How Far Back to Background Checks Go?
Nancy Patterson - October 1, 2019
The simple and most straightforward answer to this complicated question is: it all depends. It all depends on the person running the background check, what information they’re looking for, and whether or not they decided to do something thorough or something that essentially glances off the surface.
A person wonders how far back a background check goes because they may have some criminal, tax, bankruptcy, or other history that could impact their present or future. A person with a felony conviction may struggle to find a job, especially if that conviction was within the past seven or 10 years.
A standard employment background check, though, maybe limited in its scope and not all legal infractions are going to disqualify a person from a particular job or post, but that all depends on the specific type of employment it might be.
Yet, companies use background checks more frequently these days to search for information that may go beyond criminal history. You can find out what’s on yours by relying on CheckPeople.com.
What Information Can a Person Learn from a Background Check?
Each person conducting a background check will be looking for specific types of information. With the most common and generalized background check, an employer, for example, will be able to find out
- A person’s full name, age, and date of birth;
- Aliases and maiden names that are known to the legal system;
- Their current address, phone number, and previous addresses within the past 10 years;
- Any marriages or divorces on record;
- Felony convictions, certain misdemeanors, and whether or not that person is on the sex offender registry;
- Current outstanding warrants;
- Federal and state tax liens;
- Any civil or federal judgments against the individual;
- Federal or state bankruptcies that were discharged within the past 10 years.
In many situations, an employer, housing manager, or other person conducting a background check is going to be looking at standard information. This would generally include Social Security verification to ensure the person filling out an application — whatever that application is for — is actually the person who is the legal possessor of that particular number.
Also, they look for any local criminal records, usually only within the past seven years, though more thorough criminal background checks may provide felony information dating back decades.
Who Else Might Run a Background Check?
While employers are the most common organizations or individuals to run background checks on potential applicants and employees, there are others who may have a requirement to conduct one of these.
Housing organizations, such as an apartment complex, landlords, and realtors that are managing rental properties for clients are turning to background checks to ensure the person they potentially lease property to has honesty and integrity. If you aren’t certain about what your background check might show, find out using CheckPeople.com.
This has the potential to cause someone difficulty finding adequate housing in certain regions of the country. Also, financial institutions like a local bank may run a background check against a person in order to ensure they’re protected against potential liability. For example, when an individual goes in for a personal loan or a business loan, but they have a criminal conviction in their past involving some type of financial fraud, that financial institution will want to know that in order to avoid problems for themselves in the future.
As the world of dating turns to online matching services, more scrupulous individuals are turning to background checks on potential dates to ensure they’re not putting themselves in a potentially hazardous environment with somebody who has been dishonest or not completely forthright.
You could run a dating background check on a potential match, too. CheckPeople.com is a great service for such things.
As you can see, there are a number of potential people who could run background checks on you and gather quite a bit of information, even if you don’t have any type of criminal history. Some of this information could be a liability when it comes to housing, dating, or finding a job.
What About the Fair Credit and Reporting Act?
This federal law limits the information that employers can have access to. However, it does not stipulate a criminal record has to be expunged or can no longer be reported on certain background checks.
If an employer or other organization requires a more extensive background investigation, they will often turn to a federal criminal search or even run a more extensive credit check, especially if the applicant would have access to sensitive or vital personal information of clients, consumers, or the company itself.
As we noted earlier, bankruptcy information can show up on a credit report for as long as 10 years. Most credit information, including on-time payments, missed payments, defaults, charge-offs, and so forth can remain on a credit report for up to seven years.
If there is information on a background check somebody is conducting on you that extends beyond these limits, it’s important that you contact the three credit bureaus to have information properly removed. Even if it extends beyond the seven years or 10 years for bankruptcy, an employer or financial institution could use that information as a factor in determining your eligibility for a loan, job, or something else.
How Far Back Do Criminal Background Checks Look?
The FCRA (Fair Credit and Reporting Act) determines how far back an employer can view conviction records. It also limits how much information a potential employer can see regarding any criminal conviction, but as for how long a conviction remains on a person’s history, there is no limit.
If there was a conviction, your felony can still be on your record 20, 30, in even 40 years after you completed your sentence. All of this basic information can be accessed as part of a generalized employment background check.
There is an important exception to understand regarding this information and that involves a felony arrest only. If you were arrested and charged with a felony, but never convicted, that arrest can only be reported for up to seven years. If it remains on your background check, it’s important to get that removed.
But why should an arrest with no conviction still be reported?
It may seem completely unfair for a person who was arrested and charged with a felony but was never convicted to have this arrest following them around. Criminal background checks can and often do cause people to have difficulty finding certain jobs, especially where liability in the workplace could be exacerbated.
However, the arrest itself is legally permitted to be held on a person’s background history for up to seven years. Unless the law changes at some point in the future, there’s nothing more that you can do about this now.
The best thing anyone can do who may have a felony arrest on their record, but no conviction, is to be straightforward and forthright with any potential employer, realtor, housing manager, or another individual who may have a specific and documentable need to run a background check on you.
What About the Seven Year Rule?
While the Fair Credit and Recording Act doesn’t limit how long a felony conviction can remain on your history, many states restrict reporting information on cases that are older than seven years. This seven-year period would stretch from the end of the convict’s parole, their release from prison, or the date of deposition.
The states that limit a background criminal check to seven years are:
California, Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Texas, and Washington.
Depending on the purpose of the criminal background check, some states do have adjustments in these rules that can allow an employer to look back as far as 10 years for criminal history. For example, in California, if the salary for a position is over $125,000, an employer has the legal right to run a background check that extends to 10 years. In other states like Texas and Colorado, if the salary for a job is over $75,000, the seven-year limitation no longer applies.
Understand State Laws to Protect Yourself
If you’re applying for a job, housing, or understand a background check will likely be run on you, make sure you are empowered by knowing specific state laws regarding just how much information a potential employer, housing manager, or other individuals can have access to, including how far back they can look.
When you understand state laws and, for example, that there is a seven-year limitation and you have a felony conviction where you completed your prison sentence more than 15 years ago, you may not be required to list any of that information or provide any details about that history to a potential employer.
Some states will not allow felony arrest records to be reported if a court has found you not guilty. These states include:
Hawaii, Massachusetts, California, Kentucky, Indiana, Alaska, New York, and Michigan.
Other states are far more lax and have no limitation on how far back somebody can check your criminal history when they run a background screening investigation. The states also report not guilty verdicts, so even if a court of law has found you not guilty, those felony arrests can follow you around for the rest of your life. The states in which this happens to be the case include:
Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
If you live in one of these states, you could have more difficulty finding optimal employment or even housing, in certain circumstances.
What Happens if a Potential Employer Conducts a County Background Check?
If an employer runs a very limited background check, only searching within the parameters of the county in which they operate, but you have only lived in that county for a short time and your felony conviction or arrest or other information was not associated with your most recent address, then most likely that information is not going to show up on the background check.
However, in more and more cases, employers will gather your previous address information, including other aliases, and run a more thorough background check based on that information.
There’s Nothing You Can Do About Your Past
There are numerous advocates who are trying to change the laws, but unless you successfully have your felony records expunged or sealed or pardoned, they can follow you for the rest of your life.
The best thing anyone can do is be straightforward, forthright, and honest with anyone who has reason to run a background check on you. When you’re honest and upfront, it can carry a lot of weight, but keep in mind due to insurance, liability, and potentially sensitive information you may come in contact within a specific job, a stained background can hamper your ability to find optimal opportunities.