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Conducting Background Checks -10 Tips for Private Investigators

  • April 12, 2011
  • by Scott B. Fulmer

A background investigation (BI), or a background check, involves providing background information on a subject. It can be as simple as a criminal history check or verifying references on a job application. Some BIs are more complex and involve going back 10 years into the subjects past and looking at criminal history and civil records, and interviewing former neighbors, co-workers and associates. BIs are conducted for a variety of reasons including pre-employment, pre-marital and for positions requiring fiduciary trust, high security or positions of trust. These investigations are conducted to determine a subjects character, qualification for employment or suitability for marriage, or to identify potential risks.

This article will not address the legal aspects of conducting a BI. Due to the various types of BIs and the assorted laws such as the FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) that may affect your BI, I recommend that you consult an attorney before conducting any type of background investigation.

That having been said, the following 10 tips will assist private investigators in conducting any level of BI for whatever reason.

1. Tax Appraisal District

One of the initial factors to consider in a BI is whether or not the subject owns the property. Your first stop should be the county tax appraisal district. Tax appraisal records are public and many of them are available online. The records will indicate who owns the home, how much it's worth and when it was purchased. If your appraisal district is not online you'll have to go to their offices usually located in the county seat. They'll either have their own computers there or books that you can search for the information. An extra tip: If the appraisal record indicates the subject owns the home but receives the tax statement at a different address, then the subject more than likely rents the home out and lives at the additional address where the tax statement is sent.

2. Go to Jail! Do Not Collect $200

Has your subject spent time in the pokey? Maybe you cant even seem to find your subject. If so, call the county jail. He may have been arrested. If he is in jail the staff will be able to give you his release date. If your subjects in jail on a work-release program the jailer will be able to tell you when he leaves each morning and when he's required to return in the evening. An extra tip: Many inmates on work release do not, in fact, go to work. They simply go home.

3. Federal Prison

Speaking of jail, your BI should determine whether or not the subject has served time in a federal prison. You can check the Federal Bureau of Prisons website at and find out if your subject has served time in a federal prison. The BOP website will tell you where they served their sentence and the date they were released.

4. Sex Offenders

No BI is complete without a sex offender database search. The FBI makes it very convenient to locate the sex offender registries in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and all Native American Indian tribes. Check it out at Keep in mind the sex offender database only lists convicted sex offenders. If they were arrested but the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence, they will not be listed in the registries.

5. Federal Criminal and Civil

Part of your BI should include a check of Federal Criminal and Civil records. If you haven't already, go to and register. PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) is a database provided by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. You'll be able to search case and docket information from U.S. District Courts and U.S. Courts of Appeal. It's a bit cumbersome and there is a bit of a learning curve. An extra tip: PACER also provides case information from all the U.S. Bankruptcy courts. When conducting a BI a search for possible bankruptcies is a must. Bankruptcy records on PACER may contain a list of the subjects property, creditors, bank accounts, etc.

6. Social Media, Baby!

If you conduct BIs and you're not on,,, or other social media websites, you should be. You're missing out on an excellent source of information straight from your subjects mouth. You don't need to get too involved. Just create your own profile so you can access these websites and then start researching your subject. You'll find photographs and other information such as where they work, where they live, cell phone numbers, email addresses and even political and religious philosophies. Most of these social media sites have public areas where the subject can post thoughts and comments. Take your time and read all their posts. You'll find information such as where they're going, what they're doing and with whom they are spending their time.

7. Extra, Extra, Read All About It!

Printed newspapers are slowly becoming a thing of the past. The few remaining newspapers that haven't gone out of business are slowly making a move to a digital presence on the internet. This, of course, has made BIs easier and faster to conduct. Aside from search engines like, a good BI should include a media search of online newspapers for stories and videos about your subject. Check out and for a comprehensive list of online newspapers. Small-town newspapers may not have an online presence. You can search back issues of their newspaper by searching their morgue. The morgue is a room that contains hard-copy back issues of newspapers. If you have allergies bring a surgical mask. The morgue will be full of dust.

8. College Degree and Attendance

Your BI should verify school attendance and any college degrees. Many colleges and universities will provide dates of attendance, the course of study and whether or not a degree was earned, usually over the telephone. Due to FERPA (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), also known as the Buckley Amendment, they won't provide personal information. Some colleges and universities will not verify this information but refer you to the National Student Clearing House at They're a non-profit organization that provides student degree and enrollment verification. There are some small fees associated with the degree and enrollment verification and you must have a legitimate reason for conducting the search. An extra tip: You can also check yearbooks and alumni organizations websites for additional background information on your subject.

9. Police Records

The police spend most of their time writing reports. Whether they're patrol officers or detectives, they're constantly typing and filing reports. Much of that information is eventually available to the public and private investigators. As you conduct your BI make sure to run a survey by name and survey by address. This is a record of 9-1-1 calls to the police department organized by a specific address or by the subjects name. The survey by address, for example, will list the date, time and reason the police came to the subjects address. With this information, you can then request the incident report and find out what happened. An extra tip: If the incident was recent or involved the same officer on more than one occasion, make it a point to interview the officer.

10. Trash Run, Everybody!

Finally, one more tip to add to your BI too kit. You may not want to employ this technique every time but you'll find out a lot about a person when you go through their trash. Youll discover what medications they take, what they eat and drink, what bills they pay and with whom they correspond. Keep in mind that using or acting on some of this information may be illegal or unethical. Don't forget to bring rubber gloves and only go for trash on the curtilage (i.e., at the curb). Trash cans on the property, such as on the side of the home, for example, are off limits.

These 10 quick tips represent just a few of the literally hundreds of resources and databases available to the private investigator when conducting a background investigation.

Scott B. Fulmer is a private investigator, speaker, and president and CEO of Scott B. Fulmer Investigations, LLC based in San Antonio, TX. He has been in the security and investigation field for over 20 years. He is a decorated combat veteran of the first Gulf War, husband, and father of three. Mr. Fulmer is a frequent contributor to and is available to speak to your group, seminar or conference. He can be contacted at [email protected].

If you're interested in writing articles about the private investigation industry, is always looking for guest writers to share their industry knowledge.

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