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Is a Fingerprint Check the Best Background Check?

by Abdus Subhan
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Is a Fingerprint Check the Best Background Check?

In the world of background checks, there exists a prevalent perception that fingerprint checks are the gold standard for background checks; for an organization that requests a fingerprint, they are clearly very serious about background screening

Estimates are that about 30% of all companies running background checks choose to include a fingerprint check as part of their criminal background screening process. While federal and state employers and certain industries are mandated to conduct fingerprint checks, most businesses aren’t required to do so and, in most cases, a fingerprint check actually isn’t the best option for revealing potentially problematic criminal behavior. Here’s why:

Fingerprinting Basics

A standard fingerprint check searches for an individual’s fingerprint in the FBI’s database called the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS. Fingerprints land in this database in a variety of ways. Certainly, prints collected during an arrest are one way, but the FBI also collects prints from other activities as well, such as military service or citizenship naturalization. IAFIS is not the only fingerprint database; states, cities, and counties may also collect their own data. A fingerprint background check can be run using any or all of these databases. 

Fingerprint checks are required in a number of situations, including the following:

  • Federal, state, or local government employment
  • Employment or volunteering at schools, childcare centers, senior centers, long-term care centers, and the like
  • Jobs in law enforcement
  • Professional licensing

The big advantage of fingerprinting is certainty; all the records tied to a fingerprint apply to the person with the fingerprint. 

But fingerprinting has significant limitations.


Incomplete Data

A complete picture of a candidate relies on the information in the IAFIS database to be complete and up to date, but this is rarely true. States, cities, and counties simply aren’t consistent about sharing their info on a timely basis with IAFIS, meaning that the database can’t be 100% relied upon to have the most current, more complete info.

Misleading Data

Individual jurisdictions choose which data to submit to IAFIS. For example, some report everything, even arrests that do not result in convictions, while others only report first arrests. As a result, fingerprint records in IAFIS cannot be relied on to show an accurate picture of a job applicant. 

Inaccurate Data

IAFIS holds millions of records. A search of a single fingerprint may return quite a bit of information, but IAFIS does not ensure their quality. Since we’ve already established that states and counties aren’t always faithful about sending their records, it should be no surprise that they are also not diligent about making corrections. 

A Better Choice

Unless you are mandated to conduct fingerprint checks, a better choice for criminal background checks is to use a Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA). CRAs go straight to the source of criminal records instead of relying on a database which results in more accurate and timely information and, therefore, better hiring decisions. If you wish to use fingerprint checks, make sure to integrate them with additional screening methods to ensure you get a complete and accurate picture. 

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