How to Conduct a Background Investigation on the Cheap

A Google-only approach to background investigations is inexpensive but bound to be incomplete

These days many employers, parents and even dating partners are using the Google search engine as a tool for conducting essentially free background investigations. Just type in the subject's name, add a few descriptive phrases, and off you go—right?

Background investigation by search engine is cheap but incomplete

In fact, Google can be an important part of the low-cost background investigation. But a proper background investigation should neither start nor end with a few words typed into a search field. If you let "cheap" be an excuse for lazy or haphazard, you might miss important information and get your organization in trouble for discriminatory or capricious hiring practices.

Let's look at some of the problems with the Google-only strategy.

Most background checks start with information provided by the subject who's being investigated. Ask the subject to fill out a form detailing all of her previous employers for the past seven to 10 years, all of the addresses where she lived, any arrests and convictions, and other information that might be appropriate to your organization. Be sure to include the subject's birthday, all schools attended and all degrees earned. Stress to the subject that the report must be complete: Omission is grounds for either not hiring or later termination. Have the subject sign her name to give explicit permission for you or your agents to do a background check.

Next, start verifying the information that the subject provided. If you dont have enough time to verify every line, then decide on a percentage to verify and randomly select those items. One way to do this is to roll a die for each line and verify the item whenever a 1 or 2 is rolled. If you're really cheap, just check one out of every six.

Now it's time to use Google. Instead of trusting phone numbers, addresses or Web URLs provided by your subject, use Google to locate former employers. The contact information provided by the subject could be part of an elaborate ruse. Call the employer directly to see if the information that the subject provided checks out. Ask for facts, avoid opinions, and take notes. If there are discrepancies, determine why the information the subject provided doesnt jibe: Perhaps there are two businesses with the same name. Perhaps the subject fibbed. Always try to find a plausible explanation.

At the end of the phone call, ask the employer if he knows of other places where your subject worked. Write them down in your notes, indicating who gave you the information, precisely what he said and the date.

Now it's time to verify the biographical information. Many schools will verify degrees that they have issued, although such requests may have to be in writing. Take discrepancies that you find back to the subject for an explanation.

You can also pay between $20 and $200 for an online check of public records, credit records and even arrest records. Services like InfoMart (www.infomart-usa.com) and General Information Services (www.geninfo.com) typically offer packages such as a "preemployment background check," which accesses information on credit reports, bankruptcies and judgments. Be careful, though, as these services may return false matches or miss important information. Protect yourself by comparing the information that these services provide with the information provided by your subject and then having the subject satisfactorily explain the discrepancies.

Remember, the goal of the phone calls and database searches is not to dig up dirt on the person being investigated: Your goal is to verify information that the subject provided. The theory here is that errors or omissions you discover during the check may indicate a pattern of lies and falsehood. If the statistical sampling of information on the form doesn't pan out, then you'll know that there is a good chance that other information is bogus as well. But don't search on some applicants but not others, and don't dig for information that is scandalous or irrelevant to the position for which the person has applied. If you do, you might find yourself facing a lawsuit for discrimination, privacy invasion or improper termination.

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