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Who is checking the background checkers?

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InfoLink then calls county courts at random to double-check researchers' findings. Depending on the number of applicants and the jurisdiction (court fees vary), Mr. Nadell says a single screening costs from $15 to $50. Those fees can add up, so there's a movement among employers to cut costs, Nadell says. "Some are using strictly databases," he says, "and that's very concerning to our industry because of the inaccuracies that reside in databases. The industry's error rate [among screeners who personally verify database records] is probably less than one in thousands. It's very small."

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The most common mistakes, says Nadell, come from sloppy court records and databases.

But as the background-checking industry continues to grow, who screens the screeners? While laws concerning background checks vary from state to state, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act sets the minimum standard. Under the law, employers must seek the written consent of applicants prior to the screening. And before an employer can reject a potential employee based on his or her background check, the applicant has the right to receive, review, and dispute the findings.

Job applicants also have the right to sue a screening company if errors on a report were the result of negligence.

If the employer uses a background screening company whose disclosure and authorization form for a background check includes a waiver to indemnify the screening company, "that means the company doesn't understand the law," Nadell says. "How do you trust the screening company ... if they won't be responsible for their own negligence?"

Regardless of whether the screening findings were accurate or not, the fact that McDonald was not given the opportunity to review and dispute his background report may mean that his potential employer violated federal law.

"One of the things I didn't know was that it was illegal for them not to provide a copy of my background check," McDonald says. "They said, 'We'll get to it as soon as we can, as soon as someone's available.' And then there were no responses."

McDonald has not found formal employment since that fateful background report. He has chosen to avoid the issue by working as an independent information technology contractor for smaller firms that cannot afford background checks. But with low-paying temporary work, McDonald says clearing his own name seems like a daunting task. "The information out there is vast," he says. "It's kind of hard to come up with large sums of money to do anything."

By the numbers

A study of job applications put through a preemployment screening process reveals that many job-seekers have something they may be reluctant to put on an application. InfoLink, a provider of employment background checks, examined tens of thousands of job applications from January through June. It found that:

41.6% had a violation on record with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

39.2% had bad credit, such as an account that went to a collection agency.

26.4% had discrepancies in their résumés about past employment.

8.3% had a criminal record.

8.2% inaccurately reported their level of education.

3.3% had tested positive for illegal drugs.

Source: InfoLink Screening Services

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