Since the beginning of 2013, there has been a resurgence of interest in the topic of background checks. Most recently, background Checks have taken center stage in the debate over immigration reform, often cited as one of several steps undocumented immigrants must complete on the potential pathway to citizenship. Before that, the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, CT, prompted renewed calls for mandatory background checks in the political clash over gun control. While the context may change, the role of background checks is well established as an effective tool for a variety of uses. Interestingly, the term “background check” means different things when used indifferent contexts.

What is a background check?

A background check, also known as a background screen or a background investigation, is the process of looking up and compiling data from both private and public sources for purposes such as:
Employment screening
Tenant rental agreements
Volunteer screening

Are all background checks alike?
No. While the term “background check” is used as a generic term to cover the universe of checks that may be performed, they are quite different depending on the intended purpose.

Employment Background Check

Employers routinely request background checks for potential new hires and existing employees, particularly for positions where employees may work with vulnerable populations or have access to consumers’ financial information. Employers rely upon background screens to make

informed hiring decisions and to help mitigate the risk of workplace violence, employee theft, and negligent hiring lawsuits. Background checks performed for pre-employment or employment purposes are generally conducted by CRAs and are regulated by the Fair Credit
Reporting Act (FCRA) and state and local laws. These checks can contain information from a variety of resources and may include:

Criminal and civil record checks at county courthouses, state repositories, federal courts
and/or international courts;
Driving records checks;
Drug testing;
Verification of employment, education, professional licensure;
Reference checks;
Registry checks; such as sex offender and child and elder abuse lists;
Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Specially Designated Nationals List (SDNL);
Export Denial List Search;
Patriot Act Searches (terrorist watch lists);
Office of Inspector General (OIG) Search and other healthcare sanction lists;
Financial Industry Checks, including SEC filings, FINRA and Federal Reserve Sanctions;
Credit History (note – one’s credit score is not included in a pre-employment screening
Accessing the FBI’s criminal database system when mandated by law.

Employers use the information gathered from these searches as a factor in helping them assess the suitability of candidates vying for employment. Background screenings conducted by CRAs for employment purposes require an individual’s consent.

Tenant and Volunteer Background Check

Tenant screening is a process used primarily by residential landlords and property managers to evaluate prospective tenants. The purpose is to assess the likelihood the tenant will fulfill the terms of the lease or rental agreement. Tenant screening services generally fall under the same rules adhered to for employment screening, are conducted by CRAs, and are regulated by the FCRA.

Volunteer screening is also performed by CRAs to screen the backgrounds of individuals who volunteer with groups and organizations that typically involve vulnerable groups, such as children and the elderly. Screening for volunteers is also regulated by the FCRA.

What Databases Are Used For The Different Kinds of Background Checks?
There are many different databases used to conduct background checks on individuals. The most commonly cited is the FBI database. Ironically, the FBI database is actually not one single database, but a collection of different systems organized under the National Crime Information Center. These systems include:

The FBI Identification Record: Often referred to as a criminal history record or a “rap sheet,” the FBI Identification Record is a listing of certain information taken from fingerprint submissions retained by the FBI in connection with arrests and, in some instances, federal employment, naturalization, or military service.

National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS): The FBI’s NICS is used when performing a one-time instant check for gun purchases. It does not play a role in employment, tenant and volunteer recruitment background screening.

Interstate Identification Index System or “III” System: The III System contains automated criminal record information accessible through National Crime Information Center. A federal state compact was created in 1999 which allows criminal history records from the FBI and State criminal history record repositories to be shared through the III System for noncriminal justice purposes such as governmental licensing and employment background checks.

Despite popular belief, the III System is not a complete national database of all criminal history records in the United States. In fact, many state records, whether from law enforcement agencies or courts, are not included or have not been updated.

