Theron Carter, a 61-year-old unemployed truck driver in Middleville, Mich., is waiting for his name to be cleared in a database used widely in the transportation business. In May, 2006, a U.S. Labor Dept. administrative law judge ruled that Carter was wrongly terminated by Marten Transport (MRTN) for making legitimate complaints about the safety of his 18-wheel truck. He had hauled loads for the Mondovi (Wis.) company for only two weeks before being fired in June, 2005. The judge awarded him more than $31,000 in damages and back pay and ordered Marten Transport to delete "any unfavorable work record information" in a report compiled by USIS, a large screening company in Falls Church, Va.
Despite his legal victory, Carter's DAC report still says Marten Transport dismissed him for "excessive complaints" and a "company policy violation." "No one will hire me," says Carter, who withdrew $50,000 from retirement savings to support his wife and himself. Trucking company J.B. Hunt Transport Services (JBHT) "told me I had excessive complaints and wouldn't hire me. I told them I won my case." Hunt declines to comment.
You might be wondering what kind of assurances there are that people aren't deliberately putting false information out about you. Well, there are none.
Kristen Turley, director of market development and communications at USIS' commercial-services unit in Tulsa, concedes that no system is immune to mistakes and misuse. "There is a chance somebody who holds a grudge will put negative information in the database," she says. "We are not trying to blackball drivers or ruin their chance to get a job." When a driver disputes a background report, USIS asks its sources for proof supporting negative comments, she says. USIS doesn't seek such evidence up front. "Ideally that would be a good solution," Turley says, but it could dissuade past employers from submitting information in the first place.
What about federal oversight and accountability? Well, no luck there either.
The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act covers background screeners, but it hasn't been aggressively enforced. The law says screeners must use "reasonable procedures" to ensure "maximum possible accuracy." It also requires employers to give a copy of background reports to rejected applicants. An applicant can dispute the information, but the Federal Trade Commission has said employers must wait only five business days before hiring someone else, meaning that objections frequently become moot. Lately the agency has focused more on identity theft than on screening, Rebecca Kuehn, assistant director for privacy and identity protection, says.
The ACLU isn't very impressed with ChoicePoint, among others.
First, these companies have gone into the business of compiling detailed information on you without your knowledge or permission, and then spreading around to others. This behavior, which according to most Americans' lights qualifies as rude and wrong, at a minimum imposes a responsibility on these companies to treat that information about people's lives with care. Yet these companies have long been known to be extremely careless and sloppy with the facts of individuals' lives - doing unmeasured harm to uncounted individuals. Individuals who have obtained their ChoicePoint records have found them to be riddled with wild inaccuracies - including children that were never born, marriages that never took place, addresses where they never lived, neighbors they never had - and crimes they never committed.
Well, this is one of those situations where there is very little you can do for yourself unless you happen to have access to a lawyer. ChoicePoint, even when they find out information is wrong, has little or no incentive to change it. Their customers are the businesses who use the information, not the people who they are reporting on. The gathering of information is as unbalanced as it can be, as it comes from sources that may be openly hostile to you. I'd hate to think what would happen if you had gotten your boss in trouble for doing something wrong and ChoicePoint called them about you later. Well, actually based on the story of Theron Carter I guess we do know what would happen.
Somehow, legislators have missed the fact that personal information has become increasingly valuable as it is increasingly available. Your credit record not only determines interest on loans you may get in the future or the rent you get on an apartment or the terms you're offered on a car, employers look at that stuff now to determine if you're a worthy investment. And yet most of us have a few dings on our credit reports. We don't need the hindrance of false or misleading information on personal background reports. Not only is it plainly irresponsible of these companies to gather such information without fact-checking first, it should be illegal for employers to acquire any information about you not directly related to your employment. We all agree that child molesters shouldn't work with children, but your credit report shouldn't be a determining factor in your employment. And any negative information should only be passed on if there is indisputable proof to back it up. Sadly, we won't be seeing any restraints put on these companies any time soon.