Background Investigations: Uncovering the Dirt
In This Chapter
• Uncovering personal identifiers
• Finding criminal records
• Verifying applicants’ educational backgrounds
• Adhering to the rules of the Fair Credit Reporting Act
• Using a web-based client interface
Every third inquiry for services a private investigator receives is a request for some type of a background investigation. Generally, the new caller has no idea what she’s looking for—only that she needs somebody checked out, doesn’t have a clue how to do it herself, and has no idea really of what a background investigation encompasses. As a professional investigator, you have to determine the actual needs of the client and then educate her about what is possible and what isn’t.
Most people have a vague notion of what a “background check” might include but are not really clear on the specifics. In this chapter, I talk about two basic backgrounds: dig-up-the-dirt background and pre-employment background screening. These are two totally different backgrounds and are subject to different laws and requirements.
Knowledge is power. In this chapter, I show you how to get that knowledge and offer up some items to consider if you’re thinking about setting up a pre-employment background-screening company.
Let’s look at some typical reasons someone might want to hire you to dig up some dirt on somebody:
• A father and former husband is concerned about the ex-wife’s new boyfriend. The ex-wife has custody of the children, and the boyfriend appears to be a slimeball. If the father can prove that his ex-wife is letting some degenerate hang around his kids, perhaps the father can get custody.
• A woman has her wedding planned, and the date is soon, but some doubts linger in her mind about the soon-to-be husband. Some of the things he says just don’t add up.
• A new boyfriend claims to be a secret agent, or an ex-Navy SEAL, but his beer belly has his girlfriend wondering. What else is he lying about?
And here are a few reasons for doing a pre-employment background check:
• A small business owner has a new employee and wants to make sure the person he just hired is honest, hardworking, and dependable.
• A mother and father are thinking about hiring a nanny full-time. They want to ensure that the new nanny isn’t a child abuser or, worse, a molester.
• A couple has a new cleaning lady. They’re going to be out of town on cleaning day. Do they give her a key to the house?
All these reasons are real problems from real people. Their lives are tied in knots until they can get answers to their questions and resolve the doubts in their minds.
The components that make up a good basic background or employment check are as follows:
• Conducting a criminal arrest and/or conviction search (general background and pre-employment)
• Conducting a civil records search (general background)
• Verifying and checking with previous employers (pre-employment)
• Interviewing personal references (pre-employment)
• Obtaining a driving history, if applicable to your needs (general background and pre-employment)
• Running a credit check (pre-employment)
General Background Checks: Obtaining the Basic Goods
Before beginning any background check, you must assess the level of detail and depth of the check you desire. Regardless of what type of background investigation you intend to perform, you must have the name, date of birth, and Social Security number of the person you’re checking out. Although a current address isn’t necessary, it is highly desirable.
If your purpose for the background is employment, you’ll have all this information on the candidate’s application. If you’re doing a search for other reasons, you probably don’t have much information about the person—which is why you want to do a background check in the first place.
Finding the Name
You’d think that knowing the name of the person you want to check out would be a simple, commonsense matter, but you’d be surprised at how often that little detail is difficult to come by. I can’t tell you how many times clients have come to my office because their ex-spouses are seeing new people, and my clients are concerned about the new love interest—they want to find out what they do for a living and whether they’ve had any run-ins with the law. The trouble is, they don’t have a name to start the check.
A good father who doesn’t have custody of his children should be concerned about another male who is living with his children or might have influence over them. The last thing you want is somebody who is abusive or with a history of child molestation living with your kids. If the client doesn’t know the individual’s name, how do you, the PI, find it? Here are four good methods that work:
• If the client is on good terms with the ex, have him ask her. Most of the time, however, our clients aren’t on very good terms with the former spouses.
• If the kids are old enough, ask them. If they are young, they may know only a first name or the name by which the ex refers to him. If you can get a first name, that’s a start.
• If your client is allowed regular access to the ex’s house, perhaps when picking up the kids, have him check the caller ID on the telephone or the list of dialed and received calls on his ex’s cell phone, if he can get his hands on it. Chances are, the new friend has called, and his telephone number and name might be right there. Even if his name isn’t shown, his number might be recorded. (I tell you how to do reverse phone searches in Chapter 7.) Even if you have a list of 30 numbers, spend $23 at 555-1212.com to buy a hundred searches—the smallest package available—and run all 30 numbers.
