COVID-19 Update: Despite court closures in many areas, Sterling is still able to complete criminal checks with minimal disruption thanks to our proprietary end-to-end automation that allows us to access court information. For additional info on how Sterling is handling the COVID-19 situation, please visit our COVID-19 page.

July 16th, 2014 | Sterling

Building a Better Criminal Record Check (Part 1)

SSN Trace

Enhancing Background Checks Based on SSN

There is significant misunderstanding circulating among employers when it comes to getting a “complete” criminal record check.

Many employers use a nationwide database search or court searches based on an applicant’s Social Security Number. Although this is an industry best practice, there’s always risk involved when you use only one source.

For best results, employers should apply an umbrella policy to their background screening program to include multiple searches. While each individual SSN search supplies valuable information for a background check, the unfortunate reality is that there is still ample opportunity for criminals to join your organization undetected.

This three part series explains the benefits and limitations of background checks based on a common SSN trace search and outlines additional information sources — and options — for making a background check more complete. These sources and options should be considered “locator tools” that can uncover potential places to search for criminal records.  And while they can be used independently, they are ultimately stronger when they are used together.

Social Security Numbers:  The Backbone of Background Checks

The most common place to start when screening applicants is with a Social Security Number (SSN) trace to identify residential address history and known aliases. This information is then used to determine which county or federal district court jurisdictions or state repositories should be searched for possible criminal records.

There are a variety of searches that can be conducted based on the SSN trace and the decision about which search to run ultimately comes down to the employer. Some employers search all counties of residence for the past seven years, while others opt to only investigate the current county of residence. The further back you go in your search, the more depth you’ll add to your background check. Ideally, you should go back as far as your state allows. The factors that influence the depth and completeness of any background investigation typically include price and risk mitigation.

An SSN trace search can cost just a few dollars to complete. It provides valuable information about residential history and is key to locating criminal records in someone’s residential jurisdiction or location. It is an effective tool in preventing criminals from being hired and it is a good business practice.

But it’s not perfect and here’s why.

Not All Crime Happens At Home

The truth is that there’s nothing preventing someone from committing a crime outside of their residential jurisdiction. If your applicant has been convicted of burglary just across the county line from their home, you may never catch them if the background check is based only on residential address history and a county search.

According to Mike O’Leary’s paper on Modeling Criminal Distance Decay, offenders are more likely to commit crimes closer to their “home base”. O’Leary defines a home base as an offender’s home, workplace, or anywhere else that holds significance for them. In his research, O’Leary analyzed data for both urban and rural neighborhoods. He determined that offenders residing in more rural areas traveled farther to commit their crimes.

However, Van Koppen and Jansen (1998) showed that more professional offenders were typically willing to travel farther in order to commit their crimes. Their research also demonstrated that as the difficulty of the target increased, so did the distance that the offender traveled.

So what does all of this research mean and how does it apply to your organization? This research shows us that criminal offenders are most likely to commit crimes where they feel comfortable. These areas are not limited to their homes, but also include workplaces and social settings. This is supported by the background checks SterlingBackcheck conducts for more than 20,000 clients, which shows that 23% of crimes occur in jurisdictions outside of an offender’s residential history.

In reality, criminals don’t always commit their crimes in their own neighborhoods. Crimes are most often committed where the individual lives, works, or plays. When you leave out areas where your applicant has worked, gone to school, or socialized, you leave a gaping and possibly threatening hole in your screening process.

You can address this problem in part by also searching the state’s criminal record database, but this too has flaws. There have been numerous examples of state criminal databases being incomplete or outdated. Not all counties report to state repositories and even ones that do often run into administrative backlogs and the records are not submitted in a timely fashion. What if the conviction was more serious like fraud or kidnapping? Those records might only be detected if you also search federal district court records.

SSN Trace: A Good Place to Begin

If you are doing a background search based on an SSN trace alone, rest assured that you are following an industry best practice and that you are taking measures to provide a safe environment for your staff and customers.

But you can enhance your process by using more locator tools in your investigation. Uncovering those other, non-residential locations to search for criminal records is the secret weapon in building the most complete criminal background investigation you can.

SSN Trace is one of many effective locator tools. There are several other searches that can help you identify non-residential jurisdictions to expand your search and add more reliability to your criminal record checks. We’ll cover those in Part 2 and 3 of this series.

Next Up: Going Beyond SSN Trace.

This publication is for informational purposes only and nothing contained in it should be construed as legal advice. We expressly disclaim any warranty or responsibility for damages arising out this information. We encourage you to consult with legal counsel regarding your specific needs. We do not undertake any duty to update previously posted materials.