Check Your Personal Data Before Your Employer Does

Illustration: Harry Campbell
In this database-driven world of ours, our personal details are stashed away in countless places, ready to be retrieved by people who want to sell to us, lend to us, insure us, or hire us. This information is critical to our livelihoods, so knowing who has it and whether it's correct is important.

A recent BusinessWeek article detailed a number of examples where the data gathered by information brokers conducting background checks on prospective or current employees was incorrect, or at least disputed, and cost people jobs. Thankfully, you can examine some of your records ahead of time, as you can (and should) do with your credit report, to make sure no surprises pop up when someone checks them.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires companies that store background information to give you access to your data when you request it--a rule that is much the same as with credit reports. But while you have only three credit-history companies to check, many more information brokerages exist. And unfortunately, you have no one-stop shop where you can collect your data from all of them (as you do for credit reports).

ChoicePoint is one of the better-known companies in the data-collection business, so if you want to check your information it's a good idea to start with that firm. At ChoicePoint you'll find a "Full File Disclosure Request Form" to send to the company to obtain, for free, the data it might have stored about you in insurance claims, retail theft reports, and other databases it maintains. If the company has performed a previous background check on you, you'll also see the results of that check. If you discover anything out of place, contact ChoicePoint to start the correction process.

One catch: You can receive only the data that a company stores in its own databases. Typically, for a background check purchased by a potential employer, ChoicePoint also retrieves information from other sources, such as your college, at the time it performs the check. And other companies, such as Kroll, don't maintain any data stores of their own but instead retrieve information from courthouses, universities, and other sources.

Companies don't have to conduct such research for you for free. If you want to find out what a prospective employer might get from that kind of data-gathering process, you'll have to pay for your own full background check, which starts at around $50.

By law, any employer must obtain your permission to conduct a background check on you. And if the employer uncovers something damaging that might deny you a job or lead to your being fired from your current one, it has to tell you what it learned, and from which data-collection company.

If that data contains a mistake--and mistakes do occur--you can dispute it with the background-check company, and the firm must look into it within 30 days. ChoicePoint says that it will remove data it can't verify from its own databases; but if another party, such as a courthouse, holds the disputed record, you'll have to correct it with that original source. You can also add a note for anything that's true but warrants explanation.

If your current employer performs background checks, find out what company it uses and try to request the data before it does. And if you know you'll be applying to a particular employer, give its HR department a ring to ask the same questions.

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