• Jot down the license tag on the guy’s car. This means you’ll have to be there when he shows up. That might be easy, and it might not, depending on your situation. If you can’t be there, perhaps you can get a friendly neighbor to do it for you. By running the license, you’ll get the name, date of birth, and an address (a bases-loaded home run). As a professional, I always go right for the tag. With the tag info, you can then get the Social Security number, which you might need to further identify this person.
Finding the Date of Birth
To run a criminal record check, you need two things: the name and date of birth. A Social Security number is nice but not necessary. Race and sex are also helpful as identifiers, and in running criminal records, you usually have to include both items in the request. Race and sex should be easy for you, although these days, with spiked hair and baggy clothes, a person’s sex might not be obvious.
To get the date of birth, go down to your local voter’s registration office and check the voter’s records, which are usually considered public information and include the name and date of birth. Different states have different rules concerning taking notes while reviewing the voter’s registration records, but often they won’t let you write anything down. That’s to keep people from coming in and making marketing lists. You’ll just have to remember the date of birth until you can step around the corner and write it down.
If the new boyfriend isn’t a registered voter, head for the clerk of the court’s office and check for previous marriages and divorces. Many clerks of the court have their records online. There you will find all the identifiers you need.
Excuse me, you say, but I’ve spent half a day running around the courthouse only to discover that the new boyfriend isn’t a registered voter and was divorced in another state. Now what? You can tap into one of the subscription databases I discuss in Chapter 6 and have it in a matter of minutes, or you can make a pretext call.
Before attempting this, check out Chapter 12 for detailed instructions on how to perform pretext calls. I’ve used the following pretext quite successfully in the past to uncover the date of birth. But take note: you can’t use the pretext on the subject himself. It is best used on a close relative, like a parent or sister, or on a roommate. In any case, the subject cannot be present when you make the call.
Call the phone number you got off the caller ID when you’re sure the subject is not home. If you know anything about the subject’s parents, call them instead. Be sure to use one of the tricks I discuss in Chapter 12 to block your phone number before calling.
When Mom answers, tell her you found her son’s wallet in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center, referring to the store by name. (If the mom lives out of state, better still.) Explain that you’re not sure that you have the right family, but you’d like to get the wallet back to its owner. If Mom asks how you got her number, tell her it was in the wallet. If Mom will just confirm the date of birth you found in the wallet, you’ll make arrangements to return the billfold. Tell her you’ll need the person’s current address to take the billfold to him. Now you’ve turned your base hit into a double (date of birth and address). I used to go for a triple, asking for the SSN, but now with identity theft such a hot item, I wouldn’t push it. Be happy with the date of birth and the address if you can get it. I’ve never had this pretext fail.
The Local Sheriff’s Office
If possible, you should always check the local police jurisdiction’s files in addition to the court records when performing a criminal background check. They might have records of incidents that never went to court because nobody was ever charged. In some states, you can get the arrest records for a small search fee (typically about $5), right there while you wait.
Suppose the new boyfriend was beating up his live-in girlfriend. The next-door neighbor calls the police when she hears the girlfriend pleading for help. The police arrive, but there is no blood spread around, so they calm down the couple and leave. Before they leave the scene, they write up a domestic disturbance incident report. Nobody was arrested; no charges were filed. There will be nothing in any court file. But still, you’d like to know about that incident, wouldn’t you?
Frequently, patrol officers stop somebody who is acting suspiciously or loitering. When they do, they always ask for identification and usually run a computer check on the subject to see if there are any warrants on him or her. In most jurisdictions, the officers fill out what is known as a Field Identification (FI) card, or they might write an incident report if they were responding to a call. Those FI cards and incident reports contain a lot of information and should be reviewed.
When you check the local police department, they’ll do the searching for you. Usually you write the name and other identifying information on a form and hand it to a records clerk, who searches for the information while you wait. There is almost always a nominal charge—anywhere from $3 to $15—for this search.
While you’re at the police department, ask them to check for 911 calls from the residence address. Most private investigators don’t even think to do this, but you’d be surprised how often I find that the ex-wife has called 911 because of the new boyfriend assaulting or threatening her.
The Driving History
If you’re conducting a general background check, you’re looking for dirt. Your ex-spouse is dating some guy who, from time to time, has your kids in his car. You don’t like the guy, but you have no control over the situation. So run a driving history on him. If he has a DUI on his record or a bunch of points for speeding or reckless driving charges, you can probably get a court order to prohibit your ex from letting your kids be in the car with him when he’s behind the wheel. There are two reasons to do this:
• You’ll feel better having taken some action.
