Choosing the Right Form: Initiating a Background Investigation

Background investigations play a crucial role in various aspects of our lives, from employment and security clearances to loans and housing applications. These investigations are often requested using specific forms that facilitate the process and ensure compliance with relevant regulations. Two significant forms are widely used: the SF-86 and FCRA-compliant consent forms. In this article, we will delve into the details of these forms, their purposes, and how to correctly fill them out.

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1. SF-86: The Standard Form for Background Investigations

The Standard Form 86 (SF-86) is a critical document used by the United States government to request background investigations for individuals seeking security clearances or positions of trust. It serves as the foundation for conducting a thorough evaluation of an individual’s background, including their personal, financial, and professional history. The SF-86 plays a vital role in national security and ensures that individuals with access to classified information are reliable and trustworthy.

1.1 Purpose of SF-86

The primary purpose of the SF-86 is to gather detailed information about an individual’s background. This information is used to evaluate an applicant’s suitability for a security clearance or other positions of trust within the government. Government agencies use the SF-86 to assess the individual’s loyalty, character, trustworthiness, and reliability.

SF-86 requests an array of information, including but not limited to:

1. Personal Identifying Information: This section collects the applicant’s basic information, such as name, date of birth, Social Security number, and contact details.

2. Citizenship and Nationality: It gathers information about the applicant’s citizenship and any dual citizenship, as well as foreign contacts or interests.

3. Residence and Employment History: The form requires a comprehensive list of past and present residences and employment, along with references who can verify the applicant’s information.

4. Financial History: Applicants must disclose their financial situation, including debts, assets, bankruptcies, and any unusual financial circumstances.

5. Legal and Police Records: The SF-86 seeks information about an applicant’s criminal history, arrests, and any involvement with law enforcement agencies.

6. Drug and Alcohol Use: It asks about an applicant’s history of drug and alcohol use, including any treatment or counseling.

7. References: The form includes sections for character references, employment references, and other individuals who can provide insight into the applicant’s background.

8. Foreign Contacts and Activities: If applicable, the applicant must disclose foreign contacts and any involvement in foreign organizations or activities.

1.2 Filling out the SF-86

Filling out the SF-86 is a meticulous process. It requires a high level of attention to detail to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information provided. Any omissions or inaccuracies can lead to delays in the background investigation process or even disqualification.

Here are some essential tips for correctly filling out the SF-86:

1. Review the instructions: Before filling out the SF-86, carefully read the accompanying instructions to understand the requirements and ensure you have all the necessary documentation.

2. Gather supporting documents: Collect all the documentation needed to verify the information you will provide, such as birth certificates, passports, financial records, and contact information for references.

3. Use accurate and complete information: Provide truthful and complete information for every section of the SF-86. Omissions, inaccuracies, or inconsistencies can raise red flags during the investigation.

4. Consult with references: Reach out to your references in advance and inform them that they may be contacted as part of the background investigation. Ensure they are willing to vouch for your character and reliability.

5. Seek legal advice if needed: If you have a complex legal history or specific concerns about your application, consider consulting with legal counsel or a security clearance attorney for guidance.

6. Be prepared for an interview: Be ready for an in-person or phone interview with an investigator to clarify or expand on the information you provided in the SF-86.

2. FCRA-Compliant Consent Forms

In addition to the SF-86, there are other situations where background investigations are necessary, such as pre-employment checks, rental applications, or loan approvals. In these cases, a different type of form is used, known as an FCRA-compliant consent form. FCRA stands for the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a federal law that governs the collection and use of consumer credit information.

2.1 Purpose of FCRA-Compliant Consent Forms

FCRA-compliant consent forms are used when a third party, such as an employer or landlord, needs to obtain a background check on an individual. The purpose of these forms is to obtain the individual’s permission to conduct the background check while ensuring compliance with the FCRA. The FCRA outlines specific requirements for the collection and use of consumer credit information and background checks.

