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How to Conduct a Background Investigation

As a Private Investigator, I am often asked to conduct background checks for my clients. These days I think that is a good idea, especially with so many people meeting on social media. Wouldn’t it be nice if we can trust everyone in the world? Unfortunately, this is not the ideal world. We cannot simply trust everyone we meet. Sometimes, we have to be cautious to protect ourselves or our loved ones from harm. So, there are times when you have to conduct a background check on people you suspect.

For example, if you are hiring a nanny, you should conduct a background check on her before allowing her to take care of your children. If you don’t do so, you are putting your children at risk.


Or, you meet this man or woman on the internet, and after hitting it off well for awhile he or she asks you to send money for some emergency he has. It’s always a good idea to find out more about a person before you decide whether you want to have any relationship with him or her.

By conducting a background check, you will know whether a person has committed any crime in the past. You will also be able to find out more about a person, such as whether he/she had married or divorced before, where he/she was born, etc.

If you are curious to find out information about someone and you want to do it discreetly, there are plenty of ways for you to conduct your own investigation. Using the internet is the easiest and most popular method to search someone’s background. However, if you’re not entirely familiar with how and where to do it properly, you will just get frustrated and disappointed and won’t find anything beneficial. In this article, I am going to teach you how to conduct an investigation the right way.

Here are several options you can choose depending on the situation.

1) Hire a Private Investigator

If money is not an issue, you can always hire someone like me, a private investigator, to do the investigation for you. This is probably the easiest method since you don’t have to do anything yourself other than to hire me.

However, if you do not want to spend too much money, I charge $100 per hour, you can either visit your local public records office, or you can conduct a background check online.

2) Local Public Records Office

If you need an official physical copy of a record, then you will have to go to your local public records office. You will have to pay an administrative fee, and if they are busy, you may have to wait a couple of days for the records to be sent to you.

3) Online Public Records Services

If physical copies of the records are not that important to you, you should use online public records services instead. This is more convenient since you don’t need to leave home to conduct your investigation. It is also cheaper and faster.

Why not use instant background services?

When I was in law enforcement, we had particular information sources we could use like the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, which is the lifeline of law enforcement, an electronic clearinghouse of crime data that can be tapped into by virtually every criminal justice agency nationwide. We also used Lexis/Nexis, a corporation providing computer-assisted legal research (CALR) as well as business research and risk management services. There are also similar systems created for private investigators.

However, there is no such thing as a national criminal database available to you, the general public. Unfortunately, there are many companies which will make you believe that there is and that you can get instant results for $20. They can get away with this because they provide partial criminal records from each state. For example, if a company only has records from one county in every state, it may claim it can do a national background check. Or, if a company has criminal records between 1991 – 1994 from all states, the company may claim it can do a national criminal background check. The reality is you’re getting a partial background check that I would never trust.

Let’s say you have a daughter and she comes home with bruises on her arms, and she states that she fell, but you believe that her new boyfriend that’s ten years older than her had something to do with it (now I have other ways I would handle this situation.) You jump on Google and find one of those cheap and instant criminal background services. You run a quick background check and find that he has a clean record according to this system. However, tomorrow your daughter doesn’t come home. One week later she is found dead, and the police tell you that her boyfriend just got out of jail. He was convicted of sexual abuse charges three years ago in a place that doesn’t share its criminal records with your INSTANT background check provider! That’s why a thorough search is a MUST!

How to do a background check?

So how do you do a thorough check? As a private investigator, I have access to online databases that are not available to the public. However, all the information on an investigators database is public information; mine is just probably more up-to-date and reveals more information than the instant background check the online company is offering you. However, using a database should only be your FIRST step in your investigation. It definitely is for me as a PI. When I put a name into a database, I am searching for as much identifying information as possible. I am looking for a social security number, date of birth, aliases, and known addresses. What I am trying to do is to confirm that I am searching on the correct subject. This is hard if I am given a common name, like Derek Smith, with little more information than that.

Once I have enough information, I search for the subject’s address history. I want to find out every city and county the subject resided in since he or she was 18 years old.

Once I find the addresses, I use my database to search for liens, judgments, criminal records, and any other public information that the client desires. The database I use will state what record information is available. For example, it may say that Prince George’s County information, where I live and serve, is available from 1980 – present on a city and county level for all criminal and civil courts. If the subject resided in Prince George’s County all his or her life, I am lucky and don’t need to do much more for criminal and civil searches. However, MOST of the time I am not that lucky and have to search other areas. Almost every background check I have conducted required more work than using one database.

Since you don’t have access to the PI databases I use, I will recommend you run a search with http://www.ussearch.com or http://www.intelius.com. Just run the basic search to obtain address history and then conduct public records searches with the appropriate city, county, or state department.

Once you get the address history of your subject, you can search for criminal and civil records individually by courts, or by city, county or state. Depending on the court, city, county, or state, there are different procedures for the search so you will have to look that up. Few states have their criminal records on one database. Sometimes you have to search by the county criminal database, sometimes you must examine the city criminal database, and sometimes you must search each court in the city or county individually. Some city, county, or state databases will have information online, and some will require you to mail in a search request. There are fees involved ranging from $1 – $65 for specific counties or states.

Now, let’s say you have eight addresses on your subject in five counties and two different states since your subject was 18 years old. You must now check if the two states have a single criminal database for all records. I will tell you that most states don’t. You will then have to check if each county has a single criminal record database, then check the cities, then check the courts. The easiest way to do this is to call the criminal courthouse records office and just ask. While you are at it, ask if the database will provide, felonies, misdemeanors, and/ or arrest records and the dates that were searched. Depending on the county and/ or state, you will most likely have to follow similar procedures with civil records, marriage records, judgments, liens, and most other public records that you need.

If you want to conduct a thorough full criminal records check and other public information, you will need to know precisely what information you’re getting (arrest, misdemeanor, felony, etc.) and what time frames are covered in your search. Some counties may only cover 5-10 years unless requested to search further back. Again, the county recorder and court records offices will be your best and most accurate sources of information.

As a PI I can run a driving record search, but you won’t have access to that information. You also cannot obtain a full credit report without the subject’s signature; Even as a PI, I cannot get a full credit report without the subject’s signature.

So here is a quick recap of the steps I just provided to you:

  • Step 1: Use ussearch.com or intelius.com to get address history on the subject.
  • Step 2: Confirm that the information is on the correct subject with identifying information.
  • Step 3: Call the criminal records courthouse and/or county recorder to find out how to get information from EACH county the subject lived in since he was 18.
  • Step 4: Do the same for all public records that you need.

This article has provided you with how to do a simple, minimal, background check. I hope this can help you if you need to do this and save you some money too.

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