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Legal Background Checks: Issues and Requirements For Running a Check

Running a background check can be daunting, especially if you don’t know where the boundaries of the law are in searching through records. Today, we’ll explain when it is and isn’t legal to run a check, plus outline the best background checking sites to get the information you need while staying on the right side of the law.

What Is a Legal Background Check?

Running a background check is a solution to all sorts of dilemmas. Whether you want to find a long-lost relative, find out more about the suspicious guy who moved in next door, or just find out what information about yourself is in the public domain.

But, while a lot of people want to run a background check, most are not clear about the legality of such a check. Some are concerned that running a background check could be in breach of privacy laws, or some other obscure regulation they know nothing about. Others worry that the websites themselves might be illegitimate or even illegal.

It is a perfectly understandable concern; no-one wants to break the law by accident. In this article, we will clear up any misunderstandings, and explain once and for all when it is and isn’t illegal to run a background check, no matter who you are looking into.

Preamble – What is a background check?

Before we begin, let’s establish exactly what a background check is and why you so many people want to run one.

A background checking site is an online website that can generate reams of information about anyone in the country by pulling together information from thousands of different publicly available data sources. The sort of information they can find includes:

  • Criminal records (state, county, and city)
  • Employment history
  • Education history (high school and college)
  • Work authorization
  • Credit history
  • Driving record
  • Licenses held
  • Social media profiles

Looked at on its own, this information doesn’t tell you very much about a person. But when it is put together, it can paint a powerful portrait of a person. This is exactly what these background checking websites do as they create reports about subjects that bring all this information together.

When can you legally run a check?

People run background checks all the time, for a variety of reasons including:

  • Criminal checks – If you are worried about a neighbor or work-colleague a background check will tell you whether someone has a criminal record or is on the sex offenders register.
  • Employment checks – Before hiring someone, employees often like to run a background check to make sure their resumes check out. This type of background check is governed by some laws and regulations.
  • Finding information about someone – If someone in your life is a bit of a mystery and you want to know more about them and what makes hem tick, a background check is a simple and quick way to start.
  • Finding a lost family member or friend – If you have lost contact with a friend or relative, a background check will help you find them and fast.
  • Checking for local sex offenders – If you are worried about the risk of possible sex offenders in your area, a background check can help you know the truth or put your mind at rest.
  • Checking records about yourself – A lot of people are interested in knowing what information about themselves is held in the public domain. Running a background check on yourself will reveal the truth and also tell you what others can find out about you too.

A good background check can help you with all these reasons and more. But a bad background check can make things worse rather than better. This is why it is so important to choose a good background checking site to use.

Most accurate background checking sites that are 100% legal

Finding an accurate background checking site is very important, but it is also not as easy as you might think. Some sites are much more thorough than others and while some are just trying to get money out of you at any cost, others are genuinely built by people with pride in the service they offer and a commitment to getting things right.

We have been tested all the top background checking sites to see which ones can produce the most accurate and consistent results. The results are now in and here is our pick of the top two accurate background checking sites:

1. Instant CheckMate

Instant Checkmate - Editors choice

Instant CheckMate delivered hugely accurate results in our tests, and was particularly good with vague searches. The speed of their service also impressed us too; they generated results faster than every other site we tested.

Instant CheckMate offers nice apps and a good dashboard which is incredibly user-friendly and well-designed. Their customer service was very helpful too and their reports, while detailed, are always straightforward to decipher.

At $34.78 per month, or with a discount, a three-month subscription for $27.82 per month, they are not the cheapest. But if speed and accuracy are what you need, it might be worth paying a little more.

2. TruthFinder

TruthFinder - Editors choice

TruthFinder is another background checking site that proved unerringly accurate throughout our tests. It never put a foot wrong, even with complex queries and when we provided them with limited data. The speed of their work was not quite as consistent as some other providers, but this did depend on the type of search we ran.

The TruthFinder final reports are well-designed and first-class and both their dashboard, and their apps are user-friendly and look fantastic. Even if you’ve never used a background checking service, you’ll find their interface dead-simple to navigate. While it feels like a premium service, TruthFinder’s services can be had for just $27.78 per month, or at a discounted $23.02 per month if you sign up for 2 months at a time.

