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I'm currently preparing to cycle the TransAmerica Trail next summer, and am in the process of searching for a traveling companion. The problem though is that, since this is a fairly long trip, it is much more difficult to find someone to go with who lives locally to me; i.e., someone I could find through local bike shops, cycling groups, etc.. Because of this, I've had to take my searches to the internet, and consider responding to "companions wanted" posts, such as these.

My question is: would it be considered "too much" if I were to ask a potential travelling companion if I could do a [SSN based] criminal record background check on them?

I mean, I am going to be traveling with this person for the better part of 2 months, and will be trusting them with my life, in some ways. I just want to make sure I don't get matched up with someone who has an intimidating criminal history, mostly if it were related to theft or violence (whereas sth. like tax evasion I wouldn't be as concerned with).

So, would it be reasonable for me to ask for a background check? And, if so, what would be the best way of bringing it up? I don't want to scare people off from being overly precautious, however, I also don't want to be careless in my selection. Also, at the time of asking them, I would also be most comfortable in offering that they do one on me too.

Thanks in advance :)

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    How would you do this background check? I mean, using social media, Google search, ask directly for criminal records while offering yours, another way? Do you intend to show your BGC to them? – OldPadawan Sep 13 '17 at 16:53
  • I would be interested in performing a full, social security number based, criminal background check on them. This is why it's somewhat of a sensitive issue, seeing as how the SSN is the de facto on someone's identity. I also would want to check out their FB, etc., however, I feel that may come naturally with getting to know the person. – Charles Sep 13 '17 at 16:55
  • Would you let them do a background check on you? You will be as unknown to them as they will be to you. – user3169 Sep 14 '17 at 3:01
  • @user3169 I'd be fine with them running a BGC on me too, as stated in the last sentence of the OP. – Charles Sep 14 '17 at 11:47
  • @user3169 The second comment of the OP states a SSN based background check. I'll edit the OP to include this though, thank you. And yes, it is a sensitive issue, and is somewhat the reason why I was compelled to asking this question. – Charles Sep 14 '17 at 16:54
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I think what you want is to see whether this person is trustworthy and safe to be around. I question the assumption that a criminal background check will tell you that, for a few reasons:

  • An official background check will only potentially tell you about a few specific kinds of negative behavior, leaving out lots of things that could actually be important to your decision to travel with them. For example, someone might be petty, rude, manipulative, and a liar, but that may never result in anything official on their record.
  • Background checks only show stuff that people got caught doing. Just because someone has a clean background check doesn't mean he or she isn't a thief, batterer, drug user, rapist, etc. For something like rape, estimates indicate that only a tiny minority of cases ever result in an arrest, let alone a conviction. All of those unreported cases end up on no one's record at all.
  • Related to the previous point, who gets caught doing what (and therefore, what makes it onto our official records) is subject to a range of complex issues including institutional bias (here's a link on well-documented racial bias in drug arrests and charges). By relying on these records, you may inadvertently replicate those biases in your search for a traveling companion.

Moreover, as you suggest in your question, asking for a background check has the potential to cause offense or scare people away. Personally, I know my record is completely clean --- if a stranger I met on the internet (and that's indeed what you are to them, as much as they are to you) asked me for information to conduct a background check, it would raise all kinds of red flags. Imagine how much more intense the negative reaction might be for someone who feels they have something they definitely don't want to share (maybe their mom is undocumented, maybe they got caught up in a bad situation when they were a kid and some judge decided to make an example of them, etc.). To answer your question directly, I think it is "too much" to ask someone to submit to a background check in this scenario. Moreover, I expect conducting those background checks would be mostly a waste of time and money for you anyway.

Instead, I recommend you attempt the old fashioned "getting to know you" approach. :) Invite them to tell you about themselves, their habits/likes/dislikes, favorite travel memories, whatever. And you reciprocate. Write back and forth a few times. If you're close enough, ask to meet in person to chat, or maybe plan a phone call or video chat. Ask questions, get to know them. Swap social media details with them, so you can check out their facebook/twitter/instagram/linkedin/whatever and they can do likewise.

During this process, you will be able to check up on plenty of the details they offer, to reassure yourself. A google search for their full name is likely to pull up any news articles featuring them. If they've told you, for example, cities they've lived in, places they've worked or studied, etc. you can add those terms to your googling to pull up more relevant results. Many court records are also freely available online (try googling "court records" and your state, or the state your potential travel companion lives in).

