We Got Screwed: A criminal with a clean background check! How can this be?

It was just reported yesterday that the New Horizons Medical Institue in Athens, GA hired a convicted felon, who fleeced them for $55,000.

Wendy Steen Fischer was on parole from a 2009 conviction on charges she embezzled about $250,000 from two Athens medical practices, but officials at New Horizons Medical Institute were unaware of her rap sheet when they hired her in 2012.

They subjected Fischer to a nationwide criminal background check. Despite extensive national and local media coverage over the past couple years describing the risks associated with criminal database searches, this is what they relied on for Wendy’s background check, which came back “clean.”

In 2011, ABC News ran a segment that shined a light on criminal databases.

Last April, the National Consumer Law Center issued a report called Broken Records, which brought greater public attention to the use of criminal databases and why they are unreliable for hiring decisions. This study was covered in several newspapers around the country.

Last November, the Today Show ran a full featured segment describing the problems associated with criminal databases.

Around that same time, a related article ran in USA Today.

And numerous, reputable background screening companies have blogged extensively about this issue.

With so much national and local media coverage, extensive blogging and other credible information sources on this issue, it’s hard to believe that so many companies are still relying on criminal database searches for their hiring decisions.

Giving companies the benefit of the doubt, we will cover this issue again. If you think any of your peers may be in the dark on this issue, we encourage you to share this blog with them so they can make safe, responsible hiring decisions in the future.

Nationwide criminal databases, which go by names like “National Sweep” or “Nationwide Review” or “NationScreen” or “Criminal SuperSearch” are privately owned databases that contain public records. Access to a database search is extremely affordable and the results come back instantly, which makes this search seem desirable.

However, consider this: all state and local level felony and misdemeanor crimes are prosecuted at the county level and the original, complete criminal record is stored at the county level.

Many counties upload their criminal records to privately owned public databases, but many do not. The fact is, there are no laws or regulations requiring counties to upload records to a database and if they do upload records, there are no laws or regulations requiring how frequently they do so.

Moreover, a county may not upload its records to a database, but it may share its records with the department of corrections, state police or other agencies, and one of these agencies may upload records to privately owned databases. In some cases, when the records are shared among agencies and ultimately uploaded to a database, they data may have been corrupted from extensive handling and multiple file transfers, resulting in a partial record or a completely inaccurate record.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that criminal records are filed by name and date of birth. Contrary to popular belief, criminal records are not filed by social security number.

With millions of people in America sharing the same name and date of birth, and with millions of others falling victim to identity theft, it’s quite common that a criminal database record will implicate the wrong person – especially if the data has somehow been corrupted.

In most cases, this all holds true for statewide criminal databases as well.

The safest approach is to run an address history search and then run a county criminal search in the counties where the person has lived. A county criminal search is conducted by a court researcher, who goes to the courthouse to obtain the record.

A criminal database search should ONLY be used as a pre-screening tool. This means, if you have a database search included in your background screening package and it reveals a criminal record, you should absolutely, unconditionally verify the accuracy by ordering the record from the originating court.

Likewise, if you rely solely on a criminal database search for background checks, there is a very good chance that someone with a criminal record may not show up in this search and you will get stung.

The bottom line here is that making hiring decisions based on criminal database searches will greatly increase your company’s exposure to direct harm, legal challenges and reputation problems. This is precisely what happened to New Horizons Medical Institute.

Don’t let this happen to your company too.

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