Criminal Background Check

A tenant criminal background check is an action performed during the screening process by a landlord to check the criminal history of a prospective renter for previous felonies, sex crimes and other relevant public criminal offenses.

Table of Contents:

Purpose of a Criminal Background Check

A tenant background check can contain information about past convictions, violent crimes, drug-related crimes, sex offenses and more. But how well of a predictor of future criminal activity is past criminal history? Well, it turns out, a very effective one. While the statistics vary by criminal activity type, a prior conviction significantly increases the likelihood of a future conviction for the same offense by the following percentages:

  • Drug sales – 736 percent.
  • Aggravated assault – 200 percent.
  • Burglary – 148 percent.
  • Robbery – 294 percent.

Therefore, it’s not unreasonable for a landlord to incorporate criminal history information into the decision making process of tenant screening.

FCRA Compliance

The Federal Credit Reporting Act provides prospective tenants with certain rights in regards to landlords obtaining and making decisions based on criminal history reports, as with other screening report types. Screening services must:

  • Not provide information about arrests over seven years old (same as with eviction records).
  • Specifically in California, not provide information about convictions over seven years old OR pending arrests.

Landlords have requirements under the FCRA, too. Specifically:

  • Adverse Action Notice – landlords must provide tenants with an adverse action notice letter if they either deny the applicant or make a decision that’s unfavorable to them (i.e. requiring a co-signer, requiring a higher security deposit, etc.). For an example of a letter that meets notice criteria, click here.
  • California – for landlords in California, they must also give notification to prospecting tenants within 3 days of requesting a report from a screening service that they are doing so. The notice should also include the name and address of the screening service, as well as how the applicant can access his or her file. If the applicant requests their file, the landlord must provide them with a copy of the report.

To learn more about the requirements that criminal background screening services have under the FCRA, click here.

How to Run a Tenant Criminal Background Check

Here are the steps involved in running a tenant credit check.

    1. Collect Tenant Information – the application form should collect everything a criminal background check service would need to run a report, such as the tenant’s full name, date of birth and recent addresses.
    2. Choose an Eviction Check Service – out of the services we’ve reviewed, we recommend CoreLogic’s MyRental service, which includes criminal history data in their standard tenant screening reports.
    3. Run the Report – submit the request with the eviction check service and wait for the results to come back.

How Long Does it Take to Run a Criminal Background Check?

A tenant criminal background check usually takes no more than a few minutes. This is because there is no input needed from the tenant, past landlords or other individuals that can heavily slow down the process. Details about past criminal activity are collected ahead of time from public court records across numerous local jurisdictions.

Parts of a Criminal Background Check

Each company that offers criminal background checks will have a different layout, different offerings, and different features. There’s no one primer that will help a landlord decode every criminal background report that they may receive, but let’s take a look at some of the standard arts of a criminal background check, including different types of information that may be included.

Most criminal background checks will use federal, state, or county criminal records to return information – and some may use all three. Regardless, screening services will always inform you which level they are searching for. County criminal records often hold more detailed information than state-level records, though the different levels report on different types of crimes, depending on the state.

Identifying Information

If a criminal record is returned for a potential tenant, it will often include a description of the person that committed the crime, their name, and some details about them. This section is included so that the landlord (or other person viewing the report) can make sure that the record matches the person in question.

For example, if the applicant is African-American and the record describes a caucasian person, it is reasonable to assume that the record does not belong to the tenant, regardless of if the name or social security number matches.

Convictions

Each criminal background check should include a section where they discuss any prior convictions. This section (or sections) will include any available information about the judgment, crime, and conviction for the given crime. Information that may be included in conviction reports include:

  • Past warrants
  • Probation records
  • Parole records
  • Arrest data
  • Description of crime
  • Releases from prison
  • Prison/inmate records
  • Photos and physical description, if available.

Fraud Check

In some cases, background checks will include a fraud scan, which checks the tenant’s given social security number against several databases that are meant to detect fraud and identity theft. These scans will check if the tenant is using the SSN of a deceased person, or an SSN that was issued in the last five years (as the SSN belonging to a child may be used).

National Sex Offender Database Search

When a person is convicted of a sexual crime, they are required by law to register as a sex offender. Sex offenders have certain limitations, such as not being able to live within a certain distance from a school or daycare. In addition, this classification would give any landlord pause when determining if a tenant should live on one of their properties.

This uses the sex offender database to inform the landlord if there is any of this type of crime on the potential tenant’s record. It also includes the type of sexual crime, classifications, and the ages of persons involved. All of this information is extremely useful in keeping the community safe.