According to a 2006 Department of Justice (DOJ) report entitled The Attorney General’s Report on Criminal History Background Checks, the authors state that “although it is quite comprehensive in its coverage of nationwide arrest records for serious offenses, the [FBI’s
Interstate Identification Index] is still missing final disposition information for approximately 50 percent of its records.”1

Bottom Line -- currently, there is no single government database containing complete and upto- date records regarding a person’s criminal history. Among those in the professional background screening community, the full range of FBI databases is considered one tool among many that may be used by some CRAs. However, due to its limitations, the FBI system is not considered a reliable enough source to use as a single source for a background check for employment, volunteer or tenant screening purposes. Not all CRAs have access to the FBI’s database for noncriminal justice purposes. Those CRAs that have access can reference the FBI fingerprint database for employment or licensing only if required to do so by Federal or State law. This is an important distinction to make when discerning the differences between a one-time instant background check for gun purchases as opposed to the more thorough background checks performed for employment, tenant and volunteer recruitment.

Is there government oversight of CRAs?

Yes. The FCRA spells out the rights consumers have with respect to background reports prepared by CRAs, including the right to dispute the accuracy of the reports and CRAs obligations to reinvestigate such inaccuracies. The FCRA describes the obligations employers have to provide notice to consumers if information in the background report is going to be used adversely against them. And finally, the FCRA spells out the responsibilities of CRAs when preparing and providing such background reports for a limited purpose such as employment or tenancy. The regulations governing the actions of professional background screeners as well as end-users are spelled out in the FCRA and the CFPB’s A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Notice to Users of Consumer Reports: Obligations of Users Under the FCRA. 

Background screening, when conducted by a CRA, is highly regulated including by the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as well as state and local consumer protection laws. In addition the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is active in this space and just last year issued revised enforcement guidance on the use of criminal background checks for employment screening purposes, which is directed toward employers who use such reports.


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  • Guest (Ahana)

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  • Guest (Sandeep K)

    I ran out of money in college and wasn\'t willing to take on a mountain of debt-I dropped out about two and a half years in. Fast-forward 15 years later and I\'m now an expert in an in-demand field. I do numerous consulting gigs and have am quite successful at that. A few major companies in my area have opened up positions which I am qualified for. I\'d consider working fulltime for these companies. The requirements always include a BS in a related field. Even though I haven\'t completed it, I\'ve always put the BS on my resume to appear more qualified. I know this is deceitful. I have the skills, the experience but lack \'the paper\'. I feel like a jerk for lying about it

    Do companies actually require some proof? Is a verification process in place?

    Posted by anonymous to work & money (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

    Do employers actually verify education?

    In my experience, most employers do not verify. There is, however, a big downside if you are later found to have lied about your qualifications. It is possible you could be sued to recover what they paid you.

    In my experience also, unless competition for particular positions is tight, things like the BS requirement are, well, BS meant to provide them with an easy way to cull the pile. (That\'s what hiring is all about, if you\'ve ever sat on the other side of the desk. You\'re gambling no matter what, so you just want reasons not to have to consider the 99 people you\'re not going to hire versus the one you are.) Much better to argue in your cover letter that you have the commensurate experience demonstrated by your resume.

    Most ads do say \"[degree] or equivalent experience\", anyway.
    posted by dhartung at 10:49 PM

    If you\'re applying to a corporation or government agency that has a human resources office, then your education will most likely be checked. They usually follow a procedure to vet each candidate for a job. Be especially honest when you apply to a large corporation. You might be able to lie on an application to a small business or for freelancing gigs

    It is very risky and if you get caught you very well may get shunned from an entire industry industry, and a huge backhole on your resume.

    Mine did, after the fact. Required I submit a copy of my degree.
    posted by edgeways at 10:56 PM

    Degree Verification by IBC India
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    For whatever it\'s worth, a former co-worker of mine was terminated from a high-profile, well compensated gig at a large corporation after it was discovered he had fabricated his educational background on his resume. It\'s up to you whether you think it\'s worth the risk.
    posted by The Gooch at 10:58 PM

    It is quite possible that you can get away with it. Some people did (at least for a while). But it\'s a ticking time bomb that could go off anytime and ruin your credibility forever. If you\'re caught, the company will also wonder what else you\'ve been lying about. Instead, focus on how smart and skilled you are, wow them at the interview and explain why you never finished college.
    posted by special-k at 11:00 PM

    Are you kidding? A typical university has a whole department of records that keeps more than a few full time people doing nothing but verifying degrees all day.

