The Hunt for the Best Background Check API

Intro and explanation
I’m an API designer, developer and evangelist, so I’ve had many opportunities over the last fifteen years to make great use of publicly accessible APIs that make my life easier, but until now I’ve never had a need to run background checks.  When a client asked for help building tools to manage hiring, I jumped at the chance to find the best background check API.

I had a hunch that with the rise of the sharing economy there would be new API-driven services available that did much of the heavy lifting in employment screening and contractor screening, and that I could try out for free.

So I did some Google research into the world of background checks and employment tools, which also led me to a greater appreciation of the distinctions and challenges that such APIs face, and a greater understanding of the regulatory issues that surround employment background checks in general (criminal records, motor vehicle records, drug testing and verifications).

I have compiled the results of my research into the API driven background check services in the hope that this article provides some assistance to other developers. I will continue to update this blog as updates in the industry are announced.

API comparison Chart- smaller
Why would I need background checks in my app?
The general purpose of most employment screening services is to assist hiring managers in selecting candidates for employment, managing the federal and other hiring required paperwork, and communicating with the candidates going through the employment process.  These same functions are just as relevant (and maybe more important) for API driven tools and processes.

Developers who build sharing economy tools often need to evaluate individuals who will work with their platform to deliver or share products and services.  Likewise, the users of these tools want to know they can trust the people they interact with through the service. They want to know that the services offered are provided by people who are safe.

Background check companies can help, by providing access to public records you can use to validate information already directly provided by a candidate or applicant, and by searching for red flags that might indicate a reason to review the candidate more closely.

Background check companies generally have access to government databases like the terrorist watch list, federal criminal records, and the local criminal records generally located in County courthouses.  Access to a candidate’s permanent criminal record can be an important factor in hiring in some situations, although this is sensitive information and must be handled carefully to safeguard the civil rights of the candidate.

Background check companies usually offer access to motor vehicle records, which are critical for ride sharing and other driving related services.

Background check companies can also help with verification of the qualifications a candidate provides to a prospective employer, through employment verification and education verification services.  These verification services can help you confirm where a candidate has worked in the past, what education they completed, and which professional licenses and certifications they have actually attained.

Many background check companies also provide an interface into drug testing services, which may be required for certain classes of employees and contractors, such as drivers.

Finally, once you have approved a candidate for hiring or federal contract employment, you’ll need to complete a federal I-9 form to verify that the individual is eligible for employment in the U.S.  Many background check companies can also assist with this part of the process.
Compliance and regulatory requirements
It’s worth noting that while most background check services provide information about a candidate’s past, it is up to you to make a determination regarding whether they are suitable for your purpose.  If you do uncover information that you think makes the candidate unsuitable, there are federal requirements (generally called the FCRA) for how you communicate that to the candidate, and most background check services can help you with that communication, too.   The Fair Credit Reporting Act is a powerful consumer protection enacted in 1970, which was originally intended to regulate the use of financial credit reporting. It has since been expanded to apply to background checks generally, and the use of background checks in employment verification specifically.  It is important to not only understand the federal requirements, but check that any states or countries you operate in don’t have their own guidelines on the use of background check information.
Permissible use and candidate approval
The FCRA requires prior approval by the candidate before checks are run, and also lays out the permissible uses of background checks, which for our purposes generally includes any employment or contractor decision.  You are also allowed to run background checks when there is a ‘legitimate business need’  in a business transaction initiated by the consumer, and when you need to review a consumer account to confirm that the consumer continues to meet the terms of service, for instance, that a driving record continues to meet your standards.

The FCRA requires the entity making decisions on the basis of the background check information to get prior approval to run the checks from the candidate, and also to share the results and the basis for any determination made using the results [See A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act].  You’ll want to use a background check company that handles this for you, to reduce the compliance risk and general hassle.
Background Check APIs are asynchronous
I was surprised in my research to find that background checks can take some time to complete.  As an API developer, I expect API calls to generally return a result immediately, and this is just not possible in the case of some background checks which may take as long as a week to complete.  You’ll need to factor in the asynchronous nature of background checking into the design of your application or service.  Most of the solutions I reviewed used a callback notification system to communicate when an API initiated background check returned a final result.
My application
In my case, I needed to build a tool to streamline the background check process for new and current employees and contractors at a client company. I wanted the process to be as efficient as possible, with as much processing automated as possible.  I wanted to be able to load candidates into a queue which would manage the background check process, with automated collection of the candidate consent and the candidate personal data required to run the checks.

I needed pre-hiring checks to qualify candidates by making sure that the information they reported on employment, education and certifications was accurate.

I needed to ability to initiate drug tests.

I also wanted the API system to provide a basic automated scoring for the candidate based on the information returned by the background checks. This decision would update the queue and move the candidate into the final hiring phase.  There in the final hiring phase I needed the API to provide the Federal I-9 help.

Throughout the process, I wanted the API to manage compliance with the FCRA and to take care of communication with the candidates.
What background check services are out there?
I began with some Google searching to locate a number of companies I could evaluate.  I quickly found and dismissed a number of scammy looking companies that promised free, anonymous checks without regulatory compliance, or required tricky looking credit card subscription fees before showing me any features.

