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Faulty background checks hurt job hunters

A job seeker holds a job application during the San Francisco Hirevent job fair at the Hotel Whitcomb on March 27, 2012 in San Francisco, Calif. The National Consumer Law Center says it's the wild west for background-screening report companies that provide shoddy reports.

Kai Ryssdal: The economy is slowly getting better, but this is still -- by almost any measure -- a really hard time to be looking for work in this country.

Possibly about to get harder. A report from the National Consumer Law Center today says the business of doing background checks on job applicants is booming, but that there's little or no accountability to ensure the information in those checks is accurate.

Here's our senior business correspondent Bob Moon.


Bob Moon: Even before today's report, the Privacy Rights Coalition produced a video aimed at job seekers, dramatizing what can happen when a prospective employer runs a background check.

PRC video: It seems a little out of character but do you have a felony conviction in Indiana? No, I've never been arrested, and I've never been to Indiana!

Persis Yu: Some of these reports are flat-out wrong.

Researcher Persis Yu studied the problem for the National Consumer Law Center. She says three-fourths of employers run background checks on all employees, and 90 percent do on at least some workers. She found they routinely mismatch people with no criminal background to someone who has a record -- especially people with common names. The reports can also be outdated, sometimes exposing charges that were dismissed or expunged.

That's what happened to April McClinton, who was hiring for a nursing job in the Seattle area, then swiftly terminated.

April McClinton: I was doing my training, getting oriented to the job, and the background check came back and they said, 'We have to let you go.'

McClinton says her expunged record has surfaced multiple times. Yu says all it takes for someone to get into this business is having a computer with a link to websites that resell personal data.

Yu: It's really hard for consumers to be proactive about fixing their criminal background checks, because there are so many companies that it's not feasible to go through and check to make sure that they all are accurate.

Yu says some sort of federal enforcement action is needed. But the National Association of Professional Background Screeners says its members are already regulated under the same standards that credit reporting agencies must follow. The trade group says members are in the process of commiting to a formal accreditation program that began a little over a year ago.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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