TruthFinder also offers a responsive 24/7 customer support helpline. It is available on a toll-free number which is great for new users. In our tests, we got a real sense that the customer is their top priority, which is not always the case with some lesser background checking sites.

EXCLUSIVE DEAL: Looking for deep insight into your own public record? Try TruthFinder, one of the industry titans. Get the service with our generous reader discount.

When is it illegal to run a background check?

In most situations, it is completely legal to run a background check on a person. Indeed, they are now standard practice in a lot of different scenarios.

But there are some circumstances, where there are laws and regulations which govern what you can and can’t research. In these cases, as long as you abide by these laws, background checks are also completely legal.

What legal restrictions there are around background checks apply to consumer background checks – background checks that are being carried out for a professional purpose. If you are running a background check on someone applying for a job or to rent a house, you must follow the law, or you will end up with a criminal record of your own.

Personal background checks are checks run by individuals using sites such as the ones we have recommended above. These are not governed by any such regulations which means you can run this type of check on anyone.

How to run a legal professional background check in 6 steps

If you are running a background check on someone with a view to hiring them for a job or renting a property to them, you will have to make sure your check is legal. Most people will choose to do this by using a specialist consumer background checking company, which has the processes in place to ensure every check it runs is legal.

These companies are much more expensive than regular background checking sites. This isn’t a problem for large companies, but small business and sole traders can be put off. There is no denying the benefits to employers and landlords of running a background check, so if you want to one without paying through the nose for a specialist company, there are a few guidelines you can follow:

1. Get written authorization

Professional background checks require the subject to give permission in advance. Under federal law, employers are required to notify subjects in a separate document that there will be a background check run. They should also obtain expressed written permission before running a check.

2. Do not discriminate

If you have various applicants under consideration for a role, you will need to run a background check on all of them. It is illegal to discriminate against any candidate on the basis of their race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, or any other protected category.

You can also not discriminate in how you use the information revealed in a background check. For example, if a check reveals a particular piece of credit information that disqualifies a candidate from the role, that same information must disqualify all candidates regardless of their protected categories.

3.  Limit your background checks to what is legally allowed

There is plenty of information you are allowed to check in an employment background check. This includes things like employment and education history, military service records, driving records, copies of bankruptcy filings, drug tests and publicly available social media posts.

But some information is not allowed to be considered. Medical records cannot be consulted although once a conditional job offer has been made, though an employer is permitted to ask if a candidate has any conditions that may inhibit them doing the job.

In some states, credit histories cannot be considered and many states also place limitations on how far back you can look at a person’s criminal record.

4. Check your state laws carefully

While federal laws on background checks are fairly simple to follow, state laws can differ significantly and make things much more complicated. Even laws at municipal and local levels can affect what you can and cannot look at when running and employment check.

For example, the use of credit history in a background check is limited by state law in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, and New York City. But each jurisdiction has different exceptions to these rules.

Similarly, criminal record checks are limited in Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, while some cities and municipalities have banned them from being check altogether.

Always check your local laws carefully and, if necessary, take appropriate legal advice before running a background check.

5. Notify applications of any decision based on background check results

If you decide not to hire someone on the basis of the results of a background check, you are legally required to notify them of the fact.

You should provide them with a copy of the report and an explanation of your decision. You should also provide them with information about the company that ran the check. In some states, there are further transparency requirements you will also need to follow.

6. Retention and disposal of records

In most parts of the country, employers are required to keep records of any personnel or employment records for at least one year. In some states, the law requires records are retained for longer.

Any files must be stored securely and in line with data retention laws. Once the retention period has lapsed, you can destroy the files but this must be done in a way that ensures no-one else is able to access or read the information they contain.


It is completely legal to run a background check in most circumstances. But if you are running a check for employment or other professional reasons, there are various rules and regulations you will have to abide by.

In this article, we have highlighted the majority of these, although we still strongly advise readers to check the law in their state, as these rules do differ across the country. We have also detailed the benefits of running a background check and recommended the top public background checking sites to use.

Have you ever got into trouble for running a background check illegally? Have you ever lost out on a job or an apartment because of an illegal background check? What did you do in this situation?

It is always helpful for our readers to learn about real-life situations which can illustrate the information included in this article. If you have any experiences you would like to share, feel free to add them to this article using the comment box below.

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