The Fundamentals of a Social Trace

The Fundamentals of a Social Trace
Vice President of Compliance

You've heard the term and you suspect you know what it is, but what exactly is a social trace, and why is it important?

Background Report Basics

The social trace is a fundamental tool and part of most employment background checks. Let's first understand the standard components of a background check to better grasp the function of the social trace.

Typically, an employment background check consists of conducting some or all of the following searches:

  • Social Trace
  • Sex Offender Registry Search
  • Criminal Records Search (county, state, multi-jurisdiction or national, federal, etc.)
  • OIG Sanction Check
  • Professional License Verification
  • Employment Verification
  • Education Verification
  • Professional References

Each of the above components contributes one puzzle piece to an applicant's history. But how does an employer or background screening firm know where to look for criminal records or under what names to search? Typically, this information is provided by the applicant or employee in an employment application. That means searching for critical information about the applicant or employee relies exclusively on that individual's full disclosure.

Obviously, when the applicant wants the employer to verify his/her educational achievements or favorable work history, it's in his/her best interest to give the employer complete and accurate information to search. But what if the applicant has something to hide or does not want to reveal the complete picture to a potential employer? This is where the social trace serves as a critical tool.

What is a Social Trace?

The social security trace is a search based on the social security number submitted by the applicant. The search itself returns all the credit header information associated with that SSN. This does not mean a credit check is being run. As consumers and employers are sometimes confused, this bears repeating: credit header information is not the equivalent of a credit report and does not involve credit scores. The information returned on a social trace product are all the names, including aliases and variations, all the dates of birth (now truncated to not include year of birth), and all address history associated with that SSN.

Social Trace—A Tool Not Without Its Shortcomings

Once the social trace is returned, the background screening firm combs through the report to extract names, aliases, and jurisdictions to conduct the various criminal records searches. This exercise can actually be more of an art than a science for the following reasons:

Because consumer information is entered and compiled countless times over from various consumer databases, inaccuracies such as typos, transposed digits, misspellings, are not uncommon. Additionally, the following scenarios must be considered in reviewing the contents of a social trace.

  • Names of other individuals such as parents, spouses, family members may appear on the social trace if they have ever co-signed for the applicant or if the two individuals' names appear together on an application for credit.
  • The names and DOBs of both father and son may appear on the same social trace for men who are second, third, etc. generation and bear the same name (e.g. George Williams II & George Williams III or Michael James Jr. and Michael James Sr.)

Sometimes, an SSN will not return any results on a social trace due to:

  • The applicant's limited credit history, often a result of their young age and absence of credit history
  • The applicant's limited credit history if s/he was only recently assigned a social security number
  • Data entry error by the client
  • Reporting error by the applicant
  • Fraud by the applicant

The True Value of a Social Trace

Most screening firms train their staff to order appropriate searches based on a thorough review of the contents of the social trace. They look for strong associations between names and jurisdictions. They typically would not order searches for names that are obvious typos or misspellings.

Above all else, they are particularly interested in names and locations that have not been disclosed. And they should be conducting the appropriate criminal records and other searches based on that uncovered information. One of the most gratifying discoveries for a background screening firm is to run a search on an undisclosed name in an undisclosed jurisdiction and to locate a pertinent criminal record that can be positively tied to the applicant who made a conscious effort to hide that information from their prospective employer. Without the social trace, the discovery of such a criminal record would not be possible.

What a Social Trace Does Not Do

Users of background reports should understand that the social trace does not verify or confirm the validity of a social security number issued from the Social Security Administration. Nor is the social trace a comprehensive identity verification tool. If an employer submits to its background check provider an applicant's SSN that in turn produces identifying information that does not match that of the applicant or that does not produce any results at all, the employer needs to pursue further verification with the applicant directly. Ultimately, it is the employer's responsibility to verify the applicant's/employee's identity through the I-9 or other process. The social security trace is not a tool used for this purpose.

PreCheck Background Screening Resource Kit