OFAC/Terrorist Search

OFAC, or the Office of Foreign Assets Control, keeps track of all current and suspected terrorists, as well as persons involved with crimes that are in direct contrast with the interests of the United States. These can include drug trafficking, human trafficking, and all higher-level organized crime that includes other countries.

These searches run the name and information of the potential tenant through the OFAC database to make sure that they aren’t a terrorist or other higher-level criminal. If they are, law enforcement will be notified so they can take the proper steps.

Most Wanted Lists/Interpol Searches

These records appear rarely in criminal background checks, but they can be extremely useful when they do. Usually, these records search the federal and state-level Most Wanted lists for fugitives and criminals who have escaped the law.

Interpol searches look through the information about international crimes and alert the landlord if the potential tenant is wanted in another country.

Alias Checks

These checks take the name that the tenant gives you and checks to make sure that they’ve not used any other names. If they have, this check will release that information to the landlord. It can help the landlord check for additional information under the aliases the tenant has used previously, including crimes that may have been committed under an alternate name.

Vetting Criminal History Information

With the above said, there are a few key things to know about criminal history reports before taking them at face value.

Sources are Key

It’s important to know where this information is coming from. When you request a background check, you want to make absolutely sure that the information is being accessed by a reputable database that contains accurate and valid information. Otherwise, there’s no way to trust the information that you receive in return.

While most tenant background services won’t be using fraudulent databases (they would not stay in business very long if they did!), it’s still important to check. For example, most criminal background checks pull from state and county records, while others may pull from national databases or federal lists.

County sources often provide the most detailed information, as that is where most minor crimes are tried. State databases can provide more information about serious or violent crimes, though this is not always the case – it depends on where the crime took place, and who has jurisdiction there.

Lists such as the Sex Offender database, the OFAC database, and Most Wanted lists are curated on a federal level, so they contain the most information available about each case. These are trusted databases, and these checks can be extremely helpful.

Make sure to check which sources that the reports are using before ordering. Choose the report with the widest-reaching search area that may return the most useful information.

Obtaining Further Information

Every piece of information that is returned through a criminal background check offers the landlord an opportunity to search further. This information can help turn up records in public databases and give the landlord a basis for searching themselves, outside of the realm of a tenant screening service.

Why would you want further information, though? There are a few instances that may warrant further investigation. Say that a tenant screening report turns up a stay in the county jail, but the record fails to detail why the tenant was subject to the punishment. If the tenant looks good in all other aspects, a landlord may way to obtain information about this jail time to make sure that it wasn’t the punishment for a crime that may harm others in the community.

Sometimes, records don’t provide all of the information a landlord needs, either. In this case, it’s best to try and dig a little deeper to find out everything you can about a certain record. This is especially true of tenant screening services that provide very little information about criminal background. They may just say that the tenant has records found in a certain area, but won’t tell the landlord what those records are – and they may be as innocuous as a speeding ticket.

Using the information you have to obtain more detailed records can be simple. Once you know where the crime was tried or what jurisdiction it took place in, you can search public records in that area or in that state to find more information about the type of crime it was. This information can also prompt calls to authorities in those areas to find out more.

Sometimes, using this information in a simple web search may also turn up valuable insights into the tenant, especially if their crime makes a local news channel.

All of this investigative work may seem exhaustive, but it is necessary for landlords who want to make sure they have the right tenant renting from them.

Difficulty with Instant Background Checks

A last, but very important note, comes on the back of some recent legislation that may make obtaining criminal background checks more difficult – or, at least, it will make them take longer.

Certain states have enacted bans on companies attempting to access their criminal databases instantly. These states include:

  • Wyoming
  • Colorado
  • South Dakota
  • Massachusetts
  • Delaware

The states have made it so that companies cannot obtain information through their state criminal databases with instant checks. They can still do the check, but it will mean either paying an additional fee for the access or waiting for up to two weeks to obtain the information.

It’s good that they still allow companies access to their information, even if the wait might be inconvenient. On the other hand, the added difficulty means that some companies don’t want to bother obtaining information from these states, which creates a bit of a blind spot for landlords who need information.

If the potential tenant has ever lived in the states mentioned above, it may be worth doing a bit of digging yourself – especially if the tenant is otherwise perfect. Just as a precaution, landlords can search public records databases or obtain information reports directly from the states themselves with a quick call.

This can eliminate the barrier that exists with some screening companies, and may even be useful outside of the main screening report. Beware ordering reports in these states, because the information returned might not be equal to other states that the company searches.