What is the difference between a fingerprint-based background check and a non-fingerprint background check?

Fingerprint-based background checks run fingerprint searches against both FBI and state criminal databases to create a complete criminal profile of the applicant. Conversely, non-fingerprint background checks, or “name checks,” are not nearly as comprehensive and run the applicant's background against a limited number of predetermined commercially available records. Modern automated fingerprint identification systems can produce identification error rates of less than one percent. Conversely, name checks result in appreciable numbers of both false positives and false negatives.

Are name checks as reliable as fingerprints in criminal history checks?

In general, name checks are much less reliable than fingerprint searches. A name check is based on an individual’s name and personal identifiers such as sex, race, date of birth, and Social Security number. Because it is rare for this information to be unique to a particular individual, name checks can produce inaccurate results, especially when there are names and other identifiers in the database that are similar or identical to the information being checked. Mistakes can also result from misspellings, clerical errors or intentionally inaccurate identification information provided by search subjects who wish to avoid discovery of prior criminal activities.

There are generally two types of name check errors:

  1. Inaccurate or wrong identifications, often called “false positives,” occur when an applicant’s name check turns up an FBI criminal record because there are multiple individuals with the same name, while their fingerprint search shows they do not.
  2. Missed identifications, often called “false negatives,” occur when an applicant’s name check clears, but their fingerprint search shows they have an FBI criminal record.

Background Checks

What is a background check?

This answer varies widely. Background checks can include Name-Based Checks, Employment Reference Checks, Education Checks, Sex Offender/Violent Offender Registry Checks, Credit Checks and Criminal History Checks. Each addresses a specific area of a person’s background. While each one is valuable in its own right, none of them are comprehensive and can independently confirm that a person has a “clean” background. Most of the background checks listed are self-explanatory, with the exception of Name-Based and Criminal History Checks. The subtle differences are explained below.

Name-Based Background Checks

Name-based checks are a validation with a specific set of databases using a person’s name as the qualifier. Name-based checks are inadequate for a number of factors, including issues that arise over common names (i.e., John Smith), issues with incorrect or incomplete recordings to databases, and the need to run multiple checks if a person has had multiple names (i.e., maiden and married name). Name-based checks are one of the easiest and most common background checks to be subjected to and are probably the most likely to have incomplete, missing or misidentified findings. Name-based checks are widely available on the internet and advertised on TV. Typically, there are little to no vetting requirements in place with the Background Check provider to insure that the person initiating the background check should even be running such a check on another person.

There are credible companies that do a good job of due diligence with regard to vetting entities submitting name-based checks. These companies also do the best job of compiling internal databases of criminal conviction data and sex offender registry data. Name-based checks range in price from $5 and up, depending on the specific databases being checked, what information is being verified and how much research is required. A standard National Criminal Database background check with a reputable background check provider will cost in the range of $20-$30. If conviction information is identified, additional costs are incurred to request local courthouse records. Additional checks on housing history, credit history, employment history, etc. can all be requested for an additional fee and will take time to complete. These checks should be done for every name that a person has gone by; including names that may have been recorded erroneously (wrong spellings or different middle initials, for example).

Criminal History Background Checks

Criminal History Checks (CHRI) are different than name-based checks in that the background check is being done at the state (or federal, or both) repository level. Every state in the U.S. along with the FBI maintains a repository of criminal history information. This information includes arrest and conviction information for all criminal arrest submissions and a specific segment of non-criminal records (i.e. applicants processed for fingerprints for criminal justice employment, some military, etc.). For example, if someone is arrested, a record of that arrest is submitted to the state criminal history repository. County clerk offices, prosecutor offices and other judicial offices then process and submit updates to the criminal history repository as criminal cases pass through the legal system. The processes followed by agencies can vary broadly, with some having fully automated tracking/reporting systems, while others have systems that require manual data entry to update the repository data. In a time when local governments have encountered increasingly fewer budget dollars to spend on technology, many smaller counties and municipalities have been unable to keep up with the demand for final disposition updates to the criminal history repository.  