I found the following list of more serious contenders:

Accurate Background

Based on the marketing materials available on the company web sites, I identified the competitive factors that the companies used to differentiate themselves, which are captured in the following chart. While all the companies offered criminal record searches, not all offered I-9 support, drug tests, international checks and help with FCRA compliance.

*It should be noted that SterlingBackcheck recently acquired TalentWise. It is yet to be seen what impact this will have on their background check
My specific criteria
I then devised a set of test criteria by which I would evaluate each of the firms, based on the information publicly available. I have described these tests in the following table:

Criteria Explanation
API driven So I can build into our internal HR and Client tools
Reputable, Established Because I am investing in a future with them
Understands Compliance I want the tool to address FCRA issues
Public API docs The API documentation should be easily accessible
Free Testing Account Developers need to test!
Clear, Obvious Pricing I don’t want to have to talk to a sales person
Flexible Reports I want to be able to choose what I want in the report
Candidate Input I want the candidate to do the data entry
Thorough Checks I want high quality checks of all known addresses

First cut: does the company post pricing
I made my first evaluation on the basis of clear pricing, because it seems like a proxy for the kind of transparency I was looking for in a development partner.  For each company I reviewed the publicly accessible information on the web, and any documents describing pricing that I could find linked on the web.

I could not find posted pricing for FirstAdvantage, HireRight, Talentwise, Sterling Backcheck or Jumio.

Company Has Posted Pricing?
Accurate Background Yes Yes
Checkr Yes
FirstAdvantage No
GoodHire Yes
HireRight No
Jumio No
OnFido Yes
Sterling BackCheck No
Talentwise No

Second cut: Does the company offer public API documentation and a free test account?
I next looked at each company to determine whether they had a public API with posted documentation and a clear way to request a test account.  From my research I understand that some of the companies without a public API do have a private API for large partner integrations, but I didn’t want to engage with a drawn out business development process simply in order to gain access to the API.  I just wanted to see the docs, and try out the API.  The following table is very similar to the table of results for posted pricing, with the exception that while did have posted pricing, that company did not have a public API.   None of FirstAdvantage, HireRight, Talentwise, Sterling BackCheck or Jumio posted either pricing or API documentation, which removed them from my further consideration.

Company Has Posted API Docs?
Accurate Background Yes No
Checkr Yes
FirstAdvantage No
GoodHire Yes
HireRight No
Jumio No
OnFido Yes
Sterling BackCheck No
Talentwise No

Evaluating the remaining companies
After limiting the competition to only companies that provided both transparent public pricing and an API with documentation I could read, I was left with just four companies; Checkr, Accurate Background, OnFido and Goodhire.  They each seemed like much more modern and developer friendly companies than those that did not make the cut.

Next I needed to establish a set of criteria, some of which would be subjective, to rank the developer experience, ease of testing API calls, and the quality of the results.
Final testing and criteria
For the final round of testing and evaluation I established a plan to get test credentials from each API provider, and do a basic test implementation using simple curl commands to test the calls and receive results. I then ranked the competitors on the following factors:

  • Ease of getting API test credentials
  • Quality of the documentation
  • Ease of sending test API calls with curl
  • Flexibility of report packages
  • Compliance help built in
  • Employee interactive mode built in

The Winner: img-thingAccurate Background  img-thing
Implementing all four background check APIs, even in a simple and trivial curl manner, taught me a great deal about background check APIs in general and was generally an invaluable way to gain experience.

Each of the tools had significant strengths.  OnFido offers a simpler ‘a la carte’ interface to order just individual components of a background check, while Checkr has only two pre-configured ‘packages’, forcing developers to choose between just ‘standard’ and ‘pro’.   The Accurate Background test account came with no less than 30 preconfigured packages from which to choose, demonstrating the greater depth of the AB offering.

Accurate Background had preconfigured packages for employment and education screening, as well as post-hire I-9 management, which no other competitor offered.

Checkr’s API was the simplest of the four tested, but that came at a cost in breadth of capability and compliance. Checkr’s API didn’t provide the ability for the candidate themselves to approve the background check or enter their personal information.

Accurate Background API allowed me to either collect and pass in all the candidate PII directly, or to use a workflow where the candidate receives an email and enters that information themselves, which was the route I planned to use in my application.  GoodHire had only one choice, the candidate interactive input.

Neither OnFido nor Checkr offered the FCRA required tools for communicating with the candidates when an employment decision is reached.  The FCRA requires that if a candidate is rejected that they receive a communication describing the check they failed and providing a mechanism to contest the decision and correct the background check data.  Only Accurate Background included this process (called ‘Scoring’) in the available API flows.

Accurate Background had good coverage in the US, UK, Canada and India, as well as products globally, and a great background check FAQ which explains compliance, pricing, product information and more.

The open API revolution has certainly come to the background check industry, with four solid contenders offering open API access to a wide range of background checks including criminal, motor vehicle, and education and employment verification.  While these API services are not cheap ($20 and up based on what checks are run) they are powerful, and provide access to great information you can use to make better hiring decisions.   The Accurate Background Pricing is located here. I think we’ll see much more of this technology integrated into applications, sharing services, social networks, dating sites and any other service where individuals need to trust each other.

Kudos to Accurate Background for putting together this API and giving developers access to a powerful platform.

You can check out the Accurate Background API documentation yourself online here: API 2.0 Reference Guide.