The cottage industry of data-collection agencies that provide inexpensive background information is flourishing even in this tough economy. Many prospective employers with tight budgets believe they can save money by relying on the “national” records that are spewed out within minutes of entering a credit card number. So just what do you get for $19.99? Not much. Or a lot…a lot of worthless data, that is. Unverified name-match only records come up by the hundreds if the name is fairly common. And it is nearly impossible to determine case details or duplicate filings, as the cryptic printouts often require specialized knowledge that is specific to each state, municipality or records venue.

Many subjects who are flagged as criminals in these databases have never been convicted of a crime. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics for felony defendants in large urban counties, one-third of felony arrests never lead to a conviction. And there is no standardized process for reporting arrests and dispositions or updating the records at the various court levels. Some reported offenses are not actually violations of the criminal code in the particular state, but may still show up in these databases.

There are few regulations governing the use of background information beyond the provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does not mandate that data aggregators provide guidance on how to properly interpret their records. The only possible value of these so-called national databases is to serve as an indicator that a record may exist, and use the search results to supplement a full investigation. Since the FCRA requires that all “reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information are followed” and that “the information is complete and up-to-date,” searches for employment purposes must be conducted either manually or through direct access in the particular court where the record is filed.

Employment experts at a July 2011 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearing urged the Commission to consider the comprehensive recommendations put forth by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in its report on the effect of criminal background checks in employment decisions. Among its recommendations, the NELP suggested that the EEOC revise its now 20-year-old guide on conviction records in view of the “intervening proliferation of instant computerized background information…” The EEOC should also address the “use of arrest records and third-party databases that are considered a part of the hiring process.”