AP IMPACT: When your criminal past isn’t yours

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Hard data on errors in background checks are not public. Most leading background check companies contacted by the AP would not disclose how many of their records need to be corrected each year.

A recent class-action settlement with one major database company, HireRight Solutions Inc., provides a glimpse at the magnitude of the problems.

The settlement, which received tentative approval from a federal judge in Virginia last month, requires HireRight to pay $28.4 million to settle allegations that it didn’t properly notify people about background checks and didn’t properly respond to complaints about inaccurate files. After covering attorney fees of up to $9.4 million, the fund will be dispersed among nearly 700,000 people for alleged violations that occurred from 2004 to 2010. Individual payments will range from $15 to $20,000.

In an effort to prevent bad information from being spread, some courts are trying to block the computer programs that background check companies deploy to scrape data off court websites. The programs not only can misrepresent the official court record but can also hog network resources, bringing websites to a halt.

Virginia, Arizona and New Mexico have installed security software to block automated programs from getting to their courts’ sites. New Mexico’s site was once slowed so much by automated data-mining programs that it took minutes for anyone else to complete a basic search. Since New Mexico blocked the data miners, it now takes seconds.

In the digital age, some states have seen an opportunity to cash in by selling their data to companies. Arizona charges $3,000 per year for a bundle of discs containing all its criminal files. The data includes personal identifiers that aren’t on the website, including driver’s license numbers and partial Social Security numbers.

Other states, exasperated by mounting errors in the data, have stopped offering wholesale subscriptions to their records.

North Carolina, a pioneer in marketing electronic criminal records, made $4 million selling the data last year. But officials discovered that some background check companies were refusing to fix errors pointed out by the state or to update stale information.

State officials say some companies paid $5,105 for the database but refused to pay a mandatory $370 monthly fee for daily updates to the files _ or they would pay the fee but fail to run the update. The updates provided critical fixes, such as correcting misspelled names or deleting expunged cases.

North Carolina, which has been among the most aggressive in ferreting out errors in its customers’ files, stopped selling its criminal records in bulk. It has moved to a system of selling records one at a time. By switching to a more methodical approach, North Carolina hopes to eliminate the sloppy record-keeping practices that has emerged as more companies have been allowed to vacuum up massive amounts of data in a single sweep.

Virginia ended its subscription program. To get full court files now, you have to go to the courthouse in person. You can get abstracts online, but they lack Social Security numbers and birth dates, and are basically useless for a serious search.

North Carolina told the AP that taxpayers have been “absorbing the expense and ill will generated by the members of the commercial data industry who continue to provide bad information while falsely attributing it to our courts’ records.”

North Carolina identified some companies misusing the records, but other culprits have gone undetected because the data was resold multiple times.

Some of the biggest data providers were accused of perpetuating errors. North Carolina revoked the licenses of CoreLogic SafeRent, Thomson West, CourtTrax and five others for repeatedly disseminating bad information or failing to download updates.

Thomson West says it was punished for two instances of failing to delete outdated criminal records in a timely manner. Such instances are “extremely rare” and led to improvements in Thomson West’s computer systems, the company said.

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