Fingerprint Based Background Checks: What are They and are They Reliable?

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Crime fighting shows have conditioned us to believe you can nab a criminal with just their fingerprints. If you want to know who you are dealing with — run their prints! But those who truly understand the FBI fingerprint database know it is not the be-all end-all solution, especially when you are talking about pre-employment background checks.

What is a Fingerprint Based Background Check?

A fingerprint based background check is done by cross-referencing an applicant's prints with a database. In the not-so-distant past, fingerprints were taken by pressing inked fingers onto a fingerprint card. That card then had to be sent to an expert who would painstakingly compare it to fingerprints in the database. The whole process could take weeks. Thankfully, most fingerprints can now be captured digitally by a scanner. Not only is this a lot less messy and more accurate, but much faster.

If you include fingerprinting in your background screening program, your applicants will visit a kiosk to have their prints scanned. Those prints are then transmitted to the FBI electronically. Results are often returned within 24 hours. But remember, even if you get a hit, you will not find all of the criminal history information you need in this one place. What you do get might be more like a clue or a breadcrumb.

Common Misconceptions

While lawmakers still consider fingerprints the “gold standard” when it comes to doing background checks, the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (EBI is a founding member) has long tried to convince them it is not.

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Here are some of the reasons why you shouldn’t rely only on fingerprint background checks:

  • The database is notoriously incomplete.
  • Even if the information on an arrest is sent, it is unlikely a final disposition will ever make it.
  • Fingerprints are not always collected during an arrest.
  • The system was never intended to be used for background screening.

What Do Fingerprint Background Checks Actually Show?

If there is a match in the federal system, it will generate a “rap sheet.” This Criminal History Record Information (CHRI) could include arrests, records of federal employment, military service, naturalization, or none of the above.

If a rap sheet is returned, the next step is to do a Rap Sheet Reconciliation. This review will include searches for any missing data, and searches of Federal, State, County and/or police records. Once all of the information is complete, a decision - or adjudication - can be done. That means the employer will decide if the offense disqualifies the applicant. This can be done by the employer or background screening company, depending on the company policy.

Who Compiles Fingerprint Data?

More than 70 million criminal profiles are maintained by the FBI in the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. The IAFIS is an automated program that allows those 70 million records to be searched. Anyone who has purchased a gun or applied for a job that legally requires fingerprinting will also appear in the database.

The data is searchable 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The system is in the process of being replaced by the Next Generation Identification (NGI) which can include more biometrics like palm prints, irises, and facial recognition.

Do Companies Still Use Fingerprint Background Checks?

According to the National Employment Law Project, each year millions of applicants are asked to submit their fingerprints in order to qualify for jobs. Most are in fields like education, health care, child care, and security sensitive positions. Many of these positions are required by state or local law to include fingerprints in the background screening process.

Should You Be Using Fingerprint Checks?

EBI’s position is that relying only on fingerprints gives employers a false sense of security and might even keep jobs from deserving candidates. In 2015 the Justice Department did a study that found more than 3 million unprocessed or partially processed case disposition forms in 19 states. Another study from the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Justice found that as many as half of all final dispositions were missing from the criminal records.

Bottom line, this database is flawed. It cannot be depended upon for a complete background check. To find out what should be included in a solid background check, read our Definitive Guide to Pre-Employment Screening.

Pre-Employment Screening: The Definitive Guide

Background Checks

Jennifer Gladstone

Posted By: Jennifer Gladstone

Jennifer Gladstone is a news anchor and journalist with more than 20 years of experience in front of the camera. She's worked in several markets, large and small, and has performed nearly every task needed in a newsroom. As EBI’s Screening News Editor, she keeps EBI’s customers and blog subscribers up to date on the latest screening news and legislative alerts affecting companies of all sizes.

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