Background Checks Scrutinized by NBC’s Today Show

Angela Preston

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This morning, the Today Show ran an investigative piece criticizing background screening companies. The story gave several examples of egregious mistakes made by some well-known background screening companies. I knew that the story was coming, and I fully anticipated a one-sided hatchet job portraying background screening companies in the worst possible light. Jeff Rossen’s predictably sensational style did not disappoint. Video: Rossen Reports

The examples in the story were the worst—all chosen to show how background screening companies get it wrong.  Inaccuracies in reports happen, and they occur at the expense of hardworking, honest and innocent job seekers. Catherine Taylor, featured in the story, is the perfect victim—a seemingly kind, honest, and hardworking stay at home mom who missed out on a job opportunity with the Red Cross because of a sloppy error in an employment background check that mistakenly identified her as a repeat felony drug offender.  The drug offender had the same name and DOB, but the similarities ended there.

Rossen went on to give other examples of equally appalling instances where screening companies have reported inaccurate information resulting in lost job opportunities.  Mismatched names, the wrong states of residence, or missed identifiers were all given as examples of inaccuracies. What happened to Taylor and the others is wrong. Period.

I understand that no process is perfect, and every background screening company makes the occasional mistake. Moreover, the background screening companies named in the story are run and managed by friends and colleagues who I know and respect. So as much as it pains me to admit, I have to give Rossen credit. The story made some very good points. It was, for the most part, fair and accurate. When background companies mess up, people lose jobs. It really is that simple.

As Rossen pointed out, the FCRA does provide a dispute process for candidates who find inaccuracies in reports, but by the time that process has been completed, it is often too late.  Companies are not required to keep jobs open for the full 30 days that are allocated for dispute resolution.  While our disputes are usually cleared up within a few days, even a few days can be too long for some employers to wait.
Rossen cited the FCRA’s requirement for “maximum possible accuracy.” Background screening companies are required to meet that standard, but the examples in the story showed that companies are not hitting the mark.  When Rossen asked an attorney why screening companies don’t fix the problems, he responded that providing accurate information requires investment in people and processes that cut into profits. Again, he’s right. It’s true.  Delivering a higher level of accuracy costs money and takes additional time and people.

It is unfortunate that people will walk away from an early morning news show with such a poor impression of background screening companies, and the process in general. The story that wasn’t told was that many companies do spend the time and money to get it right. The NAPBS spokesperson was misquoted on the statistic given for disputes and inaccuracies. Based on our own internal statistics and information shared by my colleagues at other companies, accuracy rates are much higher that portrayed in the story.

Our dispute rate for inaccuracies at EmployeeScreenIQ  is .017 percent. That means that only one (1) out of every 6,000 county criminal record reports is disputed. With that said, most of those disputes result in no change—only one (1) report for every 5,000 job applicants is amended because of an EmployeeScreenIQ error. I share these numbers not to say we’re better, but because it is true. It is important to put it out there to let people know that lots of companies get it right.  And the easiest way to get it right is to make sure the report is accurate in the first place.

Our “No Shortcuts” philosophy boils down to this: before reporting criminal records, our Public Records department confirms that the information that we’ve found actually belongs to the applicant. We confirm that the record is legally reportable. The same holds true for our methods for conducting employment and education verifications. Our research team reviews each response for depth of detail and to ensure there isn’t any misleading or inconclusive information. We’re all for streamlining the process and reducing turnaround time, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of a quality product or a job applicant’s future.
So what now? As I have said before, I firmly believe that if you are running or managing a business, doing a criminal background check is a must. It’s a sound and best practice and it is probably negligent not to do so.  Even Jeff Rossen conceded that NBC routinely conducts background checks on employees, as they well should.

At the risk of being repetitive, I am re-posting some of my thoughts on the subject of accuracy that I shared last month, when another background screening company came under the scrutiny of the FTC for inaccuracies. My advice was directed at employers who are looking for the right partner to conduct background checks. We all want the same result—to get the right people in the right jobs. Follow these tips, and your company is less likely to be featured on Jeff Rossen’s next expose.

1.    Look for NAPBS accreditation: This standard, established a couple of years ago by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, identifies that a background screening firm is committed to best practices, subjects itself to on-site audits, and has submitted to ongoing monitoring and approval of policies and procedures by an accrediting board.
2.    Ask your provider about accuracy: The FCRA requires “reasonable procedures” to ensure “maximum possible accuracy.” Ask your background company about this requirement. Ask to see their process. How do they handle common names? How do they match identifiers? They should know what you’re talking about. If they don’t, start looking for a replacement.
3.    Does your background firm use databases? Databases are great. They are highly effective when used properly.  So if they use them, how do they confirm that the information is up-to-date? A database is NEVER completely up-to-date. Even the FBI and state police databases are full of holes and gaps. By definition, a database is stored information that does not keep up with the real-time activity of a court. Unless a provider is confirming with an on-site or real-time court level check, the information may not be accurate.
4.    What about expungements? If information is not verified at the county court level, you run the risk of making a decision based on an expunged or sealed records.
5.    Does your provider publish duplicate offenses? If a case is reported in multiple places, the right thing to do is only report it once. Courts and regulators agree–reporting duplicates can make an applicant look worse that they really are.
6.    Does your provider send required notifications to consumers when public record information cannot be verified? This is one area where the FTC and courts are coming down hard. The process of notification when records are not confirmed can be fraught with problems, and can be avoided altogether if the information is been verified at the source before being reported. Ask your provider about their policy on this issue.
7.    How does your provider deal with consumer inquiries? Ask for a copy of their dispute resolution policy. Take it to your attorney to review. The law says disputes must be responded to within 5 days, resolved within 30 days, and the background screening company must provide a copy of the report upon request. If it seems like a background screening company is making job applicants jump through hoops when they have a question about the report, beware. The law exists to help consumers and job seekers, and the background screening companies are a critical part of that process.