    Sounds like you got lucky with a lax HR department. Dont expect that luck to last.
    posted by damn dirty ape at 11:08 PM

    I\'d be extremely upfront about it, instead listing your university experience like this in the \"education section\" of your resume:

    University of X, 200x-200x
    Your Major

    Go on to talk about any other work you did - research, organizations, internships - in other parts of your resume. You make no claim to have a degree, but it\'s obvious that you did pass the initial hurdles to admission and lasted a while there, and an interviewer can see that you\'ve got nothing to hide or be ashamed of - lots of people didn\'t have the financial opportunity to finish college when and if they chose, and if you could have gone back feasibly, you would have. Presumably you\'d also have glowing references from previous jobs, since you\'ve got so much experience.

    And really, regardless of what Official Resume Protocol seems to dictate, feel free to re-imagine what the document can be and do for you. As long as it\'s professional and reflects who you are, tweak it until you\'re happy with it.

    Good luck.
    posted by mdonley at 11:12 PM

    Folks are correct that it depends on the industry and location, and obviously the peculiarity of whichever company you\'re applying to — but based on the only criteria you specified (\"major companies\" whose job \"requirements always include a BS in a related field\"), I would feel confident speculating that yes, they will verify your education.
    posted by cribcage at 11:12 PM

    I was just hired by a (very, very) large firm, and they hired a third party to run a complete background check on me. I was actually sent a copy, and it included past addresses, all past jobs with correct compensation amounts, court cases that I had been attached to, and, yes, every bit of schooling I\'d put on my resume including GPA.

    If you don\'t know someone willing to lie for you, or you\'re not applying for a position lofty enough that you can scoff at their request for a background check and have them apologize for offending you, don\'t even try it. It opens you up to potential liability and looks really, really bad.
    posted by TheNewWazoo at 11:15 PM

    All of my previous employers verified education.
    posted by aberrant at 11:43 PM

    Don\'t lie.


    I have an acquaintance (now retired) who never graduated from high school, but had a successful career as a consultant (mostly corporate training) and also sat on various boards. He also claims he was recruited to run as a member of parliament.

    He showed me his resume. It was 3 pages of dense copy, listing various positions, achievements and projects. But it never mentioned education. He said the resume was primarily a marketing tool to get him interviews.

    He also said that, at the end of a long interview process for the position of director of some department at a large company, the decision maker asked him bluntly: did you graduate from high school?

    My acquaintance said no, but got the job anyway.
    posted by KokuRyu at 12:27 AM

    My most recent employer asked me to bring my diploma into work so that they could make a copy. I had to search high and low for it.
    posted by solid-one-love at 12:37 AM

    We were in the hiring process and were close to signing a deal with this one person, when our HR department came back with this exact thing - the person in question had not completed a degree. The funny thing is, if this person had not lied about it, we would have gone ahead and made the offer.

    So, yes, seconding everyone else: there won\'t be a problem with not finishing the degree, as long as you don\'t lie about it.
    posted by Arthur Dent at 1:08 AM

    @arthur dent: that kinda begs the question, if the person hadn\'t lied about their degree, would you have even considered the person?
    posted by sxtxixtxcxh at 1:41 AM

    With the rise of third party vendors that can verify resume information cheaply and efficiently (my husband worked at one for a while), it\'s increasingly easier and more common for companies of all sizes to take that extra step.

