The Truth About International Background Checks

by Kit Fremin

I’ve been doing international background checks along with all of our domestic business since 1995 when we were contracted to background check 5500 aircraft engineers for the Boeing buyout of McDonnell Douglass. We background checked all personnel on the C-17 Globemaster project. I vividly remember calling a large international security company and asking about what kinds of criminal history info was available from Italy. After much dodging and hesitating by the salesman on the other end of the phone (this was before we were on the internet) he told me that their criminal history checks consisted of a MEDIA check in the area where the person is from. I was flabbergasted to say the least. I remember saying, “Are you trying to tell me that if a person’s crime made it into the newspaper that that is the only source of your info?” He was ashamed to admit it, but it was true.

SURPRISING FACT # 1. Some companies sell media look-ups as a criminal history report. I know this sounds insane, but I’m not kidding. The crime has to make it into the newspaper, or they have nothing to report. And what about a person’s trial results? That has to make it into the newspaper too for you to get a disposition. Unfortunately, that exact kind of thing is still not uncommon even today. The internet is FULL of companies that do this on a regular basis. The companies that sell these reports always have a made-up name for that kind of service to make it sound like you are really buying something useful. They usually package it with a check of the International Terrorist Watch List and the OFAC watch list to make it sound comprehensive like you’re buying something valuable.

Despite what you may have heard, or thought you knew, international criminal checks are still very much a crap shoot. In some countries they are inexpensive, contain what we Americans know as both misdemeanor and felony crimes – arrests and convictions, are timely and accurate, as in Australia. Other countries just don’t consider national criminal records to be public information, therefore accessible by the public, like France.

SURPRISING FACT # 2. Some countries still don’t make their criminal records available to anyone. France doesn’t think that anyone has the right to know if their proud citizens are criminals. Don’t believe me? Call the French Embassy in Washington. Their number is (202) 944-6000. That’s what I did. The internet is full of companies that say that they can get criminal history records from many countries that I know for a fact don’t provide criminal records to anyone. In France, Japan, The Netherlands and Taiwan, for example they do not make their national criminal records available to third parties (like you or me, to check on someone). Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, The Czech Republic and The Dominican Republic you can get what is called a Certificate of Good Behaviour, much like the old Clearance Certificate from Britain. It tells you that the person has, or doesn’t have a criminal record, but it doesn’t tell you what the criminal record is! Note: In the countries such as France that don’t provide national records check we can get police reports on a regional basis as a substitute for the "real" national records check. Actually, it works much like it does here in the USA. We don’t get NCIC or FBI checks, but we check on a statewide or even county wide basis.

SURPRISING FACT # 3. Some countries criminal history reports are not worth the paper they are written on. Take special note of that quote, coming from a guy who does them for a living. Many third world countries’ record keeping system is like it was here before computers. They couldn’t find the records if they wanted to. I used to say that about records in India, but India has vastly improved its antiquated records keeping in recent years and some records can even be searched online.

Another example is China, but for a different reason. With everything controlled by the state it makes sense that you will get what the state wants you to get. If you were hiring a software engineer from China for example, and you want to assure yourself that he/she is not a commie spy, good luck. You are going to get just what they want you to see.

When I first started doing international criminal checks back in the 90s I called the Egyptian Embassy in Washington and asked how to get official criminal records. The man on the other end of the phone told me to send him $200 and he would send me the records. I said that I wanted to know the normal procedure for obtaining records so that I could do it now and in the future. He said, “OK, send me $150 and I get you the records.” I quickly realized that dealing with him was like dealing with a middle eastern rug merchant. Since talking to him didn’t work I called the US Embassy in Cairo and asked them how to get the records. They were very helpful and provided me with contacts that I still use to this day.

SURPRISING FACT # 4. In some countries the only way to get a REAL criminal history report is to have the “applicant” get it himself or herself. The Philippines is a good example of this. But beware there are vendors in Manila that make fake documents for employment purposes. Always get the original document, not a copy, and verify it with the person who signed it.

In some countries an “applicant” can only get the criminal history report if he/she is applying for a visa to work in the US. Since most countries want their workers to work in the US, they supply them with the documentation. Japan and the Republic of China (Taiwan) are two examples.

CANADA: We can get records from Canada. In fact, we can get what is the equivalent of our FBI records, but the "real" records require fingerprints and can take 90+ days. I always ask my clients, “If you would like me to order the records, your “applicant” has to get fingerprinted, send the fingerprint card to me in California whereupon I mail it to the RCMP in Ottawa, wait 90 days get it back and I charge you $100, or would you rather have it today for free?” How, you may ask? Answer: Have the applicant go get the record himself. Every police station be it city, provincial or RCMP can process the records request while they wait. Again, ask to see the original document and you can reimburse the applicant for the report if you like. We can get the same records usually in 2-3 days, but not on the "official" document.

NOTE: If a Canadian has a criminal record, one of two things will happen. Either he/she will make an excuse as to why they can’t get the record from the police, or you will never see them again. They are not going to bother getting a record if they know that you thus will not hire them. Oh, and if you want me to order the “official” records for you from Ottawa, the applicant still has to go to the police station to get fingerprinted, so he might as well get the record while he is there.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is: READ THE FINE PRINT. Do not buy from a service that will not tell you the source of the records. Ask how current the info is and ask if it contains what we in the US consider misdemeanor and felony arrests and convictions or dispositions.

If you have any doubts about the accuracy of the info in this article or what you’ve been told by another international background check company, call the Embassy in Washington for the respective country you are concerned about. Ask to speak to the legal attaché. Ask them how one obtains REAL criminal history records from that country. That’s what I did, and that’s how I started doing REAL international background checks. That’s why I am an expert that other people call.

Kit Fremin is the owner and founder of Background Check International. Since 1994 BCI has served clients a varied as: the LA Times, Department of Defense, Mars, Inc., the UN, the NTSB and Calvary Chapels nationwide. His website is: www.bcint.com and he can be e-mailed at kit@bcint.com or phoned at 951-691-1088.

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