Consumer Man

Shoddy background check could cost you a job

April 13, 2012 at 7:59 AM ET

Apply for a job and there's a good chance that potential employer will do a background check on you. Most U.S. employers (about 70 percent) conduct criminal background checks for all potential employees. 

According to a new report from the National Consumer Law Center, the information provided by background screening companies is often wrong in some way.

"These reports really should be accurate. Unfortunately, too often, what we found is, they're not,” says Persis Yu, an NCLC staff attorney who worked on the “Broken Records”report. 

Take the case of Samuel M. Jackson of Illinois, profiled in the report. Jackson was allegedly denied a job because of an inaccurate background check that said he was convicted of rape in 1987 – when he was just 4 years old. The conviction belonged to 58-year-old Samuel L. Jackson of Virginia, who was in prison at the time the background check was requested.

Virtually anyone with a computer and Internet service can go into the business of background screening. There is very little, if any, oversight. 

“It’s really the Wild West out there,” Persis says. “They're not required to be licensed. They're not required to be registered. And yet they're generating billions of dollars in revenue with very little accountability."

The head of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS) says the NCLC report makes some very broad statements that are not accurate. In an email statement to msnbc.com, Theresa Preg says background screening through Consumer Reporting Agencies (CRA), such as those that are members of NAPBS have “a very, very low error rate.” 

Preg says members of her organization are highly regulated at the state and federal level. She warns employers not to use "free" criminal record searches offered via the Internet because they have no updating requirement and therefore can have inaccurate information. 

 “The member companies of NAPBS help put millions of people to work, including ex-offenders,” she writes. “We also help consumers correct misinformation that may be contained on them at the actual courts or law enforcement agencies, as well as any incorrect criminal history information that may have been contained in a consumer report. 

In preparing its  report, NCLC contacted attorneys and community groups that work with people who are hurt by faulty background checks. They say these reports routinely mismatch people. This can be devastating when a person with no criminal background is confused with someone who has a criminal history. Such mix-ups are more likely if you have a common name. 

(Read: More background check horror stories

“People are being denied employment because these companies are returning reports about the wrong person,” Persis says. 

Background reports also commonly:

  • Omit crucial information about a case. For example: A person is arrested, but then found innocent.
  • Reveal sealed or expunged information, such as a juvenile offense.
  • Provide misleading information, such as a single charge listed multiple times.
  • Misclassify offenses, such as reporting a misdemeanor as a felony.

Even if you’re lucky enough to catch a mistake in a background check, it’s not always easy to get the error corrected. 

“Many of these companies don't have very clear dispute processes,” Persis says. “Depending on the state and how the company got their records, it can take weeks or a month or more even to actually get the information corrected. By that time, a lot of times, the job is gone.” 

The National Consumer Law Center wants the federal government to clean up the marketplace by creating rules that would ensure complete and accurate information. NCLC believes data providers should be registered, required to update their records each year and prohibited from making matches based solely on a person’s name.

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