Surviving the data blame game

Michelle Singletary
Columnist July 30, 2013

The health of our economy relies on people finding and keeping jobs. If there are electronic-record systems that are preventing qualified people from getting hired or staying employed, they need to be fixed.

That’s why it’s important to take note of a report from the National Employment Law Project, which estimates that 1.8 million workers every year are subjected to FBI background checks that contain incorrect or incomplete information.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

“As millions of workers struggle to navigate a still-challenging job market, the FBI must avoid creating wrongful barriers that cause unnecessary job loss and financial harm,” the report’s authors wrote. “The FBI is more than a mere receptacle of information; the imprimatur of the FBI marks the records as authoritative and trustworthy.”

Data collection is a fact of life. But when that data is wrong or out of date, it’s often up to the individual to get things straightened out. So when it comes to our electronic records, we can be found guilty until we prove ourselves innocent. In the time it takes to clear our names, it can cost us money, a loan or a job.

When credit bureaus are criticized for errors in people’s credit files, they often shift the blame to the creditors for providing them with incomplete or inaccurate information. “No, not my fault,” they say. “We didn’t generate the incorrect information, we just collect it.” Yet they still get paid to pass it along, whether it’s right or wrong.

The information in your credit reports is used to create credit scores, which can affect your ability to get a credit card, a home loan, an apartment or even a job. Just recently, a federal jury awarded an Oregon woman more than $18 million after she sued the credit bureau Equifax for failing to correct major errors in her file. A Federal Trade Commission study released earlier this year found that 26 percent of the 1,001 participants surveyed identified at least one potentially material error, such as a late or missed payment. When information was successfully disputed and modified, 13 percent of participants saw a change in their credit scores.

The bureaus looked at the positive side of their error rate, that the vast majority of files don’t contain mistakes. However, even small percentages with errors can translate to hundreds of thousands of people affected.

About 17 million FBI background checks were conducted for employment and licensing purposes last year, six times the number conducted a decade ago, according to the National Employment Law Project.

In 2006, a report by the U.S. attorney general found that the FBI’s Interstate Identification Index system, from which background reports are created, fails to include final disposition information for about 50 percent of its records.

Many employers are required by federal, state or local laws to obtain FBI background checks. Access to FBI-maintained criminal history information is governed by a patchwork of state and federal statutes, the AG report said. The checks are processed through state record repositories. The point is to screen out people or evaluate the risk of hiring folks who aren’t suitable to work in certain positions in the interest of protecting employees and the public. Yet, the interests of the job applicants or current employees subjected to background checks that turn out to be flawed need to be protected as well.

“Individuals who do have a criminal record want reasonable assurance that the information is accurate and complete, that they have a meaningful opportunity to see the information and correct any inaccuracies, and that the information is used fairly in the screening process and does not unfairly exclude them from employment opportunities when they are otherwise qualified for a position,” the AG report said.

The FBI said it works with states to pull the criminal information. But the agency says the states are primarily responsible for ensuring a record is accurate and complete.

Enough of the bureaucracy, we are talking about people’s livelihoods here. I agree with the National Employment Law Project that both the states and the FBI should be held accountable for the accuracy of the information.

If there is an update on a file, it should be included in whatever information is ultimately given to employers. It’s not enough to say an individual has a right to correct bad information. It’s often too late by then. With so many job applicants, employers will just move on to someone else.

Companies and government agencies need to stop passing the buck on this issue.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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