Criminal history repository agencies are then tasked with updating their databases to the FBI’s central repository. Criminal fingerprint and arrest records are generally made bilaterally (meaning, that an arrestee’s information and fingerprint are submitted to both the state repository and also to the FBI repository). The only variance to this is for some local ordinances, which may not be submitted to the FBI repository (typically very minor offenses).   

Criminal History Checks can be done via one of two methods: Name Checks or Fingerprint Checks. Many states have evolved to a place where they have electronic interfaces to their CHRI systems, which permits authorized entities to run name-based checks against the criminal history repository. In a few states, the state Criminal History Repository also permits residents to do self-record reviews, typically through their electronic portal. In a few states, the self-record review process has evolved and employers use the electronic portals, along with employee consent, to conduct name-based criminal history checks.

The other means of conducting Criminal History Checks is via fingerprint submission. Authorized entities are permitted to submit fingerprints (either via hard card or an electronic network) to the criminal history repository’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). Authorized entities are those state (or federal) licensing agencies that have been granted legislative authority to process, review and receive criminal history information from the central repository for the purpose of insuring that licensees are of sound moral character, free of criminal convictions, and/or are otherwise worthy of a license to function in a certain role.

Authorized entities (typically licensing agencies, like Personnel Management, Department of Insurance, Department of Children/Families, Professional Licensing Bureaus, etc.) will be authorized by their respective legislative code to receive both arrest and conviction information from the central repository. Additionally, these groups must receive FBI approval for authority to have their fingerprint based submissions be sent to the FBI with access to the results of these checks. Typically, professional licensing bureaus will only receive conviction information. Agencies that handle licensing of personnel in positions of trust impacting children, the elderly or other trusted functions will typically be able to review both arrest and conviction information.

CHRI results (either a No Record response or a “Rap Sheet” or “Hit” if there are records in the central repository) permit licensing agencies to make decisions on the suitability of an applicant for licensing approval on a broad level. These checks allow licensing agencies to quickly and efficiently make suitability decisions about licensing on a granular level for large number of constituents. It’s an efficient method. Some licensing agencies only do name-based CHRI checks, but because of the reasons noted, those name checks can be problematic for applicants with common names and costly for licensing agencies.

What is a certified FBI channeler, and why is certification important?

Only certified FBI channelers have access to FBI and state fingerprint databases. Non-certified commercial entities that perform “name only” checks are considered to be consumer reporting agencies since the information they collect is for resale. These entities gather criminal history records from various places such as county courthouses and often miss or exclude important information that is relevant to a criminal history record. These inconsistencies can lead to job applicants either obtaining a position they shouldn’t have or for applicants being unjustly denied employment.

What is AFIS and how is it used for background checks?

An Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) uses digital imaging technology to capture, transmit, store and analyze fingerprint data.

Historically, a number of state criminal history record repositories used name checks as the sole method of searching their state criminal history files because fingerprint-based searches commonly entailed long mailing and processing delays, which are inconsistent with the needs of record users with time-critical requirements. The development and implementation of AFIS and related technologies for the electronic capture and transmission of fingerprint images has made it possible to dramatically reduce fingerprint transmission and processing times to within 24 hours at both the state and federal levels. The FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) is the largest biometric database in the world with fingerprints and criminal histories for more than 70 million subjects in the criminal master file and more than 34 million civil prints.

Identity Protection - Identity Resources for Consumers

I’d like advice on protecting my identity. Where do I begin?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers recommendations in four key areas, including keeping your personal information secure offlinekeeping your personal information secure onlinesecuring your Social Security number and keeping your devices secure.

I am a victim of identity theft. What should I do?

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse maintains a fact sheet with 27 topics under the heading, “Identity Theft: What to Do If It Happens to You.” The FTC suggests identity theft victims take three immediate steps to limit the damage.