• You can hire a PI to catch the creep driving with the kids in the car and then go for permanent custody. These are your kids. You need to do all you can to ensure that they are in a safe environment.
Driver’s license information is still one of the single best sources for identification purposes. But unfortunately, as John Q. Private Citizen, this information is probably not available to you. The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) pretty well limits driver’s license information to government agencies and licensed private investigators, which has posed a problem to some PIs in states that don’t issue PI licenses. It’s sort of a catch-22 for private investigators in those states. So if you need the driver’s license information because you can’t find your subject’s identifying information anywhere else, hire a PI to get it for you.
Locating the Address
A party in a civil case is identified by name and address, so you don’t need his date of birth or Social Security number to research any civil cases he was involved in. You can usually get by with just the person’s name. If it’s a common name, you need the address to differentiate all those Bill Smiths or Steve Browns.
If you have the person’s name and date of birth, getting the address is a cinch. Here are two quick ways to find it:
• Get the vehicle tag. This is by far the easiest and most direct approach. Sometimes, though, people change addresses and don’t notify the DMV, so the vehicle registration might not always be current. The good news is, 8 times out of 10, it is.
• Use the telephone records. Reverse-search the number you got off the caller ID, and you’ll have the address. If it’s a cell phone, use the techniques I discuss in Chapter 7.
Sometimes clients really want the address, for reasons other than checking the civil records. Maybe the client needs to see for himself what’s really going on at the new boyfriend’s house, or maybe the client needs to prove that his ex-spouse has moved in with a man. This can figure into alimony adjustments in a big way, as we discussed in Chapter 5.
Here are two surefire ways to locate the address:
• Check local property records (real property tax rolls). If you have reason to believe that the person dating the ex owns his home, go to your local property appraiser’s office and check the records. If the person rents his house or apartment, that won’t work.
• Follow the subject home. This almost always works. Be sure to read Chapter 11 before you attempt this. A lot of tricks go into a successful surveillance, so study up. The last thing you want is for your ex to find out that you’ve tailed her new boyfriend to his apartment. And—this is very important—you certainly don’t want a confrontation.
The Criminal in Our Background
In Chapter 5, I walk you through the process of getting records from both the clerk of the court and the state criminal record system. Now’s your chance to put that knowledge to work. Yeah, it means you’ve got to spend a couple hours driving to the courthouse and getting someone to help you. Actually, at most courthouses, you’ll spend more time looking for a parking space than you will inside looking for records. Twenty minutes, in and out, is all you should need if you’re checking only criminal cases. Be sure to check both the upper and lower courts. In the lower courts, you’ll find the misdemeanors. Remember, a lot of misdemeanors began as felonies and were pled down to misdemeanors. So you want to review the file and examine the original charges.
Before you go to the courthouse, see if your county posts its criminal records online. Call the clerk of the court and ask, or use a search engine and search for “clerk of the court [your county, your state].” For example, if you want to find out whether Clay County, Florida, has its criminal records online, type “clerk of the court Clay County Florida.” If you happen to search Clay County, you’ll see that its criminal records are online and that you can access them for free.
The Sometimes Not-So-Civil Cases
I always recommend checking civil-court files in prenuptial investigations. Divorce files, in particular, contain some of the most bizarre allegations you’ll ever see. Husbands and wives in the midst of a bitter divorce spill all the dirty secrets about each other, including drugs, sex, adultery, violence, anger, and perverted behavior. And you can find it all right there in the divorce file, a public record in most (but not all) states, available for anybody who cares to read about it. Certainly, were I to remarry, presuming that my wife-to-be had been previously divorced, I would want to review her divorce file before popping the question.
A while back, a stockbroker called me, indicating that she was going to be married in 10 days. She had some lingering doubts about her fiancé, who was from another state, and thought that, before the big day came, she should check into his background. “A little late,” I thought, but we took the case.
I had my man in the western state the gentleman was from start with the civil records and the local police department. Guess what? In the clerk of the courts office, he found a marriage record but no divorce on file. True, he could have gotten divorced someplace else, so we kept on digging.
Across the street at the police department, guess what we found? Nope, not an arrest record, but a missing person report filed by his still-legal wife, nearly a year before. Apparently, the man just left his family of 20 years and headed east, leaving behind his wife and three sons. They had no idea where he was or whether he was dead or alive, but they did know for sure that he hadn’t been divorced. Well, what’s a little bigamy between friends?