When an individual signs an FCRA-compliant consent form, they are granting permission for the requesting party to obtain their consumer credit report or conduct a background check. This form helps protect the individual’s rights and privacy by ensuring that their consent is obtained before any investigation takes place.

2.2 Elements of an FCRA-Compliant Consent Form

An FCRA-compliant consent form typically includes the following elements:

1. Consent statement: The form must clearly state that the individual is granting permission for a background check or credit report to be obtained.

2. Disclosure of the purpose: The form should specify the purpose of the background check, whether it is for employment, rental, or another purpose.

3. Contact information: The form should provide contact information for the requesting party or their designated representative, such as a background screening agency.

4. Rights under the FCRA: Individuals should be informed of their rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, including the right to request a copy of their report and dispute any inaccuracies.

5. Signature: The individual must sign and date the consent form to indicate their agreement.

2.3 Filling out an FCRA-Compliant Consent Form

When asked to complete an FCRA-compliant consent form, it’s important to understand the purpose and implications of granting permission for a background check. Here are the steps to correctly fill out such a form:

1. Carefully read the form: Take the time to read and understand the form’s content, including the purpose of the background check and the rights outlined under the FCRA.

2. Provide accurate information: Fill in your personal information, such as name, date of birth, and contact details, accurately to ensure that the background check is conducted on the correct individual.

3. Sign and date the form: Your signature and date on the form indicate your consent. Make sure to do this only after reading and understanding the contents.

4. Keep a copy: Before submitting the form, make a copy for your records. This can be useful in case you need to dispute any inaccuracies in the future.

3. Key Differences Between SF-86 and FCRA-Compliant Consent Forms

While both SF-86 and FCRA-compliant consent forms are used to initiate background investigations, they serve distinct purposes and differ in several key ways.

3.1 Purpose and Usage

The SF-86 is primarily used by government agencies to conduct background investigations for individuals seeking security clearances or positions of trust. It focuses on evaluating an individual’s loyalty, character, trustworthiness, and reliability. In contrast, FCRA-compliant consent forms are used in various non-governmental contexts, such as employment screening, rental applications,

and loan approvals, to obtain an individual’s permission for a background check that often includes a credit report.

3.2 Legal Framework

The SF-86 is a government-mandated form that falls under federal regulations governing security clearances. It is not subject to the FCRA, as its purpose is different from the FCRA-compliant consent forms.

FCRA-compliant consent forms, on the other hand, are required by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. This federal law governs the collection and use of consumer credit information and background checks, primarily in non-governmental settings.

3.3 Information Gathered

The SF-86 is an extensive and highly detailed form that collects information on an individual’s personal, financial, and professional history. It delves into aspects such as foreign contacts, criminal history, and drug use, which are particularly relevant for national security evaluations.

FCRA-compliant consent forms are typically more streamlined, focusing on obtaining permission for credit checks, criminal background checks, and reference verifications. The information gathered is typically related to an individual’s creditworthiness or suitability for a particular position or tenancy.

3.4 Who Requires Them

The SF-86 is required by government agencies, particularly those responsible for national security and classified information, when individuals apply for security clearances or positions of trust within the government. It is not used by private sector employers or landlords.

FCRA-compliant consent forms are used by private sector entities, such as employers, landlords, and financial institutions, to request background checks on individuals applying for jobs, rental properties, or loans.


Background investigations are essential in various contexts, whether they involve evaluating an individual’s eligibility for a security clearance or assessing their suitability for employment or housing. The SF-86 and FCRA-compliant consent forms are critical tools in this process, each serving a unique purpose and falling under different legal frameworks.

Understanding the distinctions between these forms is vital to ensuring compliance and facilitating a smooth background investigation process. Whether you are applying for a government position requiring a security clearance or seeking employment or housing in the private sector, knowing how to correctly fill out these forms is crucial to your success in these endeavors.

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