Identity Theft Resource Center (ITCR) is a non-profit organization that provides victim assistance, education to individuals and organizations, and a variety of consumer-oriented resources on cybersecurity, data breaches, social media, fraud, scams, etc. ITCR’s Victim Resources page links to fact sheets on financial identity theftgovernment identity theftmedical identity theft and smart phone security, among other topics. The ITCR website also has lists of federal resources and state and local resources related to identity theft.

Where can I find good information about managing my identity online?

There’s a wealth of useful resources on the web to guide you in protecting your personal information and your reputation in cyberspace. We recommend you begin with a series of excellent interactive tutorials from The Internet Society, whose stated mission is “to promote the open development, evolution and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world.” The three tutorials, which last about five minutes each, are: Online Identity – An OverviewProtecting Your Privacy and Protecting Your Identity.

Parry Aftab, a privacy lawyer and a leading expert on cybercrime, Internet privacy and cyber-abuse, offers an extensive list of resources on her website. These also include sections on Internet safety, cyberlaw and cyberbullying. Ms. Aftab also discusses issues surrounding cybersafety, privacy and “cybersense” in regular postings on her blog.

Identity Articles:

New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services: “Managing Your Digital Footprint: Think Before You Post”

Forbes.com“Managing Your Online Identity”

Washington Post“Beware of Privacy Policies: Time to Clean Up Your Digital Footprint”

Psychology Today“Digital Dirt: Managing Your Online Identity”

How can I protect my child’s identity?

What is child identity theft? How is it typically discovered? What is the potential impact? Do I need an attorney? Should the child’s Social Security number be changed? The Identity Theft Resource Center fact sheet on Identity Theft and Children answers a number of common questions and points readers to additional resources.

“A child’s Social Security number can be used by identity thieves to apply for government benefits, open bank and credit card accounts, apply for a loan or utility service or rent a place to live,” warns the Federal Trade Commission. Check out the FTC’s Child Identity Theft web page, which includes a list of warning signs, provides checklists for securing credit reports and repairing the damage in the event an incident is discovered, and advises parents on limiting risk for their children.

Additional identity-related organizations and tools

Tor is a free software that is an open network which “helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known as traffic analysis.” It was originally developed for the U.S. Navy to protect government communications. Today, it is used for a variety of purposes by ordinary web users, the military, journalists and law enforcement officers, etc.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) maintains a web page on identity protection with advice for victims, tips for protecting yourself and an extensive list of resources related to identity theft including podcasts, factsheets, publications, press releases and tax tips.

All three major credit bureaus in the U.S. – ExperianEquifax and TransUnion – offer consumers extensive resources related to identity theft and identity protection on the web.

FBI Identity Checks

What is an FBI Identity Check?

An FBI Identity History Check is a report that summarizes felony criminal arrest and conviction records submitted from ALL 50 states and the District of Columbia to the FBI. This service is provided in accordance with U.S. Departmental Order 556-73 that states an individual may obtain a copy of his/her FBI criminal identification record, upon request, for their personal review and correction purposes, and to challenge the information on record, and for other court-related matters. Of note, this information is for your personal use only, and not for employment or licensing submission.

Why do I need an FBI Identity Check?
  • To verify your individual information is accurate
  • To review in advance of an employer, an agency, or anyone else requesting it
  • To request a correction if information is inaccurate
  • To satisfy possible requirements for adopting a child in the United States or internationally
  • To satisfy a possible requirement to live, work, or travel in a foreign country
I’ve never committed a crime, why would I need an FBI Identity History Check?

Just because you’ve never personally committed a crime doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t while using your identity. Or maybe there was mistaken identity with someone who shares the same name? It’s key to make sure your FBI Background and History Check is correct! Learn how faulty FBI files can impact your life.

How do I obtain an FBI Identity History Check?

It’s easy! Visit a local IdentoGO Centers, securely provide your fingerprints which we will submit electronically to the FBI. A link will be emailed to you to safely access your Federal background check results. Click on Schedule an Appointment Today above to locate your nearest center.