AP IMPACT: When your criminal past isn’t yours

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CoreLogic says its accuracy standards meet the law, and it seemed to blame North Carolina, saying that the state’s actions “directly contributed to the conditions which resulted in the alleged contract violations,” but it would not elaborate. CourtTrax did not respond to requests for comment.

Other background check companies say the errors aren’t always their fault.

LexisNexis, a major provider of background checks and criminal data, said in a statement that any errors in its records “stem from inaccuracies in original source material _ typically public records such as courthouse documents.”

But other problems have arisen with the shift to digital criminal records. Even technical glitches can cause mistakes.

Companies that run background checks sometimes blame weather. Ann Lane says her investigations firm, Carolina Investigative Research, in North Carolina, has endured hurricanes and ice storms that knocked out power to her computers and took them out of sync with court computers.

While computers are offline, critical updates to files can be missed. That can cause one person’s records to fall into another person’s file, Lane says. She says glitches show up in her database at least once a year.

Lane says she double-checks the physical court filings, a step she says many other companies do not take. She calls her competitors’ actions shortsighted.

“A lot of these database companies think it’s `ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching,’” she says.

Data providers defend their accuracy. LexisNexis does more than 12 million background checks a year. It is one of the world’s biggest data providers, with more than 22 billion public records on its own computers.

It says fewer than 1 percent of its background checks are disputed. That still amounts to 120,000 people _ more than the population of Topeka, Kan.

But there are problems with those assertions. People rarely know when they are victims of data errors. Employers are required by law to tell job applicants when they’ve been rejected because of negative information in a background check. But many do not.

Even the vaunted FBI criminal records database has problems. The FBI database has information on sentencings and other case results for only half its arrest records. Many people in the database have been cleared of charges. The Justice Department says the records are incomplete because states are inconsistent in reporting the conclusions of their cases. The FBI restricts access to its records, locking out the commercial database providers that regularly buy information from state and county government agencies.

Data providers are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission and required by federal law to have “reasonable procedures” to keep accurate records. Few cases are filed against them, though, mostly because building a case is difficult.

A series of breaches in the mid-2000s put the spotlight on data providers’ accuracy and security. The fallout was supposed to put the industry on a path to reform, and many companies tightened security. But the latest problems show that some accuracy practices are broken.

The industry says it polices itself and believes the approach is working. Mike Cool, a vice president with Acxiom Corp., a data wholesaler, praised an accreditation system developed by an industry group, the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. Fear of litigation keeps the number of errors in check, he says.

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