Background checks are important tools for verifying information about an individual from public records and other resources. Potential employers and landlords conduct the most common background checks. However, not all background checks are created equal. Advances in technology and record-keeping mean more information is available about individuals than ever before.

When companies conduct name-based background checks, they use all that information to build a complete picture that fingerprint background checks simply cannot match. Name-based checks run by Consumer Reporting Agencies (CRAs) are subject to federal regulations that require privacy controls, accuracy-ensuring procedures, and appropriate appeals processes.

Fingerprint-based background checks rely on the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information System, a state (and municipality) submitted arrest records database. The database is often incomplete, with significant gaps that reduce their efficacy and can lead to discriminatory outcomes for communities of color. See our newest resource for more on the limitations of fingerprint-based background checks.

To help better understand the value of name-based checks to protect people in work environments (which can include a home or car), there is a paper by Murat C. Mugan, Professor of Law and Director, Law & Economics Program at Texas A&M Law School. The paper, Criminal Background Checks: Implications for Discrimination and Crime, makes an important point below, as illustrated in an infographic:

Contrary to [popular opinion], fingerprint-based background checks are imperfect in many important ways: They generate coarse information which are under-inclusive in some dimensions and over-inclusive in others. Specifically, (i) they do not contain information on all arrestees, (ii) conditional on having information on arrestees, they sometimes contain errors and often do not include information beyond arrests (e.g., do not have information on final dispositions), (iii) conditional on containing information on final dispositions, rap sheets often do not accurately represent the criminal conduct committed due to existence of plea bargains as well as the broad definitions of some criminal offenses, and (iv) they suffer from inter-jurisdictional translation problems due to the non-uniformity of recording practices across jurisdictions.