Thursday, November 02, 2006

Background Checks for Everyone

Here’s a fun thing to do …

Go to and do a “people search” under your own name. You will find the results quite interesting.

You will, for instance, see a listing of all the towns you have lived in over the past 20 years. You will also see a listing of relatives of yours. Most of these names will be unfamiliar to you. The search is not perfect, but it works just well enough that you will likely recognize a few names, such as ex-spouses.

After doing a people search on yourself, you will also find it interesting to do one on other people: your boss, your friends, your next-door neighbor, Hollywood celebrities. Everyone is included. I discovered that even my maternal grandmother, who has been deceased for over 20 years, is included. Also, if I wanted to, and had fifty dollars to spend, I could run a complete background check on her—or you, for that matter.

The background check yields all sorts of information, some of it inaccurate, but most of it quite accurate. Anyone with enough credit on their Visa card can find out your place of residence, your phone number, details about property you own, whether or not you’ve ever been to small claims court, filed bankruptcy, or been convicted of a crime. Information

All this, therefore quite legal to distribute. And yet, there is something about collecting and selling it in this manner is very unsettling.

Does your next-door neighbor really need to know about the DWI conviction you received several years ago? You’ve moved on with your life, paid your debt to society, learned from the mistake, etc. What good, then, will come from placing this information in the hands of your neighbor?

A tv commercial for Intelius promotes the service as providing a means for women to screen out potential boyfriends with a history of violence. This seems reasonable enough on the surface. However, I see a tremendous potential for abuse. A jealous co-worker, for instance, could run a background check on you and anonymously distribute it to everyone in the office. Or, a vindictive ex-spouse could make the same information available to everyone you know—your friends, neighbors, members of your church, the PTA.

Background checks have their place. Child care workers should be screened for past sex offenses, bus drivers should be screened for DWIs, cops should have a clean record, etc. But most jobs should not require them, and they should never be done without your knowledge and permission. It may be a matter of public record where you live, or if you’ve been busted for pot or received a tax lien, or who your “associates” are, but it’s still your business and not the business of your next-door neighbor, or anyone with a credit card.