    There\'s some excellent advice upthread on how to list the education you do have. If your skills and professional experience are strong enough, the company will accommodate you. If you lie, they\'ll escort you to the door the minute they find out, whether it\'s during the interview process or two years down the line. Why risk it?
    posted by platinum at 1:42 AM

    It does not depend on industry or location. It merely depends on the company. Some do, some don\'t. You will get caught, eventually.
    posted by randomstriker at 2:07

    Somebody I worked with was prosecuted for forging his degree certificate. Yes, obviously, he lost his very well-paid job.
    posted by Idcoytco at 3:11 AM

    HireRight is the company used by a particular major tech firm that I interviewed with. They too asked me to fax them a copy of my diploma and give them contact information for someone at my school who could confirm my status as an alum.
    posted by thejoshu at 3:34 AM

    I decided to handle this in my resume by listing my university education as \"Undergraduate Studies in...\" 198x-198x. I don\'t claim any degree. Easiest thing to do. Let your real life experience speak for itself.
    posted by michswiss at 3:58 AM

    Another consideration is not only will big companies verify upon hiring but often later, when someone is considered for a promotion.

    I\'m a banker, and while working in New York about fifteen years ago a very well regarded colleague was abruptly dismissed perhaps two weeks after being offered a promotion. She had even assumed the position of \"Acting Director of Quantitative Risk Management\", subject to confirmation of her promotion by The Board.

    Well, it turns out The Board had a policy of reconfirming everything on one\'s CV. When she was initially hired for her lower level position it wasn\'t deemed necessary to verify she held the degree she\'d claimed she\'d earned.

    Sadly, after a decade of hard work it all came crashing down when she was promoted. michswiss suggests a good, honest approach.
    posted by Mutant at 4:23 AM

    I like mdonley\'s idea (University of X, 200x-200x), but try to word it in such a way that suggests you got the degree without actually saying you got the degree.
    posted by Dec One at 5:14 AM

    Just putting the years & major on your resume works pretty well. People often don\'t ask until you\'re toward the end of your interview, after you\'re done wowing them. (You are going to wow them, right?) Sometimes people don\'t even ask. It\'s entirely reasonable to assume you\'re just so awesome that you got your degree in 3 years.

    On top of that, experience can make up for lack of Official Education.

    If you carry yourself properly and Know Your Stuff, it honestly doesn\'t matter past the initial screening process, where people look at your resume for ten seconds and decide if they\'re going to call your or not. Once you\'re through that initial hurdle, it\'s all about the interview.

    At least, that\'s how it works for me.
    posted by blacklite at 5:47

    * Some employers find the suggest-you-got-a-degree-you-didn\'t ploy (even just listing a major) dishonest. I think most would find mdonley\'s wording acceptable, but the line will be different for different employers.

    * I\'ve seen the case where a company that doesn\'t verify gets bought and the new management immediately verifies the bought-out company\'s employees so the deadwood that doesn\'t check out can be fired for cause without severance. In most states, the employer would even have a slam-dunk case to deny you unemployment.
    posted by backupjesus at 6:17

    My guess is that it\'s doubtful, especially considering that it\'s usually pretty easy to tell if someone lied about their qualifications. If you, as an employer, can\'t sniff this sort of thing out, then perhaps you would be best going through a recruiter or something.
    posted by Afroblanco at 6:48

    I worked with someone who lied about his degree. Evidently they had hired him on the basis of his interviews and references, and then two weeks later a third party check showed that hed did not have the BA he claimed. He was fired because he lied. They said they would have hired him without the degree.
    posted by kimdog at 7:24

    Upon being hired, I\'ve been asked to produce my transcripts and my parchment(s). Some employers wanted just the transcripts; others actually photocopied my parchment. And this has been at small companies. I can\'t imagine how extensive the checks would be at a larger firm.

