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Who is checking the background checkers?

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For many clients, says Ms. Poquette, the numbers speak for themselves. For the first half of this year, 8.3 percent of job applications examined by InfoLink Screening Services in Chattsworth, Calif., revealed some kind of criminal record. (InfoLink merely reports its findings; it does not compare its findings with what someone stated on an application.)

"This is a really amazing figure when you consider that people knew they were going to have a background check," says InfoLink president Barry Nadell. Routine screening of 1,600 volunteers for the Los Angeles County Fair turned up at least three registered sex offenders.

InfoLink's recommended search is four-pronged. First, it checks court records in each county where the job applicant lived, going back at least seven years. Next, the company runs a motor vehicle report, which can uncover convictions the applicant may not have reported. A Social Security number check helps verify the subject's identity, past residences, and possible aliases. The applicant's name may also be run through other records, including incarceration listings, sex-offender lists, and court records.

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."

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.

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