And, of course, you'll want to practice some good common sense: Whether or not you have a background check and/or you've been pen pals for ages, you should still put some extra protections in place and plan an exit should you need it. Have a phone that will get signal throughout your trip, and make sure other people know when to expect you at different points throughout your journey. Ideally, have another friend accompany you and your traveling companion at the beginning of the trip; if things don't feel right, you can bail when your friend does. I hope you have a great trip!

  • I know exactly what you mean, I was just having a conversation about this, i.e., isn't an uncaught criminal (in theory) worse than a caught one? – user2322 Sep 14 '17 at 0:50
  • What red flags are you referring to if someone you were to be spending considerable time with were to ask you for a background check? – ESR Sep 14 '17 at 1:41
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    @EdmundReed I meant red flags because of having a stranger online ask for things like my SSN, full name, DOB, etc. with the express intention of gathering even more detailed information about me. I think that sounds fishy. There's no real reason to trust that they really only do want the information because they're concerned about their own safety, and there's no accountability in place if they were to misuse it in some way. This is in contrast to, for example, a prospective employer or landlord, who would be easier to sue in the event of an abuse of trust than some random person online. – Rose Hartman Sep 14 '17 at 3:28
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It is totally not weird to want to do a background check on somebody you're going to be spending a lot of time with. To me, it is similar to hunting for a roommate. You want to make sure you don't get robbed and left in no man's land while you sleep. Just be upfront with them. Tell them you're going to have a company perform a background check on them if they would like to be considered. If they have issues to hide, you probably don't want to travel with them anyways.

I'm going to put this separately since I'm not for sure on this, but there are probably companies that will do background check and provide you the information without you providing them the soc. sec. number. Example, you give the company the potential companions contact info, they reach out and ask for Personally Identifiable Information, then they provide you the result. You don't need to see their info that way.

Edit to add another, but marginally more risky option. Pay to have your own done. Then offer them reimbursement if they have their own done. Then you can swap checks with no information.

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    +1 for possibility of doing it without needing their SSN. This would definitely make me more comfortable with the process. – jmcampbell Sep 13 '17 at 18:27
  • This response is good, specifically about using a 3rd party agency to conduct the BGC. I'll have to look into this. And I don't think a BGC would cost any more than ~$30, so I'd definitely be up for paying for my own if it ensured a found companion. Thanks. – Charles Sep 14 '17 at 11:49
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Doing a BGC is a good idea. No matter how you phrase it, though, some people will balk. That's ok. That's the first hurdle in picking someone you want to travel with for that long.

A reasonable person will understand why you want to do the check. For good measure, though, I would assure them there is no intent to use the information for any other purpose but your own need to know and would tell them how the information will be handled and disposed of. I would not ask for information that can lead to identity theft.

How to ask? If you're getting on well with the person you've met, just ask straightforwardly.

Since we're going to be alone together for a long time, it's almost like having a roommate! Would you mind terribly if I do a background check on you?

I would not offer to let them do one on me; I would do one on me and offer to exchange that information with them when you have yours.

In return, of course you'll have access to mine as well.

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    A reasonable person will still most likely not want to give their SSN to a stranger though. – kingfrito_5005 Sep 13 '17 at 20:04
  • I would hesitateo give my SSN to anyone. That was the reason I said not to ask for information that might lead to identity theft. (I just did a background check on myself without a SSN, well to the point of payment. Name, age. city you live in, email address, phone number were asked for. – anongoodnurse Sep 13 '17 at 20:06
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    Before I gave someone my SSN, I would want to do a background check on them... – stannius Sep 13 '17 at 22:25
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Note that your background check should cover not just the basic "are you an axe murderer" stuff, but also "are you a good travel companion" stuff, and "are you and I compatible" stuff.

With that in mind, you should probably ask them for references, people they have travelled with before. Set up a short weekend trip. Think about your stoppers and preferred trip lifestyle (wake up time? share a tent with a snorer? evening alcohol consumption? cultural side trips?)

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What you are asking a lot of people would consider too much. However it seems you only need one person, so if you are only comfortable this way, go ahead and ask anyway. However there are a few things you should do when asking.

  • Make it clear you are asking all potential traveling companions to let you perform a background check. If it is a routine check it would seem less offensive than if it is specifically directed at them.

  • Make it clear that they are free to perform a background check on you.

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