Why Use a Background Check Service?
The top performers in our reviews are Intelius, the Gold Award winner; US Search, the Silver Award winner; and BeenVerified, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a service to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of the best background check services.
Background Checks Provide You Public Information
Background check services can help you learn a lot about someone. Whether you're wondering about a past bankruptcy of a potential new business partner or the criminal record of your blind date, it's important to understand how background check services work before you use them. The information contained in background checks comes from a variety of different public sources, including county clerk's offices, courthouses and social media sites. You could take the time to find this information yourself, but the process is time consuming and can get frustrating. Using background check services makes the process quick and efficient, so you don't have to spend the time tracking downs bits and pieces of the information you want.
Because background check services give you reports based on public records, it's important to remember that some of the information may seem outdated. However, recognize that the information might be the most updated data available.
The services we reviewed can provide extensive background checks on people, including criminal and bankruptcy history. However, if you are simply looking to access basic personal information, people search services may better suit your needs. A good people search service gives you information that includes data such as names, aliases and previous addresses. For more information, check out our articles on background check services.
How to Legally Use Background Checks
The U.S. Fair Credit Reporting Act restricts the way you can use the information you obtain from background check services. If you want to screen potential employees or tenants – or if you are screening for medical, credit or insurance purposes – you must use a consumer reporting agency or employment screening service. These agencies have to follow specific guidelines for protecting data and include processes that allow the subject of the background check to resolve disputes. If you use information from a background check service to reject a potential employee or tenant, you may find yourself in legal trouble.
Background Check Services: What We Tested, What We Found
When we evaluated background check companies, we found it essential to test their services on real people so we could verify the accuracy of the results. We focused on finding people from different backgrounds, including those with criminal records, and we tested these services on average citizens who do not actively hide their information, as well as on those who actively try to keep their information private. We purchased background check reports from each of the services in our lineup in order to evaluate them. The companies had no input or influence on our testing, and they were not provided with any results of our testing before publication.
Most of the companies we reviewed have different packages you can purchase when you want an online background check. We focused our testing on reports labeled specifically as background checks. These are comprehensive reports about the person you are researching, and they generally include personal information, criminal history and bankruptcy history. We also considered the availability of nationwide and statewide criminal background checks – offered as separate services – which differ from background checks in that they only provide personal information and criminal records.
Because the primary purpose of background checks is to gather information, we centered our attention on the variety of information available through the services. In our rankings, we also seriously considered how accurate these reports were, based on the information provided by our test subjects. The different methods of searching and the services' ease of use were factors in our ranking, as well. With these categories in mind, we split our evaluation into four main sections: Report Information, Search Customization, Ease of Use and Help & Support.
Report Information: Accuracy Matters Most
Accurate information from a background check service is important, whether you're finding a nanny for your kids or investigating someone you met online. The best background check services provide personal information, criminal records, sex offender registries and bankruptcy history. Accuracy in these fields could potentially help you avoid being a victim of fraud or help you avoid potentially dangerous or criminal situations.
We derived our accuracy score by taking the information our test subjects provided to us and comparing it to the information the background checks gave us. When data didn't match up to the information we had, we deducted points from the accuracy score.
Because the information provided on background check services is gathered through public records, there is always a chance that data will be missed or misrepresented. This is one reason it's especially important to purchase reports from companies that have high accuracy rates because then you have the best chance of receiving the most correct information about someone. With companies like Intelius and US Search, you can receive highly accurate information in a short amount of time.
Search Customization: Multiple Search Options Produce Better Results
Sometimes you want to know more about someone you've just met, but you don't have very much information about them. The best background check services include a variety of different search options so you can search based on small bits of information, such as name, location, address, phone number and age or date of birth. PeopleWise offers the widest variety of search options for full background reports, even including a way for you to search with a phone number. All the services we reviewed also offer a nationwide search option, which is useful if you don't know exactly where your subject has lived or is currently living.
Another essential aspect of searching for people is a preview option. The best background check services allow you to preview some identifying information of potential matches before you actually purchase a report. This is especially useful for names that are common, like Jones or Brown, because there could be various people who share the same name as your subject. This is one reason it's important to have some bits of information beyond a name, such as previous places of residence or close relatives, that can help you choose the right person for the report.
Ease of Use: Definitions Help You Understand Reports
You can expect all of the services to have a central dashboard that gives you access to all the reports you've purchased from the company. The best background check services provide additional information on their dashboards, such as definitions for terms you might not understand or reasons why certain information isn't shown. For example, in our testing we found that some information was only available for certain time periods or from specific states. This additional information can help you better navigate and understand the reports you have purchased.
Not all background check services provide this additional information, but we were particularly impressed with PeopleFinders' definitions. This service also provides you reasons why certain information isn't included in the reports.
Another important aspect in the Ease of Use category is the ability to search based on only one piece of information. Services with a single-search option allow you to search for a person with single pieces of information, typically a last name. The companies that don't have a single-search option will require more information from you.
Help & Support: Look for Companies Offering Helpful Phone Support
The best background check services provide a combination of support channels, including phone support, email support and online FAQs. We included live chat in our considerations as well, but while it is helpful for navigating the website, it is not necessary for a good customer experience. In all our interactions with the companies we reviewed, we found phone support to be the most helpful for finding reports or asking about billing concerns. We were able to get direct and immediate support from representatives over the phone, where email support took longer to help. We were very impressed with the support we received from US Search because of their promptness and professionalism during our interaction with them.
More Important Considerations for Background Check Services
While the features we looked at above are among the most important to keep in mind when you're choosing a background check service, some others are worth consideration depending on what you want from your background check report.
Social Media Profiles
Some services, such as BeenVerified, include social media profiles in their background checks. Some people are very open about their lives on the internet, especially since social media makes it so easy to share personal details. Seeing how someone acts online can be add significantly to a background check. However, remember that many people choose to make their social media profiles private. Private profile data will not show up in any background report.
Bankruptcy, Tax Liens or Court Judgments
Services like PeopleWise provide bankruptcy history in their background checks, which comes into play especially when you are looking into a new business partner or to invest in a new company. This information could potentially help you avoid being a victim of fraud by uncovering a hidden bankruptcy, unpaid liens or past lawsuits. Not all companies offer this information in their reports, so if that's the kind of detail you need, it's important to make sure it is available before purchasing a background check report.
Background Check Services: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Before choosing which background check service to use, focus on deciding what kind of information you want to know. Our top three picks are the best at providing you with accurate information across the board. Intelius is especially useful for its comprehensive reports, while US Search allows you to view reports for a full year after purchasing. BeenVerified excels at providing very accurate bankruptcy information.
However, our lineup also includes companies that offer background check reports with unique kinds of information, even if they don't all rank among the top three. For example, of the services we ranked, only PeopleSmart and Intelius provide available marriage and divorce records. Also worth noting is Instant Checkmate, which provides public information that is available on social media profiles in its reports. Such data isn't available through many of the services we reviewed.