Negative Information on Background Checks
For four long years, Bronti Kelly couldn’t figure out why no one wanted to hire him. He handed department store managers across southern California a résumé full of sales experience, but was rejected hundreds of times. Those rare times when he got a job, he would be fired within days.
Along the way, Kelly filed for bankruptcy, lost his apartment, and became homeless. “For years as this went on, I blamed myself — for not being hired for employment, the conditions I went through,” Kelly says.
But Kelly’s self-blame turned to anger when he finally learned the real cause of much of his trouble: A man had given Kelly’s identity to authorities when arrested for shoplifting and other crimes, and the tainted profile found its way into a range of computer databases used in background checks by employers.
Kelly’s plight illuminates the growing threats to privacy in an age of ever- easier computer access to public information. An inaccurate black mark left on a person’s profile can be duplicated again and again without the victim’s knowledge. The personal details are easily and cheaply obtainable — and open to abuse by crooks trying to dodge the law or make a buck.
It used to be that to get background information you had to trek down to a courthouse, ask the clerk to direct you to the proper records, and thumb through musty files. For another type of information, you had to visit yet another government agency.
But in recent years, more and more information vendors have signed deals with governments and businesses for computer access that enables them to compile virtual dossiers on Americans — from Social Security numbers to shopping preferences.
Crooks no longer have to look for crumpled credit card carbons to steal a person’s account number. Now, for nominal fees, personal details such as Social Security numbers can be found over the Internet and used to create a whole new identity for opening an account — and sticking the fraud victim with the bills.
Consumers Union in San Francisco found that half of credit-bureau reports surveyed in 1991 contained errors, about 20 percent of which were big enough to prevent an individual from buying a home or a car.
“The information age permits the exchange of data so quickly with so few safeguards, that you really become a victim before you know it,” says Edward Howard, head of the Los Angeles–based Center for Law in the Public Interest. “Not only do you become a victim, you’re constantly behind the power curve when you’re trying to clean it up.”
Bronti Wayne Kelly, now 33, hardly foresaw the cyber-nightmare that would grow from what seemed an old-fashioned wallet-snatching in May 1990. He reported to police his wallet only contained $4, along with his driver’s license, Social Security card, and military I.D. for the air force base in southern California where he served as a reservist.
But seven months later, Kelly, a salesman in the Robinson-May department store in Riverside, was ushered into the personnel director’s office and told he had been caught shoplifting by security guards in another Robinson’s.
Kelly produced a letter from his air force commanding officer saying that Kelly was on duty when the crime occurred, but he was fired anyway. He says he was equally confounded by the blur of job rejections that followed, usually with no explanation.
For two years he held on. Kelly’s work as a mechanic at the local air force base earned him about $700 a month. But in June 1993, the six-year reserve stint was up.
With no job in sight, Kelly filed for bankruptcy to stave off bill collectors. He was evicted from his apartment in San Bernardino, California.
Kelly stayed with friends until he wore out his welcome. He turned to sleeping in his car, then the streets, using public parking garages downtown to shield him from the elements.
He tried to keep clean using a pool shower at his old apartment complex. He applied for food stamps and welfare but was rejected because he had no residence or mailing address.
He finally landed a job selling clothes at Harris department store in nearby Riverside, but the day before his first day of work he was told that his services were not needed.
Kelly, crying at the news, tried to find out why. The personnel manager told him to contact Stores Protective Association, which exchanges information about employees with more than 100 member retail chains.
Kelly wrote to SPA, and received a written explanation in January 1995, pegging him for the same shoplifting offense he thought had been purged from the records four years earlier.
“I couldn’t believe the information was still on file,” Kelly says. “I had never even heard of [SPA] before.”
But the vast majority of employers Kelly had applied to were members of SPA. It took until the next month for the association to remove the false information from its files on Kelly, and then only after a local television station reported his woes.
A lawyer for SPA, which Kelly is suing in a defamation lawsuit that also names Robinson-May’s parent, said that Kelly had never given evidence other than his own statement that he was not the shoplifter. Kelly is seeking unspecified damages and a public apology from Robinson-May.
Kelly’s problem was far more complicated than he suspected. When Kelly contacted the Los Angeles Police Department to try to straighten things out, he discovered that its records showed he had been arrested five years earlier not only for shoplifting, but for burglary and arson as well.
Kelly submitted his fingerprints to prove to authorities that he was not the accused culprit, that instead the miscreant was another white male who had given Kelly’s identity to police. The police gave Kelly a “Certificate of Clearance,” which states that the police had determined that Kelly was not the person arrested.
However, Kelly’s identity remains in police files, even though the most serious charges against the impersonator had been dismissed shortly after his arrest in July 1990. Los Angeles police officials say they need the charges on record in case the impostor is arrested for other crimes.
After SPA removed Kelly’s name from its files, he was still rejected from another 50 jobs, and he is still wondering why. One possibility is that the incorrect information continues to haunt him.
The problem was spelled out last month after The Associated Press hired an information search company to conduct a search of Kelly’s background.
AP simply gave Forefront, a subcontractor to Informus Corp., Kelly’s name, Social Security number, and a $124 check to search state court records in three counties in southern California.
The search came back showing that Kelly had been arrested in July 1990 for arson, theft, and disturbing the peace.
But Kelly no longer has to worry. Seven years after his wallet was stolen, he has stopped seeking work among strangers. Today, he is employed part-time cleaning pools in a family business, and shares an apartment in Temecula, near San Diego, with a roommate who has helped him out financially.
Trying to rebuild his self-image, Kelly carries his police certificate clearing him of crimes wherever he goes. One look in the mirror confirms it was not he who dragged down his life.
Says Kelly: “A part of me feels very proud.” But just to be sure, he is thinking of changing his name.
Bad things can happen to good people — and do. As a prospective employer or a background investigator you should immediately present any negative information you have discovered to the party being investigated. On one occasion — one among many for us — investigation showed that a Mr. Ragsdale, a slight man who was the president of a medical company, appeared in public records stating that he had physically assaulted 22 people in one night in a bar in Oceanside, California. “Mr. Ragsdale literally mopped the floor with some of his victims,” the report said. When we confronted Mr. Ragsdale with this information, he laughed and asked to see the report. Then he pointed out that the physical description of the bar brawler showed him to be six inches taller and twice Mr. Ragsdale’s weight. It turned out that the brawling Ragsdale was an ex-marine who did not like sailors and mopped up a bar full of them to prove his point.
So what should you do if you come up with negative information in a background search? Present the negative information as soon as you can and allow the person to respond. If he can clear up the problem, it is good for both of you.
It is important in doing background investigations that we keep in mind the increasingly common practice of stealing complete identities so that the miscreant can open credit-card accounts, buy or sell real estate, and commit criminal acts — all in the name of another. In fact, it has reached the point that some insurance companies now issue coverage for “theft of identity.” It is our job in this and all other areas of due diligence to bring the truth to light, not add to the problem by allowing our clients to make a wrong decision based on bad information.