Landlord Hacks: How to perform Criminal Background Checks on Tenants in Chicago for Free (or very little)

When you make a commitment to allow a stranger to use your investment it is worthwhile to find out how they are going to be a major drain on your time, resources, or the value of your property. A tenant with a habit of not paying rent on time will not suddenly start paying when they move into your building. Tenants with criminal records can cause other, stronger tenants to avoid your building or your neighborhood.

You owe it to yourself and your neighbors to run background checks on every tenant.

I've been background checking tenants for years now, and much of that time was spent working for a company that wanted to spend as little as possible in the process. Fortunately, Chicago residents have some relatively easy routes available to them for checking on a tenant's history. This method can be time consuming, but if you're willing to risk your investment on a stranger it is definitely worth the time.

There are many companies out there that offer background checks for a fee. However, I've found that their checks are not adequate, especially in the rental history verification area. You owe it to yourself to do your own research, especially when it's so easy to do so.

First of all, you will need the tenant's credit report in order to do this the right way. You do not need a score, though. All you need are the actual accounts, and a summary of their payment info. Therefore, you can ask your tenant applicant to provide you with a copy of their credit report, which they can obtain for free from (and nowhere else). It doesn't matter if they provide you with their Transunion, Equifax or Experian report. Got it? Great. Let's get started.

Once you have the credit report in hand, you'll want to actually read it. I'm not going to get into reading a tenant's credit report in this article, but will definitely do so in a later article. What you need for this go-around is the list of known addresses where your wanna-be renter has lived in the past. It's normally on either the first page or the last page of the report.

Note down each of these addresses, and any additional addresses from their application. Now use Google and find out the county name for each of the listed towns & cities. Evictions are normally handled at the county level in the US.

We're going to be checking them at the national level first. There are four national databases we will be accessing:

  • The National Sex Offender Registry: Sex offenders are required to register their current location. A sex offender in your building can scare away other tenants. Additionally, in Illinois sex offenders with a history of crimes against minors are not permitted to live within 500 feet of schools & day care centers. There are multiple places where you can search against the registry in all 50 states. I like Family Watchdog. I've caught about 5 people out of over 1000 applications using this method.
  • The Office of Foreign Asset Control's (OFAC) list of sanctioned national threats. Having any sort of financial interaction with people on this list can get you in major hot water with the Feds. Executive Order 13224 (enacted around the same time as the Patriot Act) "prohibits any US company from doing business with any person that (1) has committed a terrorist act, (2) poses a risk of committing or supporting terrorist acts, or (3) is identified on the list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons generated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control." You can search this list directly at OFAC's website.
  • The Bureau of Prisons database of current and former federal inmates from 1982 to the present day.
  • NOTE: The TSA's No Fly List is not publicly available for search. The site is a fake.

Next we're going to be checking at the state level for each of the states on the prospective renter's address list. There's only one thing we need to check here: the state's prison inmate list.

  • For Illinois, you can use the Illinois Dept of Corrections inmate search.
  • For other states, use your favorite search engine to look up "inmate search" plus the state you need. Make sure you're only using a government-sponsored site.

Now we're going to check at the county level. Not every county makes their court records freely accessible but many of them do, including Cook County. At the county level we're looking for one thing in particular: eviction records.

  • The Cook County records can be searched at the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court's website. Use the "Search by Name" box about halfway down the page to search for a prospective tenant's eviction history by selecting "Defendant" and then typing in their name. You can only search by name, so in the case of a very common name your results may turn up some false positives. Talk with your applicant to find out the truth of the matter if you have any doubt.
    • If you like, you can also search for them on the Plaintiff side. This would mostly be to determine if they've ever sued any of their landlords. Litigious tenants frequently have very good reasons for taking a landlord to court. However, once a tenant has been burned badly enough to sue, any subsequent landlord will have an uphill battle to gain their trust.
  • For other counties and states, offers the best index I've found to help you track down similar searchable databases.

In each of these cases, a match does not mean you should automatically decline your applicant. However, if you decide to rent to the applicant, make sure you go into it with eyes open as to the possible risks - talk with your attorney if you aren't sure.

I'll be talking about getting references from prior landlords and how to read credit reports with a Landlord's eye in later articles.

Do you feel like this is unfair treatment for renters? Have you tried to follow these steps? Share your stories in the comments. Do you know a landlord that got burned by a bad tenant? Share this article with them!