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How to Conduct a Background Check (Part 2)

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published in Law Office Computing (December/January 2005) under the title, "Hide and Go Seek." Revised to reflect resources and strategies current as of the date appearing at the end of the page.

For part one of this article, see How To Conduct a Background Check (Part 1).


Updated 10 May 2007, with minor text revisions on 15 October 2007. "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?"

A lawyer might conduct a background check for a number of different reasons. Rumors of a businessman's shady dealings might warrant a criminal background check while a routine investigation into a business professional's reputation might begin with verifying his credentials and accomplishments. Consequently, the circumstances -- and not habit, convenience, accessibility or even cost -- should dictate the sources you select.

As Lawyer X explains, thousands of databases -- not to mention offline sources -- exist. But he can cover only a small percentage of what's available in the amount of time the two lawyers have. Because the associate practices business and finance law, he'll focus on off-the-beaten-path sources for investigations involving people who are dealing with large amounts of money. (For more information about criminal background checks, see Not All Criminal Records Checks Are Created Equal and To Catch a Thief.)


X likes to begin a big-money investigation by verifying credentials and claims on a resume or curriculum vitae. In short order, the process should reveal whether or not the person is honest.

Former employers and business partners should at least confirm someone's dates of employment or affiliation over the telephone. On one occasion, Lawyer X uncovered deceit when a government official, whose appointment calendar was public record, could not substantiate a businessman's claim that he was a consultant to the office.

Some schools' registrars will verify an individual's education credentials over the phone. Many, however, require a signed release, or outsource this work to companies such as National Student Clearinghouse, Credentials, Inc. or EdVerify (currently off-line). These verification services require a signed release and charge a small fee.

You can confirm that someone authored a book by checking databases available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, the U.S. Copyright Office or the Library of Congress. If the book was published outside of the United States, check Amazon's regional Web sites. By searching the Amazon zShops, which sells used books, Lawyer X discovered that a book cited on one resume was self-published and advocated anarchy!

Hundreds of databases provide bibliographic information about published articles. Many also contain the articles in full-text. If an individual claims to have published on a certain subject, look for a relevant, subject-specific database of literature. An academic library would be a good source of such information. The librarians also can advise you on how to access the databases.

If the results of this verification process keep the players in the game, then it's time to call the Securities and Exchange Commission and the relevant state securities commissions for any public information on file. The outcome of a phone call often depends on the competence of the person on the other end. Therefore, it's sometimes also worth running a few online queries at sources such as the SEC's Web site, National Futures Association's Background Affiliation Status Information Center (BASIC), NASD BrokerCheck, LexisNexis' National Financial Institutions Sanctions and Legal Actions, securities case law databases on LexisNexis or Westlaw and a commercial EDGAR database such as LivEDGAR.

Such queries might also reveal undisclosed business affiliations. You might discover additional relationships by searching state corporate records. While you can sometimes conduct a personal name search using the free databases available at the Web sites of the secretaries of state, it's frequently cost efficient to run the person's name through national research systems such as Accurint and AutoTrackXP.

If you want to make sure you are not dealing with individuals who have run afoul of the U.S. government, use a commercial source to search the Federal Register or check the many free lists available on the Web. These include the Bureau of Industry and Security's Denied Persons List and The Entity List, the U.S. Department of State's List of Parties Debarred for Arms Export Control Act Convictions, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control's lists of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) and Blocked Persons. The Excluded Parties Listing System provides access to these lists as well as a database of individuals and companies excluded from receiving federal contracts or federal financial assistance.

Next, look for the individual's involvement in litigation. The U.S. Party/Case Index section of the PACER system indexes civil, criminal and bankruptcy litigation from most federal courts. Review the menu item, "Courts Not on Index," to make sure the relevant jurisdictions are available. The low-cost Legal Dockets Online will help you find online sources of state court records.

If you want to uncover industry-related concerns, look for databases maintained by the regulating government agencies. For example, the Food and Drug Administration's MAUDE database contains summaries of adverse events concerning medical devices. The Federal Communications Commission enables searching for comments on file with the agency. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration offers several databases for finding information about safety inspections, accidents or violations. The company research section in the Database of Sources on The Virtual Chase provides information about many of these databases.

Finally, assuming the person's name isn't common, or that you have sufficient identifying information to add helpful keywords to the search, you should query search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Teoma and Gigablast. Lawyer X recommends these search tools over other public Web search engines because they have unique databases. Descriptive terms useful in narrowing the results of a query include words that describe the person's profession, business affiliations, hobbies, interests, places of work or residence.

After identifying relevant Web sites, also review their previous versions at the Internet Archive. Lawyer X once uncovered information at the Archive that lead him to an active criminal investigation involving the individuals he was checking out.

The young associate looks up from the PDA he had been using to take notes of the conversation. "Is that it?" he asks half in hope and half in jest.

"In a nutshell," answers X. "Of course, different databases might come in handy in a different set of circumstances. Do you want to continue?"

Tempted to rise to the bait of the challenge, the young lawyer sighs, "No. I have enough to digest for now. But I'll be back," he warns as he heads for the door.


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Created: 5 April 2005
Revised: 15 October 2007
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/background_checks_part2.html

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