AutoTrackXP usually offers the most current information.

Next, you should assess what information you are likely to find online and what will require manual research. If time is of the essence, you should do first whatever it takes -- hire a document retrieval service, make phone calls or send a check with a written request -- to launch the research that has to be conducted at a courthouse or government agency.

Resources available at BRB Publications' Public Record Sources Web site will help you locate document retrievers (Public Record Retriever Network) or identify government agencies by the type of information you require (Public Record Research System Web). Additionally, the publisher's books, especially The Sourcebook to Public Record Information (6th edition) and Public Records Online (5th edition), are handy references.

According to BRB Publications' current statistics, only 35 percent of public records are available online. Perhaps more importantly, most free government Web sites providing access to public records offer no personal information other than a name. Confirming the relevance of a record, then, often means going directly to the source -- offline.

Thousands of government and commercial online sources of public information exist. Depending on what information you need, you might benefit from using a smaller research system such as Merlin Information Services, a regional service,  or a database such as GovernmentRecords.com (9 May 2008: Aristole discontinued GovernmentRecords.com, replacing it with Global-Locate. We have not evaluated the new service.), which specializes in certain kinds of information. Public Records Online (5th edition), as well as the resources available at Public Record Sources, will help you locate these online vendors.

But paying a commercial vendor for public records access doesn't mean what you find will contain sufficient details for identification. A search of civil litigation for Joe Green will generate a lot of irrelevant hits. Narrowing the query to include a middle initial might help retrieve more precise results, but will miss records where the middle initial wasn't recorded. In short, research that involves people with common names is as much a problem today as ever.

Finally, after accomplishing the preliminaries -- defining the scope of the research, identifying permissible uses, obtaining personally identifying information and determining what can be done online -- you are ready to begin the research. While there is no ideal starting point, the information you have, or the information you seek, can point you in the right direction.

If you want to make sure a businessman is legitimate, for example, and you have his curriculum vitae, you could begin by confirming his education, employment and other claims. If you want to know about problems with a manufacturing company, start by searching for state and federal environmental actions or OSHA violations. If a person or company plans to finance a deal, begin by checking for public disciplinary information at the SEC and relevant state securities agencies. If a client passes along a rumor about shady dealings involving a businessman, start with a criminal background check in the jurisdictions where the person lives or has lived.

"It's not clear why the guy left his last company. Rumor is he left without notice amid questions about accounting irregularities," the young associate relates.

"I'm waiting for someone at the company to return my call. Meanwhile, I'm curious about other online sources besides the major ones you mentioned. It might not be relevant for what I'm doing now, but I think background checking could become an important part of the work I do. What other databases should I know about?"

Lawyer X exhales noisily, but can't resist an opportunity to show off his knowledge. "There are thousands of specialty, regional and government databases that might be relevant in investigative research. Why don't we set aside some time next week and I'll give you an overview?"

To be continued ...

(Editor's note: Part two of this article in now available.)


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Created: 10 February 2005
Revised: 9 May 2008
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/background_checks.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com