    Word your resume to show you attended school. Do not suggest you got a degree. Note that any decent recruiter/HR manager will quickly figure out whether you have a degree or not. I\'ve even been raked over the coals for taking 6 years to finish my bachelors, even though my resume clearly showed I was working full-time during school.
    posted by acoutu at 7:31

    My partner has a B.A. but not in the field he works in. Some years after college, he did a bunch of coursework in his field (programming) without earning a degree. He lists that part of his education as something like, \"School, year-year, coursework in...\" and then highlights the most relevant coursework (I think this section has gotten less detailed as the years have passed and he\'s gained experience as a programmer, which matters more than whether he has a degree).

    This isn\'t exactly analogous to your situation, since he does have a degree, but it\'s another idea of how to list your college experience.

    On re-reading, I see you have 15 years of relevant experience. Given that, I\'d be surprised if somebody wasn\'t thrilled to hire you, B.A. or no. I wouldn\'t take the risk of lying.
    posted by not that girl at 9:27

    You just can\'t take those job \"requirements\" seriously if you\'re going to be ambitious enough to apply for anything good. Those things are written to keep out the riff-raff and to set a general expectation as to what kind of person they think they\'re looking for. If you are really \"an expert in an in-demand field,\" then you are not the riff-raff.

    I have a certain amount of hiring power at my company, and personally I don\'t care whether a candidate finished school or not, or where they went. In fact, I\'m more liable to be intrigued by a candidate who took a more unconventional route in life.
    posted by bingo at 12:57 PM

    Whoa, I can\'t believe these answers. It would have to depend on privacy laws where you live. There\'s no way the university I work in (in Canada) could legally give out personal information to a random third party like that. Definitely not without your signed request, to be sure.

    I\'ve never had an employer verify education - I\'ve only rarely had them even call my references.
    posted by loiseau at 3:19 PM

    Loiseau, I\'d wonder about that, too. However, it\'s probably no different than when an employer receives a call. Like the employer, the school can probably confirm information volunteered by the caller. \"Did John Doe attend your school from x to y date?\" \"Yes.\" \"Did John Doe receive a BSc in aquaculture in 1992?\" \"Yes.\" Alternatively, the school may require a consent form from the person involved. Still, I think that\'s why I have been required to bring along copies of my transcripts or parchments. (And not for riff-raff jobs -- on three occasions, I was reporting to C-level staff, albeit in smaller firms.)
    posted by acoutu at 4:39 PM

    I work for a University, so maybe we are stricter than some commercial firms, but we always ask potential employees for a copy of their transcript and testamur (\'the paper\').

    We\'ve also been in situations where we\'ve gotten rid of staff because we found out they lied about their qualifications (in this case, this means they showed us a fake degree!)

    So, I think you would most likely get caught in the lie at some point. I agree with other posters though, don\'t be afraid to write on your resume what you did and let them work out if that is long enough to get the degree!
    posted by ranglin at 8:12 PM

    I hire IT people; I care about academic qualifications only in people with less than a few year\'s experience. If you have 15 years relevent experience, you don\'t need to be claiming a pretend degree.

    (To the best of my knowledge, in my 12 years of professional IT nobody has ever sought to verify my University degree. Which is a shame, because it was more or less a waste of money in every other way too.)
    posted by thparkth at 8:27 PM

    Disclaimer: this is only my experience.

    When I\'m reading a resume, if I see dates and a major, but no explicit indication of a degree earned, I assume that the person attended the given school for the given years, studying the given topic, and, for whatever reason, didn\'t complete their degree.

    I attended two different undergraduate schools from 1990 - 1992 and 1992 - 1994, and never completed a degree. At this point in my career, it\'s become irrelevant, and, even at the beginning of my career, it was immediate apparent that the ability to learn fast was more important than whether I had my BA/BS or not.

    That said, this is the internet industry we\'re speaking of: in professions like medicine, law, engineering and the sciences, your degree, where you earned it, and how you did are extremely relevant.

    All this boils down to: don\'t lie. At the very least, you\'re consigning yourself to worrying about whether or not you\'ll get caught. At the very worst, you\'ll get caught and destroy your professional reputation so thoroughly that you\'ll never find work in your field again: and, trust me, this happens all the time.
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