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More people are running background checks. On themselves.
Used to be, the best way to pry into someone's past was to hire a gumshoe. However, today everyone from prospective employers to identity thieves -- and even first dates -- can do surprisingly sophisticated searches, looking for skeletons in your closet.
Schools, too, are dialing up their snooping. Wharton and Columbia Business schools are using investigators to weed out fibs and padded resumes. Harvard recently added a former professional screener to its undergraduate admissions staff.
In the past few years, 47 states, including Connecticut, Missouri, Nevada and Pennsylvania, have released records from some courts online, with case files ranging from gun possession to littering violations. Specialist companies like ChoicePoint Inc. and Reed Elsevier PLC's LexisNexis Group quickly mine and sell information like this to companies for a fee.
Just Googling yourself isn't sufficient to spot problems. As a result, an array of new services have cropped up in recent months that claim to help you pre-emptively check if your personal and financial data are inaccurate or exposed to abuse.
Some services from identity-theft-protection firms TrustedID Inc. and MyPublicInfo Inc. check for unauthorized use of your Social Security number, a growing problem as undocumented immigrants and others seek employment or benefits such as medical care.
Recently, "one woman had 250 W-4s submitted to the IRS under her name and Social Security number," says Troy Allen of Kroll Fraud Solutions, a Marsh & McLennan Cos. unit that helps victims of identity theft restore their good names.
LexisNexis and ChoicePoint have also rolled out consumer versions of their services, including a personal-records profile and pre-employment self-check. The services cost from less than $10 to about $50.
One of the latest entrants, ReputationDefender Inc., recently began marketing an online service that claims it can sometimes help remove or bury negative or embarrassing Web postings. (Think of everything from lampshade-on-head photos to unflattering blog entries lurking online somewhere.)
It's impossible to know how many errors are contained in background checks. However, a 2004 study by U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that 79% of consumer-credit reports contained at least one mistake.
A factual error in a criminal-background check nearly cost Bobby McMeekin Jr., 27 years old, a better job as a supervisor at a bank call center when it turned up a felony drunk-driving conviction that didn't belong to him. "You can't have any kind of a conviction to work in a bank right now," the Lubbock, Texas, resident says.
The problem: The screening agency had confused Mr. McMeekin with a convicted man who shared his surname. After pulling the conviction records himself, Mr. McMeekin got a letter from the court to prove it, and got the job.
Because of concerns about everything from terrorism and illegal immigration to workplace violence, background checks have become commonplace. The percentage of employers who say they routinely check references and screen candidates has jumped to about 96% from 51% about a decade ago, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
Most employers hire a background-screening agency like ChoicePoint to do their sleuthing, for which federal law requires that they get your written consent. You can refuse, but you'll probably lose your shot at the job.
The first step in running a background check on yourself: Order your credit report. These are from major credit-reporting agencies Equifax, TransUnion and Experian and can be obtained from www.annualcreditreport.com or 1-877-322-8228.
Check for unauthorized credit-card accounts and loans, bad addresses and unfamiliar names that could be evidence of identity theft. Notify the agencies and creditors if anything seems amiss.
The good news: Background reports prepared by agencies like these are regulated by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. As a result, you're supposed to be notified of the reason if a negative report results in a missed opportunity, giving you a chance to correct mistakes.
You can also check if anyone else has been using your Social Security number by reviewing your annual Social Security earnings statement that you should receive in the mail. Or get a copy at www.ssa.gov. Mysterious earnings could be evidence that someone else is working under your Social Security number.
StolenIDSearch.com, a new free service from TrustedID, lets you find out whether your Social Security or credit-card numbers are among some 2.3 million compromised pieces of identification in its database, which it obtains from organizations that compile lists of numbers recovered in fraud investigations.
Still, that database represents just a fraction of the estimated 150 million identities that have been compromised in data breaches in the U.S., including from hacking incidents and records thefts. In one of the latest incidents, the Agriculture Department recently learned that thousands of participants in department programs had had their Social Security numbers posted in a public database. The department Friday said it had removed the numbers.
IdentitySweep.com, a product of MyPublicInfo, charges $4.95 a month to monitor public records to see if your Social Security number turns up attached to someone else's name. For $6.95 a month, you also get identity-theft insurance, which promises to reimburse as much as $25,000 in expenses connected with recovering from an incident.
Under a 2004 federal law, consumers are entitled to a free annual public-records search from Acxiom Corp., ChoicePoint, LexisNexis and other reporting agencies. The records include lien searches, bankruptcy judgments, real-estate ownership records, insurance information, professional licenses and other government data.
The companies warn that they can't always correct the information supplied -- you have to contact the sources to do that. For a free report, go to www.ChoiceTrust.com for information. Contact LexisNexis at 1-877-913-6245. And Acxiom, which provides material to people only when a background search has also been ordered by a corporate client, is at 1-888-3ACXIOM.
ChoicePoint also sells a consumer version of its more extensive background reports for prices ranging from $9.95 to $49.95. The premium-priced report includes a county and national criminal file search, and employment or education verification.
MyPublicInfo.com provides a similar Public Information Profile for $79.95. Criminal records aren't comprehensive because some state and local courts may not be included. Kroll's background-screening division sells self-checks for $50 to $100.
For $8, LexisNexis sells its Accurint Person Report, which compiles information from public and private databases under your name, including motor-vehicle registration information.
Among the toughest problems to fix can be unflattering online postings. Even just a few years ago, no one would have worried about it. But the fact is, they can linger in cyberspace forever. ReputationDefender.com is designed to scour the Web for unflattering material about you, then will try to either have it removed or make it show up less prominently in search results.
Sue Scheff runs a Florida referral service for parents with troubled teenagers. But when a woman posted hundreds of defamatory statements on the Web about Ms. Scheff, she successfully sued for $11.3 million. She then hired ReputationDefender, which managed to bury most of the worst postings by generating more activity for positive mentions of Ms. Scheff's business. "It was a lifesaver," she says.
Another option, particularly for someone with a high income and/or a high-profile position, would be to hire a private investigator or a professional screening firm, such as Kroll or LexisNexis Screening Solutions, to do the work. Executive-level type screenings from Kroll begin at $3,000.
The National Association of Professional Background Screeners, a trade organization, has a list of members on its Web site at www.napbs.com. Some are private eyes who can go to courts in jurisdictions where you have lived and pull the files. They can also help you get your medical records from the insurance industry, and interview friends and associates.
All of the providers say they require some proof of identity before releasing the reports.
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