The problem with all this sensitive information being collected is that it's vulnerable — for the simple reason that it's compiled and assessed by human beings. Human beings who fundamentally believe that in itself, the data must be correct.
But what if the data is wrong? As savvy data users, we acknowledge that in the hands of the wrong people, our most sensitive information can be used against us. But the damage is just as great when mistakes in our records get stuck in the deepest holes of bureaucracy.
According to the National Consumer Law Center, 93% of employers run criminal background checks on some applicants, while 73% conduct these checks on all applicants. In the U.S., 1 in 4 adults has a criminal record, and many more people are pinged by criminal background checks by accident.
Criminal background check companies routinely omit important information about a person (i.e. he or she was found innocent of a crime); reveal sealed information such as juvenile offenses; list a single charge multiple times; misclassify offenses as a felony even if they are not; and mismatch people with no criminal background just based on similar names. These are recurring industry-wide problems.
As reddit user AJohnnyTruant ("Mr. Truant") discovered, a background check resulting in a simple case of mistaken identity has the potential to stop you from getting a job or a home, and it can destroy your credit for life. After spending several years working to find a solution to this problem, he turned to reddit to get some help.
Here's what we learned.
After being denied a job due to "criminal activity," Mr. Truant discovered that he was being mistaken for a man living in Pennsylvania who had the same birthday and the same first and last name. Although the poster himself had never committed a crime, his name double had.
Luckily he managed to resolve this issue by disputing with the third-party company that conducted the background check. The poster managed to reach the court that had booked the offender and got documentation to show that his criminal twin had a different middle name and Social Security Number. The background check company fixed this record and the poster got the job after all.
If only the story ended there.
But the next time he applied for an apartment, his application was denied for the same reason! Although he explained the situation to the leasing company and they ran his name with more information, it didn't help, because many records simply didn't include his or his name double's middle names. After disputing the problem with the background check company, it took 24 days for the matter to be resolved. In the end, the company only removed about half of the criminal reports off his record, so he was denied the apartment again. The company said they'd remove the rest of the records if he went to court to get proof of his innocence — but the courts wouldn't play ball.
With only a month until his moving out date, Mr. Truant turned to his reddit peers for help.
Based on the response, it turns out this is not an uncommon situation.
One redditor shared their own brother's problem. The perfectly respectable brother works in the government, but he shares his name with another man who keeps getting arrested and even appears in the paper for his crimes! Every time this happens, this law-abiding government worker has to deal with a barrage of calls from both friends and creditors.
Another woman had to endure the suspension of her driver's license because of multiple traffic violations associated with her name, all thanks to a man with whom she shares the same unisex name and birthday.
And then there's the horrific story of the man who was mistaken for a kidnapper. The company he was interviewing for did a simple Google search on him and results yielded articles on a man — his namesake, obviously — who kidnapped a girl in Arkansas and was last seen in the same state where he was from! Doing their (misinformed but well-intentioned) public duty, called the cops and led them to this poor man's house. Thankfully, he offered the cops a quick Google search and found the criminal suspect's photo. When this poor man asked the company if he could reapply, he was told that they weren't interested because of "security issues."
These data-based identity problems exist because of the Birthday Paradox or Birthday Problem, which says that in a group of 23 people, there is a 50% chance that two people share the same birthday. In a group of 75, there's about a 75% chance. And so in the U.S., which has a population of more than 300 million people, there is a higher than 90% chance of someone sharing at least a birthday, and probably a first and/or last name with someone else. Unfortunately, with 12 million arrests every year in the U.S., there are pretty good odds that you might get pinged for sharing name(s) and a birthday with someone who has a criminal record.
Is a legal name change enough?
The most fool-proof way to fight this problem is to legally change names. But it's also not the easiest, most convenient, or the cheapest solution. The impact of a name change on your professional relationships and connections is a primary consideration. If you've already established a career or a professional practice with your name, rebuilding these connections and relationships under a new name can be a real struggle.
Changing to a new name also means dealing with the paperwork to change the names in old public records and documents for consistency. Mr. Truant reasoned that a name change doesn't easily make the problem go away. In his words, it's “more than just a simple form in my local courthouse.” Because he may occasionally provide his previous names and aliases in the future, he would still need to get the associated records from his criminal name twin removed from his records.
Be ready with the paperwork anytime
Mr. Truant's solution, was to go back to the third-party search company and get all the records removed, no matter how long it took. A quick talk with an attorney-general yielded a practical solution: to make sure his fixed records were stored on a cloud somewhere so he could easily pull them up as needed. Because the other person would continue to share his name, the background pings would continue. This method would at least provide some help in disputing any future criminal reports.
Another reddit user suggested sending letters to all parties involved — from the person himself/herself right down to concerned agencies — to fix their reports by properly including middle names to provide distinctive identification. A lawyer commenter agreed with the suggestion, explaining that any letter notarized by an attorney immediately gets a very different response from such agencies.
Another commenter suggested submitting a request as part of the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law that allows the public to have access to information possessed by government agencies for all incidents listed under certain names. This means reports on things like arrest reports to court records. Once these reports are in, the suggestion was to catalogue them and write a letter that explains the scenario (i.e., similarities in first and last names, but different middle names, proofs secured from courts, etc.), and keep them ready for appealing bad information during credit or background checks. The final step is a visit to the courthouse to ask for an emergency injunction against the reporting agencies and offices. The injunction will be useful in future disputes. Request immediate action so reporting agencies will act on the matter and correct the wrong information in the soonest time possible. It's one of the ways to avoid further damage to your name and reputation.
If you're in this pickle already, then this is all great advice that you can follow to improve your situation. But it also brings to light the main problem with a data-obsessed society run by many fallible humans who have limited authority over the data and don't know what everyone else is doing.
The Real Issue
Some redditors wondered, "Why can't [the background check companies] just use your social security number? That should prove you aren't the same person." And this makes sense! Why aren't these companies performing background checks and matching them with social security numbers?
Surely it's part of their work to do careful due diligence to prove whether these reports, which can amount to perjury, are actually true or not! It's unbelievable how easily these trusted background check companies confuse people and how unwilling they are to make the effort to correct the issues. Although these are businesses first, shouldn't there be a requirement that they make an effort to avoid such disputes?
The reality is that there's little regulation over the very profitable employment background check industry. In the U.S., the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) applies to accuracy in credit reports, but it's also the only help for job-seekers. The FCRA ensures that job applicants can dispute charges found on background check reports, and it stipulates that background check companies can't report arrests older than 7 years. Employers must get applicants' authorization to run checks and give a copy to the applicant before denying them a job.
But that's the extent of coverage by the law, and non-compliance with this law and harmful errors persist across the industry. Advocates have been asking the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to get involved in overseeing the industry, but so far there's no change in sight. Due to the widespread damage caused by the background check industry, some states, including California and Indiana, have started to get involved.
This is part of a much bigger issue surrounding the anonymity of data. According to IBM's Fraud Management Services Department, in today's connected economy, virtually all banking is done electronically and fewer financial institutions are personally connecting with customers. This means that to fight problems like fraud and money laundering, banks and lenders need analytic insight into their customers. Analytics can confirm identity, connections (who knows whom), and who does what in a bigger context, and put the pieces together with computers.
It seems that the answer to the errors in data reporting is to improve data analysis, to use smart computer programming to fix old-fashioned computing and human glitches. But clearly this will have little effect as long as there is an insufficient legal framework to support the people bouncing around within the system.