Excerpted from an article in The Hill by Sarah Esther Lageson and Robert Stewart
Criminal-record screening has become a pillar of life in the digital age. Employers, landlords and consumers have dozens of background-check companies to choose from to search for information about an individual. In addition to criminal history, many of these background reports provide information covering many areas of people’s lives, including home addresses, social media profiles, real estate transactions, voting records and family information.
Unfortunately, many companies fail to verify the quality or accuracy of the data they keep about us, providing incorrect or misleading information instead. These companies must be reined in to protect our privacy.
The FTC announced earlier this month that it will require two background-check websites, TruthFinder and Instant Checkmate, to pay $5.8 million in fines to settle charges of, among other things, “failing to ensure the maximum possible accuracy” of their reports. You’ve likely encountered ads from these companies, which often show up in searches enticing consumers with the promise to learn “the truth” (for a fee).
According to the FTC, these unregulated “people search” companies violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a federal law regulating the dissemination of consumer information to ensure the accuracy of background checks and credit reports.
This is a step in the right direction to regulate companies that peddle inaccurate information. Faulty background reports have extensive ripple effects, causing people to lose jobs or other opportunities, and creating unjustified public stigma. But these companies have continued to profit from cheap and sloppy data aggregation by capitalizing on fear to sell reports.
As researchers, we have extensively studied the integrity of background screening. To gauge how accurate these reports are, we recently compared official, governmental rap sheets to fee-based reports from a “people search” company like TruthFinder and Instant Checkmate.
Our forthcoming paper in the peer-reviewed journal Criminology shows that for the 101 people in our study, every single participant had at least one error on the criminal record information. Altogether, 74 percent of the total criminal charges reported on our participants’ reports did not have matches on the official state reports. These inaccurately reported charges are the likely result of low-quality data aggregation where criminal charges against people with similar names and birthdates are erroneously lumped together.
As an especially egregious example, the background report for one participant — who had two drug convictions from 30 years ago on his official record — erroneously attributed over 50 charges to him, including assault, robbery, gun possession and child abuse. After an extensive review, we discovered he had an alias listed on an old court record.
Anyone who searched for our participant using this company would get the misleading impression he had a lengthy rap sheet. But, unlike FCRA-compliant companies, these people-search services provide little or no effective path to dispute or have these inaccurate charges removed.
The people in our study described losing job opportunities and apartments because of faulty background checks. Participants told us how they were suddenly blocked from working for or using gig-economy apps because an inaccurate or out-of-date background check popped up.
Our research illustrates the problem with unregulated background checks: they regularly contain errors and are unreliable. When an Instant Checkmate or TruthFinder report contains inaccurate or misleading information, but the company fails to respond to complaints about accuracy, there are consequences for people’s personal and professional lives.
For the full story, please click here.
Editor’s Note: GroupOne Background Screening is an FCRA-compliant company with more than 30 years of experience.