Are FBI Fingerprint Background Checks the Smartest Way to Screen Candidates?

Immigration reform. Gun control. Ride sharing.

What do these things have in common?

They are all at the crux of a renewed interest in, and argument about, background checks. Specifically, FBI fingerprint background checks.

Everyone – even President Obama – is talking about FBI fingerprint background checks. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about the reliability of FBI fingerprint checks as an accurate background check tool.

So let’s be clear.

FBI fingerprint data is incomplete, often inaccurate, and should not be the primary method of performing a background check.


The FBI database is neither comprehensive, nor reliable. The FBI manages the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and this is the data beast that the Bureau uses to pull information on people. The FBI currently has 77.7 million individuals on file in its master criminal database – or nearly one out of every three American adults.

The National Employment Law Project released a 2013 report showed the FBI processed nearly 17 million employment background checks in 2012 — six times more than it did a decade ago. The advocacy group estimates that as many as 600,000 of those reports contain incomplete or inaccurate information.

The NCIC (a database actually comprised of three separate data collection systems) is simply too big to work properly. That’s not the FBIs fault. This article explains it well: “Instead it’s a reflection of the fact that the database is only as good as the information the Feds receive from state and municipal law enforcement agencies. Some send every arrest to NCIC, others send only certain offenses, and still others don’t send any. It’s designed to give police officers a quick way to tell what a suspect may have done, not to give employers reliable data for background checks.”

The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS) puts it another way: “The full range of FBI databases is considered one tool among many that may be used by some Consumer Reporting Agencies (CRAs). However, due to its limitations, the FBI system is not considered a reliable enough source to use as a single source for a background check for employment, volunteer or tenant screening purposes.”

Fingerprints are not foolproof. Yes, just like snowflakes, no two people’s fingerprints are the same. But too many things have to align perfectly – and often don’t – for them to be 100% reliable as a singular background check tool. Fingerprints need to be clearly readable and stored properly. They also need to be entered correctly into a local database and then shared with state and federal authorities. There is honestly no way at all to tell how many times a fingerprint has been recorded poorly and then not passed up the chain of command.

The use of FBI fingerprint checks also lacks the oversight given to Consumer Reporting Agencies, or CRAs, the formal term for agencies who perform background checks. The screening industry and its providers is heavily regulated by the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as well as state and local consumer protection laws, most notably the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). This is an important distinction between fingerprint checks and CRA checks because the oversight defines the responsibilities employers are held to while investigating candidates’ backgrounds, and it provides the rights consumers have in disputing background check results.

FBI fingerprint checks should not be dismissed or discounted entirely. They should, however, be used as one component of a comprehensive background check process by an NAPBS-accredited CRA like Active Screening.

Certainly, there are more reasons why employers should not rely solely on FBI fingerprint checks and we’d love to talk with you about them. Give one of our expert team members a call today at 1-800-319-5580 or email our support staff here.

For more insight into the dangers of relying solely on FBI fingerprint checks, read these ActiveCare posts:

This entry was posted in Background Screening, Criminal Records, General, Human Resources, Identity & Credit, Industry Solutions, News and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , by Patricia Carlson. Bookmark the permalink.

Patricia Carlson is a content writer who specializes in B2C and B2B inbound marketing. She blogs regularly for clients about the background screening and finance industries, and generates newsletters, white papers and email campaigns for a variety of businesses. Patricia also produces a heavy rotation of editorial material for home design, law enforcement, and family magazines. She’s been writing professionally for more than a dozen years, and for Active Screening for more than two of those. Check out LinkedIn for a roster of Patricia's clients and links to published works. When she’s not interviewing sources or researching trends, she’s living a fast-paced Florida life questioning the antics of her two young children, partner and mischievous cat. Patricia loves to talk tennis and TV on Twitter - give her a shout @pattycfreelance.
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