If the film “Catch Me if You Can” taught us anything, it’s that people are not always as they appear. You might think you’ve hired the world’s most talented employee, only to find out that he is just a kid with minimal scruples, a talent for forgery, and a mind-blowing criminal past.

To keep from falling prey to unscrupulous job applicants, who can do anything from lie about their education to fabricate their entire work history, many business owners rely on criminal background checks as part of their hiring process.

But like any facet of business, there are best practices to consider when implementing a criminal background check process — and plenty of laws that must be followed as well. Here you’ll find some of the best tactics to ensure that your next new hire is exactly who he/she claims to be.

The Method
Employers who incorporate background checks usually implement them after making a hiring choice.

Typically, the chosen applicant receives an offer of employment, contingent on the results of the background check. This helps keep costs down: Why run checks on all 10 candidates for the same position? This timing also is crucial on a legal basis, as it’s considered unfair and discriminatory to base a hiring decision on who has the cleanest record before interviewing that person, says Tim Santoni, president/CEO of Santoni Investigations in Lake Forest, Calif.

For the background check, the prospective employee provides her name, social security number and date of birth to a company that conducts background checks, called consumer reporting agencies. If the hiring company wants to investigate an applicant’s employment history or driving record, the potential new hire must surrender her driver’s license number and names of her previous employers.

With these few pieces of information, the company can check a variety of databases to discover current and past addresses, criminal records or if the applicant has ever been registered as a sex offender.

The service franchise Pool Scouts has made good use of background checks since the company’s inception. “We’re dealing with families, [and] we want to remove any hesitation that the customer would have related to having a stranger … show up and come to their backyard,” says Chris Bushey, director of operations for the Virginia Beach, Va.-based firm.

Bushey also notes that service technicians often drive vehicles worth $45,000-$50,000, so knowing whether they have a criminal past provides a little added protection for the company and equipment.

Pool Scouts includes background checks as part of its training, providing franchisees a list of three preferred consumer reporting agencies to use in their own hiring practices, although others are allowed if the franchisee chooses.

Keep it Legal
Before instituting a background check policy, management should familiarize itself with the laws surrounding them.

Background checks for employment, insurance, housing or credit are regulated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. Under those regulators, applicants who are subject to background checks have certain rights regarding the resulting information. For instance, candidates are entitled to know if the information was used as grounds to deny employment, and to request a copy of the report to review for inaccuracies. And before a consumer reporting agency provides the information from the check, it must obtain written consent from the applicant.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a fair bit to say on the subject as well. That organization aims to prevent employers from using background checks to discriminate. Under EEOC guidelines, employers must apply the same standards to all applicants, regardless of race, national origin, color, sex, religion, disability, genetic information, such as family medical history or age.

Employers should be careful not to discriminate inadvertently. For example, an employer should not reject a man’s application for having a criminal record yet willingly hire a woman with a similar criminal record for the same job.

Managers also should make sure that hiring policies don’t unintentionally punish protected classes, or affect people of some demographics more than others. For example, if your corporation has a policy of only running background checks on part-time employees, and all those employees happen to be of Japanese descent, then your business is effectively only running checks on people of a certain ethnicity. To avoid such complications, Santoni says that corporations can simply run background checks on all new hires.

In addition to national laws, regulations regarding background checks can vary from state to state. In California, for example, agencies are limited to reporting criminal convictions going back only seven years, and they aren’t allowed to report arrests, Santoni says. Nevada law, however, permits the reporting of criminal convictions going back 10 years. And in Texas and Florida, it is permissible to report arrest records, he says.

Finding a Firm
Establishing a consistent background-check policy can help prevent litigation from employees or prospects alleging negligent or unfair hiring practices, says Steve Getzoff, outside general counsel for the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals and senior litigation partner with New York-based Lester, Schwab, Katz & Dwyer.

To make sure your company complies with the laws surrounding criminal background checks, look for a reputable firm certified by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, Santoni recommends. Employers also can find agencies through human resource consultants, worker’s compensation brokers, corporate or employment law counsel.

Santoni cautions against relying solely on search engines, such as Google, to find employee background information. Some companies are unwilling to wait the average 24-72 hours for a comprehensive background check and balk at the average $40 price tag that accompanies a mid-level check. (This amount will vary, depending on the company and amount of information you’re trying to retrieve.) So they choose to perform a simple online search to obtain the information that they want.

Santoni believes this is a bad idea for one very important reason: “There’s no such thing as an instant national criminal database,” he says. “It doesn’t exist.”

Online criminal information isn’t available for every state and county, and sometimes an additional fee is required for online access to certain records or a manual report check, he says.

Some online providers can perform background checks for about $12 and deliver the results instantly. But Santoni doesn’t trust that product as much. “The data they’re providing is not as robust and comprehensive,” he says.

There are other ways to keep costs down. In addition to reserving checks for the top candidate, remember that not all jobs require the most intensive investigation. For instance, a company may not need as much information about a warehouse employee as it would an executive. A pool-service shop may conduct minimal background checks on administrative employees and more thorough ones for executive or management candidates. And perhaps a firm only needs to pull driving records for service technicians.

Arvidson Pools & Spas conducts background checks on new hires who will drive company vehicles and visit customer homes.

“We do checks for driving records, criminal history and credit,” says Dennis Marunde, president of the company, which is based in Crystal Lake, Ill. “Rarely do we have a problem, but we think it’s wise to know more about who’s behind the wheel in our trucks or in our customers’ homes.”

Other Benefits
Once a background-check policy and procedure is adopted, managers should make sure to capitalize on the other benefits it can provide.

For instance, a good corporate background check policy can help mitigate insurance costs.

“Would the company insuring your fleet give you a better rate if all of your drivers passed a background check?” Getzoff says. “It’s something worth inquiring [about].”

This serves as a prime motivator for Santoni’s clients. “We work a lot with insurance brokers who represent smaller firms because they want to get a break in their insurance, whether it’s their general liability or worker’s comp,” he says. “The first question on the insurance application for worker’s comp is, ‘Do you conduct background checks?’”

Companies that perform these checks should use the practice as an opportunity to approach insurance carriers and negotiate better rates, he says.

Background checks also can serve as a marketing tool. Pool Scouts promotes its policy very clearly on its website: “Each of our technicians is put through a thorough screening process before we train them to become full-fledged Scouts, dedicated to meeting our high standards, and yours ..., ” it says.

Santoni encourages all companies to do this.

“If [you’re] going to be going through the time and the resources to actually do the background check, [then you] should be sharing that with [your clients],” he says. “That way it’s more of a value-added service to the business and can be used to gain customers.”