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What does a background check really reveal?

Why you should run your own background check every few years

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Background checks can be a great way to get detailed information about someone. They can reveal everything from a credit report to criminal history. News4Jax has been looking into how these checks work and discovered that your biggest concern should be the number of mistakes that can come back on these reports.

Margin for error                                                                                           

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It's estimated that more than 25 percent of background checks have an error. That means if you're applying for a job and someone is running a check, a little more than one in four will come back with something that's incorrect. Usually, this happens when they use automated computer systems that are searching your records through databases.

In fact, that was exactly what happened to Linda Martin when she applied for a job a few years ago. She had been divorced for 15 years, but a computer database accidentally matched her up with someone who had her old name -- Linda Shephard -- but her same birthdate. The problem? The women definitely didn't have the the same criminal history.

"It was someone named Linda Shephard in Ohio with a felony charge," Linda said. "I mean, it was horrible. I think it was a murder charge. I had to send in my driver's license, my divorce papers and my new marriage papers to prove it wasn't me."

Linda was able to correct the information with the company doing the background check, but it still took time and effort. When incorrect information is on your formal record, like your credit report or criminal history, it takes even more work to fix.

What comes back on a background check?

What you find on a background check depends on who is running it and the purpose. Online checks that use computerized databases can be a nightmare and filled with inconsistencies. They have accidentally matched people with the same name and birthdate. However, a good, detailed background check run by a private investigator usually doesn't have those same issues.

"We can look at anything really -- credit history, rental history, check writing, criminal history and living history. All of those play a factor," private investigator Josh Askew said. "You have to remember, though, certain things like a credit report are kept private unless you consent to hand them over in a  background search."

In order not to miss any information, Askew's company, JMA Investigative Services, always starts with a generalized search to pinpoint every place a person has lived.

"Then, we are going to check county records, check state background and criminal, plus federal records, because some that occur locally could be a federal crime," Askew said.

Having someone like Askew do the background check will cost you close to $200 on average. You'll see cheaper prices for online services, but be careful.

"As we know, if it's on the internet it's not necessarily true," Askew said. "And that defeats the purpose when you are paying for a service that really is just a compilation of data on the internet and public records. But the key to remember with public records is, it's only as accurate as the person that entered it."

What if there is a mistake?

It could be your worst nightmare. You apply for a dream job, only to find you get a negative background check. Fixing these types of mistakes isn't always easy.

Your first step is simple. If someone runs a background check, and it comes back with a problem, get a copy. Federal law requires they give you one. Then your battle begins.

You'll want to contact the screening company that ran your background and find out if they made the mistake and maybe matched you to the wrong person. From there, you would fill out the dispute forms and get all of your correct information together.

Under law, the screening company has 30 days to investigate and fix the mistake. If the misinformation was incorrectly given to them, your fight gets a little tougher.

If there is an error on your criminal, credit or tax history, you might need professional help. The most common mistakes would come back on your credit report. You can dispute these on your own, but it will take a lot of paperwork and time.

Askew does background checks for many clients, and he was coming across so many credit history errors that he started a side business -- a credit repair company. He gave News4Jax some insight on the three credit bureaus and how they operate.

"They make money to report negative items on the consumer and that's why the fair credit reporting act exists so the consumer can dispute those items," Askew said. "And also the inaccuracies are not the credit bureau's problem. They're your problem -- the consumer. It's your responsibility to stay on top of it."

Attorney John Phillips agreed.

"If you have a mortgage foreclosure on your report and you've never been foreclosed, that's a paperwork issue that can be fixed," Phillips said. "The more complicated the problem, the more complicated the solution."

For example, if your identity is stolen, then at the very least you should contact an attorney for advice. One of Phillips' clients had her Social Security number stolen by someone who was working as an exotic dancer in another state.

"That created an issue with taxes because she wasn't paying the taxes on the money she never knew she never earned," Phillips said.

How long does it take to fix?

Once you challenge the incorrect information, it could take a while to get it fixed. Thirty days is typically the minimum, but we've found cases that took years to get cleared.

That's why all of the professionals News4Jax talked to suggest running a background check on yourself every couple of years.

But be super careful what company you use and what information you hand over online. Do not give out your Social Security number and other personal information to a background search company you find online without doing some serious research to make sure they are a legitimate company.