The final word: If any of my colleagues at other background screening companies and with NAPBS have statistics or information to share, I encourage you to post them here, and join in the conversation.  I would like to hear from you, as would clients and employers who deserve to hear the other side of the story.








Angela Preston
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Angela Preston

Vice President of Compliance & General Counsel at EmployeeScreenIQ
Angela Preston has more than 20 years as a licensed attorney and over 10 years in the background screening area. She serves on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS), is a member of the NAPBS Background Screening Credentialing Council (BSCC), and is actively involved in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and ASIS International. Angela is also a member of the Ohio State and Columbus Bar Associations. Angela has direct oversight and management of compliance programs, and will provide guidance in complex legal matters including state and federal legislation, EEO law, client education, adjudication, pre/adverse action process, NAPBS Accreditation and client and vendor contract management.
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  • Hi Angela,
    We are friendly competitors sharing technical opinions. Infortal has been conducting background checks nationwide for over 26 years. We have a zero rate of inaccuracies in criminal records. We have had zero FCRA challenges. We DO NOT use databases for criminal records screening as they completely miss approx 70% of all criminal convictions! Yes that is correct–most criminal records are not even seen on these databases because they do not exist on databases; you can only find 100% of criminal convictions at court houses. Therefore all criminal records should be manually searched in person at the court houses. It may cost $20 more but it’s 100% worth it!

    We are not NAPBS accredited; the reason for this is that NAPBS Best Practices are insufficient in my personal opinion. For example: if you know that database criminal records are highly inaccurate then how can they form part of a Best Practice? Why would I want to join a professional organization with Best Practices that do not match ours?

    Checking courthouse records after the fact is a late-stage practice causing many problems for employers & job candidates alike–why not do it right (accurately) the first time?

    Additionally you have not addressed the opposite part of this issue which is the low rate of criminal conviction results reported by these companies. The low reporting rate is because databases do not pick up about 50% of all county criminal convictions across the USA and rarely report misdemeanor convictions! So if anything, many people with criminal convictions are completely missed! Unfortunately we rarely see this fact reported in the media. If you only go to the courts after database screening to confirm a record, yet you have missed 70% of criminal convictions, this results in very low rates of criminal convictions actually being reported to employers. On top of this we have the problem that many database companies do not check date of birth which is one of the KEY IDENTIFIERS for criminal records then we have further incorrect reporting.

    This in turn leads Company HR departments to think that all background checks yield the same results & then the work becomes a simple check-box item! This is a complete disservice to all of us that do thorough & accurate background checks. IMHO databases are not worth paying for if you intend on conducting an accurate background check–why waste $15 to $30 on incomplete & inaccurately reported information? This is in part why there are so many “scandal-driven” stories for the press to report.

    Your blog article is good as it highlights the issues many background companies face & helps educate people–I hope it brings about some changes in the way many of our competitors conduct their background checks. If you’d like to contact me please feel free to,
    Regards, Candice Tal (www.infortal.com)

  • Jeff Cooke

    Excellent response Angela. The media needs to sensationalize even when the basis is so clearly wrong and biased.

  • Hey Candice. While I agree with much of what you are saying, I think that it is important to point out where we differ in opinion. Database searches can and should be used in conjunction with a comprehensive county search. True, most criminal activity takes place in the locale where someone lives, but it’s not guaranteed. There is a responsibility that comes with these databases and that is to only use them as a pointer. If a record is found, it should be confirmed at the source before it is reported.

    It is also important to point out that accreditation does not mandate that CRA’s have all of the same processes and comply with each of the standards in the same fashion. If you have a defined process that is truly compliant and adheres to best practices, that’s all you need. You really should consider it.

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  • Loree Barnard

    I agree with Nick.

    Candice, If you’re not using a database to supplement searching the counties of residence, you are missing records too. What about the counties outside of where the applicant lived? You are absolutely correct that not a single company should use a database as the only source for a background check.

    No background check catches 100% of the records all the time.

  • Agree with Nick & Loree, background checks are one piece of the puzzle it takes people along with the aide of technology to make the effort in properly vetting candidates out to qualify for positions. You will never have 100% accuracy if you replace one for the other.

  • I’m in agreement with Ms. Tal. Although we do county courthouse criminal record searches, and use the database only in conjuction with them, we realize that not all counties and states contribute to databases. Now I’m asking myself if a clients money for a database search could be better served for an addtional county courthouse criminal record search or a reference check.

    This will not be popular reading for some, but I’m not out to win populartiy contests. I find that the NAPBS iis more of a status symbol for the very elite few names who always are included in their publications. I’m not NAPBS accredited, mainly because there seems to be a stigma attached to not being a member I’m a member of Concerned CRA’s, and close to an Associates taking College course in law and human resources, leaning towards becoming a paralegal. I’m a newcomer that started business in 2006, but have accessed many helpful resouces, sought out and given excellent advice, and use my former career experience as a State Licensed Bail Bond Agency/Agent who has been at courthouses daily for a 19 years.

    I use all the resources possible to conduct a employment screening report, and realize that a person’s livelihood may depend on it from both sides of the coin. Reading the ftc.gov site and seeing the Companies that are members of NAPBS being hit with six figure fines was an eye opener. By no means am I implying that the NAPBS is responsible for the negligence of the Companies who have agreed to pay the fines. It is totally the Companys responsibility.

    I’ve done some reading on the NAPBS and frankly feel it has become a large organization with a goal of selling expensive memberships to the their exclusive club. There are other equally qualified organizations that that offer the same support and services the NAPBS offers.

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