A North Carolina woman called a few weeks ago. She had paid a local investigator $2,500 to do some surveillance on her ex-husband’s new live-in friend. She had also asked the investigator to conduct a background check on the friend to see if he had any criminal history. After meeting the friend on several occasions, she was concerned that he might have a criminal history. After a few days of surveillance, she was disappointed that it didn’t turn up much of anything.
I tried to explain that surveillance is hit or miss; it’s hard to blame an investigator for not finding the kind of information that the woman was hoping to find. Surveillance is almost always a crapshoot. You have to manage with the cards you’re dealt. The timing may not be right. The person may not be very active or doing the things that you think he or she may be doing. And there seems to be this vast disconnect between how difficult surveillance can really be and what the client expects to obtain from it (hint: it’s not like what you see on TV!).
But the woman was particularly vexed by the so-called background check performed by the investigator. The investigator had submitted a report to the woman that was 50+ pages long and filled with a bunch of information that was difficult to read—data that she knew wasn’t all that accurate and didn’t provide any real analysis by the investigator.
It was what I would describe as a data dump: a bunch of raw data from a number of sources including criminal records, address history, property records and the like that was effectively “dumped” into a report.
When the woman forwarded the report to me, I recognized it immediately. It was a “comprehensive report” from one of the main database providers for investigators that cost less than $20. These reports are extremely valuable to an investigator, but they are a mere starting point for conducting a real background check.
The client was convinced that the ex-husband’s new live-in friend had some criminal issues or a deep dark secret in his past, and the client was not confident that the report provided by the investigator was reliable.
“Comprehensive” background check reports may not be so comprehensive
After seeing the report, I confirmed her suspicions. These types of reports are not comprehensive whatsoever. In order to do a thorough criminal background check, research would need to be completed in each county or state that the person has resided. Specifically, the individual had resided in a number of states for which the comprehensive report did not have any mention of criminal coverage whatsoever, such as Illinois, New York and Connecticut.
In order to conduct criminal background searches in those particular places, separate and specific criminal searches would have to be conducted either at the specific court or in specific databases that cover those areas. For example, a New York criminal record search can only be completed with the New York State Office of Court Administration.
At the end of the day, after conducting a thorough criminal search in each of the necessary counties and states, we were unable to find any criminal history. However, the woman was comforted by the fact that we were able to thoroughly check criminal records in all the places where the ex-husband’s new live-in friend had resided.
I’ve talked about this a number of times on this blog (here, here and here): a “background check” to someone else might be a couple of Google searches or running a name through a $10 database. A thorough background check is much more than that; it gives you the confidence that there are no issues that you need to worry about.
The problem is that most people are unwilling to pay the fees to do an exhaustive search.
If you are willing to accept that a cheap background check is really not all that comprehensive and may not find some critical information, you can save yourself some money by going that route.
But if you want any level of confidence in the findings, you are better off paying for a thorough background check, because not doing so may haunt you in the future.