Data for background checks may belong to someone else

Unchecked information can lead to devastating results

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SAN FRANCISCO | A clerical error landed Kathleen Casey on the streets.

Out of work two years, her unemployment benefits exhausted, in danger of losing her apartment, she applied for a job in the pharmacy of a Boston drugstore. She was offered $11 an hour. All she had to do was pass a background check.

It turned up a 14-count criminal indictment. Kathleen Casey had been charged with larceny in a scam against an elderly man and woman that involved forged checks and fake credit cards.

There was one technicality: The company that ran the background check, First Advantage, had the wrong woman. The rap sheet belonged to Kathleen A. Casey, who lived in another town nearby and was 18 years younger.

Kathleen Ann Casey, would-be pharmacy technician, was clean. “It knocked my legs out from under me,” she says.

The business of background checks is booming. Employers spend at least $2 billion a year to look into the pasts of their prospective employees. They want to make sure they’re not hiring a thief, or worse.

But it is a system weakened by the conversion to digital files and compromised by the welter of private companies that profit by amassing public records and selling them to employers. These flaws have devastating consequences.

It is a system in which the most sensitive information from people’s pasts is bought and sold as a commodity.

A system in which computers scrape the public files of court systems around the country to retrieve personal data. But a system in which what they retrieve isn’t checked for errors that would be obvious to human eyes.

A system that can damage reputations and, in a time of precious few job opportunities, rob honest workers of a chance at a new start. And a system that can leave the innocent ones living in a car.

Those are the results of an investigation by the Associated Press that included a review of thousands of pages of court filings and interviews with dozens of court officials, data providers, lawyers, victims and regulators.

“It’s an entirely new frontier,” says Leonard Bennett, a Virginia lawyer who has represented hundreds of plaintiffs alleging they were the victims of inaccurate background checks. “They’re making it up as they go along.”

Two decades ago, if a county wanted to update someone’s criminal record, a clerk had to put a piece of paper in a file. And if you wanted to read about someone’s criminal past, you had to walk into a courthouse and thumb through it. Today, half the courts in the U.S. put criminal records on their public websites.

Digitization was supposed to make criminal records easier to access and easier to update. To protect privacy, laws were passed requiring courts to redact some information, such as birth dates and Social Security numbers, before they put records online. But digitization perpetuates errors.

“There’s very little human judgment,” says Sharon Dietrich, an attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, a law firm focused on poorer clients. Miss Dietrich represents victims of inaccurate background checks. “They don’t seem to have much incentive to get it right.”

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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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