The idea of a free background check is very enticing. Being able to check someone’s criminal history for no cost at all? Sounds ideal, right?
Unfortunately, while there are many sites that claim to offer free background checks, there is really no such thing as a free background check (at least one that’s reliable and safe to use).
There are many reasons why a background check costs money, especially criminal background checks, which we’ll dive into here, as well as some other common background check FAQs.
But, if there’s one thing you take away from this article, let it be this: you should always be wary of any sites that are offering you a “free online background check” at no cost at all.
An online background check can mean many different things depending on who you’re talking to, but the general definition is as follows: an online background check is a detailed report that may provide insight into an individual’s identity and different aspects of their history, such as criminal record history, financial history, driving history, and location history.
The depth of background information returned on a background check very much depends on the background check website or company being used. Some focus exclusively on criminal records (this is what Garbo does), while others will include everything from address history, phone numbers, property records to driving records, to bankruptcies (which we find...creepy and invasive).
Background checks are most commonly thought of as a tool used by employers to screen potential employees and landlords for tenant screening. These are considered “FCRA background checks” and are regulated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. There are a lot of rules around who can run a FCRA-regulated background check, what types of records can be looked at in each county, and requires getting consent from the individual being searched (among other regulations).
Typically, online background checks are "non-FCRA" meaning that they are not regulated by the FCRA. They are generally used by individuals to search for other individuals for personal safety reasons. Previous studies have shown that 1 in 7 online daters have paid for online background checks on their matches. Some of these sites may also refer to themselves as people search, people finder, or people lookup sites.
Every online background check is different in terms of what they do and do not show, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the term to refer to a background search that provides public criminal records (meaning arrest records, court records, conviction records, and sex offender registry records).
Understanding if someone has a history of harm can be life-saving. Gaining access to public records of arrests, convictions, and sex offender registry records is a top reason individuals run an online background check on someone - yet not every online background check provides the same level of access to this information.
The information on a criminal background check comes from an individual’s criminal history records, which contains information about a person’s arrests and convictions. These records are stored in record databases on multiple levels of police and court systems, as well as state sex offender registries. Some background checks may provide access to information related to federal criminal records as well.
Okay - we’re about to get a little technical...But it’s important for transparency. Every state will have a state court system and a district, county, or municipal court system. Within each of these systems there are multiple levels. Each state court system will usually include trial courts, appellate courts, and state supreme courts. Municipal or county courts typically deal with lower level crimes, whereas state courts deal with mid and high level crimes. The court system manages all court records.
Separately, there are the local and state law enforcement, who manage police records, also known as arrest records or incident records. Since police do not charge people with crimes (they can only investigate and arrest people), police records are kept separate from court records.
Then there’s sex offender registry records which are managed by the state government. Each state has its own set of rules regarding sex offender registration, but these records are typically the easiest to access.
It’s confusing—we know, but all this to explain that criminal records are located in many, many different places. A reliable background check provider will be transparent about the information available within their systems and the problems with public records.
In short, yes—you may be able to find one that is free... at least on the surface.
Are they reliable? No, we don’t think so.
Some counties across the United States do provide access to public records for free. However, you may need someone’s full name and full date of birth to run a search on these government websites. This makes these systems difficult to use when meeting someone new. Because you’re only searching an individual county, you’ll also need to know every county the individual has previously lived in to be able to get a better picture into their history and if they have records.
If a private website is offering a background check for free, you can assume they are either only utilizing free and easy to access county-level databases (meaning the check is likely to be missing records), they purchase third-party reseller data in bulk (which means it isn’t from a reliable source that is consistently updated), or they’ll provide some records for free and keep the rest under a paywall, enticing you to spend money to see all of the results — especially the most important information like criminal records.
Private websites usually don’t disclose how often their records are updated, the level of coverage they have in each county (e.g., do they actually have arrest records in a specific county? what about conviction records?), and the sources of their data. Many “free” background check sites also resell your data and allow anyone to opt-out of being listed. From our experience, bad actors (individuals who cause harm) will of course try to delete their information from these sites so they can’t be found!
Therefore, we can not recommend trusting a third party background check service that is 100% free. You are much better off paying a reasonable fee to get a background check that is transparent about the type of information you’ll receive and access to information they have.
So, while you may be able to find some free public records on your own utilizing government websites and other tools, if you’re looking for an online criminal background check and you have limited information about someone, you’ll want to use a third party site that is trustworthy — but just because a site charges money for their service doesn’t necessarily mean they’re trustworthy and have access to criminal records.
Additionally, you can also utilize other free resources that are not background check sites, but can tell you important information about this person. Sometimes a simple search engine investigation can tell you a lot about someone. We recommend a Google search with the person’s first name, last name, and location (city and state). If they have a particularly terrible record, there’s a chance their name will show up in news articles. Reverse image searching and looking on social media platforms can also help you learn more about someone to see if they’re safe.
Great question. The price of an online background check varies from site to site.
Many government-run county and state websites are free to search, but many are increasingly charging a fee. These fees can range from $1 all the way up to $95, but on average you can expect to pay $5 to $15 for a county-wide check and $10 to $20 for a state-wide check.
Background check providers that offer the ability to search across the US will often require you to purchase a monthly subscription that will give you a certain number of searches you can use.
These subscriptions average around $19 to $45 per month. Usually when someone is looking to run a background check, they have a certain individual in mind - which is why, here at Garbo, we enable individuals to pay per search (because most people might not need a monthly subscription). A Garbo search credit is $2.50 plus $0.75 processing fee per transaction and individuals can buy 1, 3, or 5 searches at a time.
A major benefit to paying for a background check versus trying to find public records yourself is the time you’ll be saving. Checking government site databases is very time-consuming, and if the individual you’re searching for has lived in multiple places, it may take you days or even weeks to compile all of this information if you can find it at all. Some counties also do not give online access to public records and you would manually have to visit a courthouse.
If you live in a county or state with great access to public records and easy-to-use online databases, then we’re all for using those free resources (as long as you’re aware of the coverage limitations) as a starting point. But if you’re looking for an an easy-to-use background check that requires very little information about a person and will search for records from all across the US, then we truly think Garbo is the best option. We’re obviously a bit biased here - but hear us out!
There are plenty of other sites that claim to provide access to criminal records, usually known as “people search sites”. They aren’t super transparent about their record access, data freshness, and the fact that anyone can opt-out of their service and delete their information — which bad actors will do so they can’t be easily identified!
Unfortunately, oftentimes, they also give away incredibly invasive personal information, like home addresses, social media accounts, contact information for relatives, and more, which is why we believe these sites are pretty dangerous and recommend against using them.
Learn more about Garbo’s new kind of online background check and see how we’ve built a new kind of online background check.
Garbo is a non-FCRA consumer online background check service and can not be used for certain purposes determined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. You can learn more about what Garbo can and cannot be used for here.