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Rossen Reports: Background check firms making errors

They say that innocent people are being mistaken for criminals – and are losing jobs

By Jeff Rossen and Avni Patel

Finding a new job is hard enough, but experts say there may be a hidden flaw when you apply, that can ruin your chance of getting hired. TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen has the details.

When you apply for a job, most employers will do a criminal background check. Nothing to worry about, right? Because you’re not a criminal. Think again. Experts say those background check companies are causing innocent people to lose jobs, mistaken for drug felons, armed robbers, even sex offenders.

It happened to Catherine Taylor, a stay-at-home mom looking to get back to work. The Red Cross wanted to hire her as an accountant.

“I was supposed to start work the following week,” Taylor told us.

But suddenly, Catherine’s job offer was yanked. A criminal background check had come back with a long rap sheet of drug felonies. The problem is, it wasn’t her.

“I was devastated,” Taylor said. “It was like my whole world was just torn apart.”

The company hired to run the background check in 2006, Choicepoint, one of the biggest, had mixed her up with another Catherine Taylor, a repeat drug offender with same date of birth, but nothing else in common. They didn’t even live in the same state.

“I have never been convicted of anything, (not even) a traffic ticket,” Taylor said.

Consumer advocates say these mistakes are happening far too often.

Take Leonard Smith. When he applied for a job, the background company, Sterling Infosystems, confused him with a sex offender who was in prison at the time.

It also happened to James Hines, an innocent dad. When he applied for a job, the background check company, ADP, confused him with Michael James Hines, a convicted sex offender in a different state. They don’t even have the same first name.

The companies say accuracy is important, but errors do happen.

“Consumers are losing jobs by the thousands because of the bad background checks that are run on them,” attorney Jim Francis told us.

Francis specializes in these cases. He says, too often, background check companies rely solely on computers to match the data, with no one checking to make sure the results are correct — a billion-dollar industry, he says, that is well aware of the problem.

So we asked him: If the companies know this problem exists, why not just fix it?

“They would have to spend money on personnel and instituting procedures, which would carve into their profits,” said Francis.

Under federal law, the companies are required to use “reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy.”

“The error rate is less than 10 percent,” said Montserrat Miller, an attorney who works for the National Association of Background Screening Professionals. “Accuracy is paramount.”

But how would they explain background companies coming back with a different date of birth, from a different state, just matching a first and last name in some cases?

“What I will say to that is that the most important thing is to let viewers know how background checks are conducted,” said Miller. “You’re speaking hypotheticals.”

So we asked her about a real-life example. We showed her a picture of Catherine Taylor, the Arkansas woman who was mistaken for another woman who had a long rap sheet of drug felonies.

How did that happen?

“I, you know, if there are errors in a report, individuals do have an opportunity to contest it,” said Miller. “So I don’t, I’m sorry I just don’t know the facts of that particular case that you just raised.”

Catherine did contest it, but by the time Choicepoint cleared it up, that job was long gone.

“They need to have stricter controls,” Taylor told us. “You’re talking about human lives, their livelihood, the way that they want to provide for themselves and their families. This has got to stop.”

The company that ran Catherine Taylor’s report was bought by Lexis Nexis. They say their systems have improved, and they now have a 99.8 percent accuracy rate.

Experts say that if this happens to you, you don’t have many options. You can contact the background check company and dispute it. Problem is, they have 30 days to investigate. By then, the job could be long gone. The only other option is to sue.

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