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How to do a free online background check

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FoxNews.com / Jeremy A. Kaplan

Have you done an online background check of yourself lately? There are several reasons you should.

There might be erroneous information about you floating around the Internet or in your credit report. Maybe you'll find a picture of yourself or a comment you made years ago somewhere that's a little embarrassing.

These things will pop up and hurt your chances the next time you apply for a loan or a job. Fortunately, you can take steps to correct or remove this damaging information.

It's also a very good idea to do a background check before taking on a roommate or going out on a date with that new crush you met online. You never know what sort of worrying or dangerous details could be lurking in someone's past.

Because checking people's background is such a pressing need, there are dozens of ways to go about this. Fortunately, several ways won't cost you a thing.

Before I continue, I should point out a tricky fact about background checks. If you are performing a background check as a landlord or employer - or for credit, medical or insurance reasons -- you can't use just any service.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have to use a Consumer Reporting Agency. A CRA has to maintain certain standards for data protection and offer dispute resolution.

If you do reject a potential tenant or employee (even semi-informal employees like domestic workers) based on a background check from a company that isn't a CRA, you could wind up in trouble.

You can find a fairly complete list of CRAs here on my website. The list is helpfully divided into categories such as credit reporting, employment history, insurance, renting and so on. Note that you can request and dispute the information that these CRAs have on file for you.

For checking on potential roommates or romantic partners, you can use just about any service or (legal) method.

The simplest option for a background check is to hire a professional service. You can find dozens of background check agencies online.

You will need to watch out for scam companies. Look around at several companies to find the average price for a background check and avoid any companies that are too low or too high.

If you want to save some money and you have some time, you can do many of the same checks yourself. You might also dig up information on a person's habits or character that a professional might not consider.  Click here for four sites that can really help you learn about someone. They comb Google, Facebook and other information websites to find out details that the person has willingly shared.

A Google search could turn up other things about the person that might make you think twice, too. However, you probably won't see important details about whether they've been arrested or evicted in the past.

Luckily, most court information is public record. To find it, go to your state's official government website or find the information you need at the National Center for State Courts. Make sure you search every state that the person you're checking has lived in.

After that, you might want to drill down to discover any felony and misdemeanor convictions on the county and city level. Keep an eye out for civil judgments, too, such as a bankruptcies and court orders to pay debts.

In most cases, a credit report can't be pulled without a legitimate business purpose and written permission. A good strategy for screening a roommate would be to ask him or her to volunteer a report.

All consumers are entitled to get a free copy of their credit report once a year from the three reporting agencies - Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.

The more information you have about a person, the better your searches will be. Knowing a middle name and date of birth will help you weed out people with similar names.

If you aren't completely sure you've found the right person, don't act on the information until you've verified it is actually them. Being penalized for something that isn't your fault isn't fun.

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Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. To get the podcast, watch the show or find the station nearest you, visit: http://www.komando.com/listen. To subscribe to Kim's free email newsletters, sign-up at: http://www.komando.com/newsletters.