The kicker is, my female client decided she was still in love with the guy, postponed the wedding, waited until the divorce was final from his first wife, and then married him anyway. At least she knew what she was getting into. After all that, do you still think doing a prenuptial background is silly?
You’ve been in the PI business for a long time and are tired of leaving home at 5 A.M. to follow some plaintiff with an early tee time to a golf course where he can swing a club but can’t swing a paint brush. So you want to start an employment background-screening company and not worry about keeping your camera dry when it rains. Good for you. Here are some tips.
Starting a Brand New Company
First, you need to incorporate a new entity that has nothing to do with your PI-licensed firm. Remember back in Chapter 6 when I talked about the credit bureaus? The bottom line is, if your background company holds a PI license, the credit bureaus probably will not grant you access to their files. Many employers want a credit report run on their prospective employees. If you have no access or have to buy the credit report through a third party, your costs will go way up.
Whole books have been written on how to do background screenings, but I cover some of the basics in about six pages. This isn’t meant to be all-inclusive, but it is intended to give you an idea of how to proceed. I wish I’d had this information when I began my background company. Just knowing about the client interface I tell you about would have saved me a year of wasted effort.
Obeying the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)
Provisions in the FCRA affect your new company. The FCRA is cursed by many private investigators who don’t understand it, but it really opens several doors for background companies. As a background-screening company, you’re considered a consumer-reporting agency, just like the big credit bureaus; it also means that you’re bound by the same rules. As a small employer who performs your own backgrounds before hiring people, you’re also bound by those rules. So let’s have a look.
You can find the complete text of the FCRA at www.ftc.gov/os/statutes/031224fcra.pdf. It’s 84 pages long; if you want to read it, knock yourself out. Meanwhile, I want to point out one important provision of the report that you absolutely must be aware of when using it for employment purposes:
Section 604 of the FCRA states that if “adverse action” is taken in whole or in part because of the consumer report, the prospective employer must communicate to the applicant within three days that adverse action was taken and should name your company as the consumer-reporting agency.
The prospective employee has a right to a copy of your report and, if he requests it, you must send him a copy. He may dispute anything in your report that he believes is inaccurate. Wow, sounds like a mess, huh? If you’re a small business, you might want to reconsider performing your own backgrounds and hire my company, or some other background-screening company, to deal with all of this. But if you are the background company, you have to know the rules of the FCRA.
Creating Your Own Website
I haven’t talked much about websites for private investigators. That’s a whole book by itself. But I do need to spend a couple minutes on your background-screening company’s website. Why? Because most of your background work will be conducted from your office, and it doesn’t make any difference whether you’re in Austin, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; or Boone, North Carolina. Your website should imply that your firm is national in scope. The big boys do most of their work from just one location, and you can, too. Your client doesn’t need to know that the company is just you and one person running the data sources. You can have just as big a presence in Los Angeles as can some firm with 40 employees that is based in New York City.
In designing your website, pay attention to how your competition does theirs, and make yours better. You’ll understand why this is so important in the next section.
The Client Interface
Most progressive background-screening companies have gone to a web-based client interface, in which established clients can log in and enter the applicant’s data. This data is saved on a server that you access from your office. Creating an interface might sound like a lot of computer knowledge is needed, but that’s not necessarily the case. You can hire a company to provide this interface. They charge for it, but it’s a pretty slick product. When your client clicks on the login at your site (try mine if you like, www.hindsightinc.com) the URL address at the top of the screen changes from www.hindsightinc.com to a secure server with a different name. But did you also notice that the look of the server has the feel and look of my company’s home page? Most of my clients never realize that they’ve been moved to another server.
After the client has input a new applicant’s data, I’m notified immediately by email or, if I’m in the database, I see the new application come up in the work queue on the server. Either way, I can start working on the application right way.
To find companies that provide this service, I recommend using your favorite search engine and searching “employment screening software,” but three websites of reputable companies are www.ssctech.com, www.tazworks.net, and www.frssoftware.com. Do your research and figure out what works best for you.
Working the Application
When you have a web-based client interface set up, much of the application process can be handled automatically. These servers interface with the credit bureaus, driving record suppliers, Social Security traces, and criminal record retrievers. You can configure your website so that when a client inputs the application data, a Social Security trace is automatically pulled. I talk about why you might want to do this in a minute. You can also configure the program to automatically pull a credit report, a driving history, and a criminal history. My staff can be drinking piña coladas by the pool and let the computer do the work. Of course, if I catch them, they’re out of a job.
