A background check can consist of information from a wide variety of sources and usually includes public records maintained by local, state, and federal governments. Various levels of government keep track of such things as criminal records, driving history, vehicle registrations, workers' compensation history, military service records, property ownership, and court cases in which you may have been a party. If you have been incarcerated, whether in county jail, state prison, or a federal penitentiary, that information will probably be discovered as part of the background check process. Local government records also include the academic history of most Americans, since most of us attend public schools.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that a personal background check is limited to information assembled by the government. Private companies and individuals can also be involved. Credit bureaus, for example, are private corporations that specialize in tracking how you meet your financial obligations. In the United States, three such companies maintain statistics about how much you owe and whether you pay your bills on time; these records also indicate bankruptcies and reveal whether you have been evicted. Unlike other kinds of records, however, your credit history typically only provides information about the past seven years. Information older than that, except for bankruptcies, which stay on your record for ten years, is discarded.
A thorough pre-employment background check for a security clearance may also include a close look into your personal life. Through such techniques as interviewing your neighbors and checking your personal and character references, employers hope to identify those individuals who are more likely to be hard-working and trustworthy. Background checks in the digital age may also include internet searches using your name or address, and sometimes encompass specific efforts to locate information about you on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
Since background checks have become so commonplace, it has become increasingly more practical to run a background check on yourself. Having a background check in hand can be useful in a number of different situations. When searching for a job, the applicant who can provide this information will have an advantage, appearing to be a forward-thinking, responsible individual. Purchased background checks can also be shown to loan officers when you are trying to secure a new mortgage or refinance your home. Finally, prospective renters will be more likely to be offered a lease when they have a background check in hand to show to a landlord.