Pre-Employment Background Checks
A proper employment background check involves a lot of components, but the major components are as follows:
• Criminal record search
• Credit report
• Driving records
• Social Security trace
• Educational verification
I delve into each of these components in the following sections.
The general idea in searching for criminal records is to search the best available data. The norm is a county-level criminal search in the counties where the applicant has resided within the last 7 to 20 years. The records searched should be current to within 30 days. Some states allow consumer-reporting agencies to search back only seven years; others allow you to search back forever.
To find out, you need to know the laws of the states where your clients and the applicants are located. And keep in mind that laws and regulations change frequently, so use more than one resource when checking the laws.
So your client needs a criminal records search conducted in Bibb County, Georgia. How do you get it done? Several companies have put together nationwide networks of local county courthouse researchers. Here are four that I recommend:
Phoenix Research (www.hrliability.com)
National Background Data (www.nationalbackgrounddata.com)
Omni Data Retrieval (www.omnidataretrieval.com)
G.A. Public Record Services (www.gaprs.biz)
Other companies specialize in a particular geographic region or state. National Background Data doesn’t compete with you; they sell only wholesale and do not sell directly to individual clients. But the others do a very good job, and you might want to take a look at them.
There is one, and only one, possible way to do a national criminal history search. That is by searching the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division records. The records at the division can be searched by fingerprints, or you can initiate a search of the Computerized Criminal History section of the Bureau’s NCIC computer, which can be searched by name and date of birth. Any honest person in the employment-screening or background-investigation business will admit that there is no other national criminal history check. Period. A search through the FBI’s records and the NCIC computer is available only to law enforcement and a few other federally mandated organizations.
Fewer employers bother pulling credit reports on job applicants these days. Still, some clients want that service, so you’ll need to provide it. Plus, you’ll get requests for tenant screening, which usually involves a credit check. We talk about three major bureaus in other chapters, but in case you turned to this chapter first, here they are:
Many employers couldn’t care less about a person’s driving history. Others, particularly those that provide company vehicles, insist that their employees have clear driving records. You have multiple choices for providers of driving records. One good company is American Driving Records (www.mvrs.com). First Advantage used to be the elephant in the room when it came to background companies, but they were recently bought out by CoreLogic, which owns a whole host of background-screening companies and other diverse companies in the background screening arena.
The Social Security Trace
A Social Security trace is a cheap tool for finding where your applicant has resided in the past. It also verifies that the applicant’s Social Security number has been issued and is not made up. It is largely based on credit header information and lists addresses that your applicant reported in the past, usually with the dates that the applicant supposedly resided there. It is a good tool, but since it is derived from credit data, it’s often inaccurate. National Background Data, a firm I mentioned earlier in this chapter, sells one called “AIM” that is better than some, and the cost to its affiliates is less than a dollar.
Some universities verify dates of enrollment and/or degrees given to their students if you call the registrar’s office at the school, but many universities now farm out this task to independent companies. National Student Clearing House has a number of universities enrolled in their systems, at www.studentclearinghouse.org.
Education verification is the one employment search where applicants lie the most. It’s incredible. They’ll claim to have degrees from universities when they don’t. They’ll indicate three years’ attendance when they attended only one semester. It goes on and on.
Think about this. If applicants misrepresent facts or lie on their employment application, what does that make them? If you hire them anyway, don’t be surprised when you catch them in a lie later.
Other checks that employers should consider include checks for previous employment (especially salary information), references, medical databases required for hospital personnel, credentials and special licenses, Patriot Act–compliance search, PACER, and some other specialized searches for special fields, such as the National Driver Register and the FAA Accident and Incident database for airline pilots.
The Least You Need to Know
• A basic background check usually includes a criminal history, civil records search, previous employers, and personal reference contacts.
• Before driving to the courthouse, check to see if these records are online.
• You must have at least the name and date of birth to conduct a background search, and preferably a Social Security number as well. Obtaining this information involves some tricks.
• There is no “national criminal” search other than the NCIC, which is run by the FBI. Don’t be fooled.
• Civil suits, particularly divorce files, contain many allegations between suing parties and provide good leads for additional witnesses.
• Applicants routinely lie about their educational credits. Many universities use outside agencies to report enrollment and verify degrees.