Innocent 'felon': Background check gave false info
KEVIN HUTCHINSON openly admits that he pleaded guilty in 2002 to misdemeanor charges of simple assault, harassment and related offenses for fighting with his ex's new boyfriend.
"I know what I did was wrong," said Hutchinson, a William Penn High and Thompson Institute grad. "It's the first and only time I've ever been in trouble. It was a dark time in my life, and I put myself through a lot of unnecessary nonsense."
Hutchinson, 32, of North Philadelphia, even put it on his job application in September at GameStop, a video-game store at 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia. So he was stunned when, after a month of employment, his manager called him into his office Oct. 19 and asked if anything was on his record that he hadn't disclosed.
"He said, 'If there was, would you be surprised?' " Hutchinson recalled. "I told him I'd be shocked, and a few minutes later, they fired me for nondisclosure of information."
Through no fault of his own, Hutchinson had fallen victim to what some experts say is a disturbing consequence of background checks - erroneous information gathered by careless or unscrupulous data brokers.
Hutchinson said he repeatedly asked whether he was being fired for the 2002 charges. He said his manager emphatically told him, "No," but refused to tell him why he was being fired. Hutchinson said he never received a copy of his background check or a termination letter from GameStop.
A job sought at Walmart
About the same time, Hutchinson had an interview for an overnight-manager position at a suburban Walmart. After being out of steady work for more than a year, he had planned to work both jobs.
He gave the company permission to do a complete background check and disclosed in writing his misdemeanor convictions, he said.
A week later, Walmart sent him a denial letter and a copy of his background check conducted by General Information Services, a background-screening company based in South Carolina.
That background check said Hutchinson had been convicted in 1996 of felony cocaine possession in Gloucester County, Va., and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
"I have never even been to Gloucester County, Va.," Hutchinson said. "Back then, I was still in high school."
After receiving the report, Hutchinson said, he called GIS to dispute the information.
More than two weeks later, the company cleared his criminal-background check of the false felony-cocaine charge, according to GIS records he received.
On his own, Hutchinson had his fingerprints taken at the Pennsylvania State Police's Belmont Barracks and sent them to the Virginia State Police to demonstrate that he was not the man on their records, he said.
"GIS said they dealt with it, but I didn't want to leave any stone unturned," he said.
It was too late for employment at Walmart, where Hutchinson had been red-flagged not only for the false cocaine charge but also for his legitimate misdemeanors, he said.
And GameStop, where Hutchinson said the bosses knew about his misdemeanors when they hired him, refused to hire him back after the felony-cocaine charge was cleared.
"They told me I had to reapply to see if I could get another position with the company," he said. "Why should I have to reapply when you let me go off of false pretenses? You didn't even give me a chance to explain."
The Daily News was unable to confirm that GIS was the company that also conducted Hutchinson's criminal-background check for GameStop. A GIS spokesman said he could not disclose clients' names, and a GameStop corporate spokesman said in an e-mail that the company "does not provide public comment on employment matters."
Hutchinson, however, said a GIS representative told him by phone that the company also had conducted his GameStop background check. Hutchinson added that GameStop's human-resources department confirmed that they had used GIS.
Unemployment in jeopardy
Meanwhile, GameStop also is trying to appeal Hutchinson's unemployment benefits.
In a Dec. 3 letter to Pennsylvania unemployment-compensation authorities, a cost-management agency contracted by GameStop wrote that Hutchinson had been "discharged for falsification of his application. He did not list on his application a felony for drug possession and distributing."
Now, Hutchinson, who has not had steady work since April 2009, wonders how many other jobs for which he applied turned him down because of the inaccurate background check.
"I've applied for many different positions," he said. "God only knows how many positions I applied to and they saw this mistake and it got read over and over and over."
Unfortunately, to Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., Hutchinson's is a familiar story.
"Background checks are pretty routine now, even for positions that don't require trust that they manage money or things of value," she said. "There's no way to know that the error rates are not off the charts."
Chris Lemens, general counsel for GIS, said the company has "fewer than two errors in 10,000" cases. He declined to say how many cases GIS completes in a day or a month.
And the "two errors," he said, are cases in which people received copies of their criminal-background checks from prospective employers and disputed them themselves.
'There may be thousands'
Coney said many people may never know about an inaccurate background check, especially if an employer never gave them a copy. If a person never got a job, he or she simply may have assumed that someone else was more qualified, she said.
"For every one person you hear this happens to, there may be thousands of people who don't know this happens," she said.
"This the worst-case scenario because you're not going to be brought to trial to argue your innocence because you've already been found guilty and you don't even know it."
Lemens, who said he was prohibited from speaking about specific cases, said GIS' background checks are not guaranteed accurate.
"Of course not," he said. "You know when you see in the movies there's some kind of instantaneous universal background check performed? There is nothing like that. This is a process performed by humans. . . . Whenever there is a human element, there could be inaccuracies."
Lemens said the company has run into situations in which court records are inaccurate or "even made up."
"We, of course, can't make sure the public records are accurate," he said.
That's part of the problem with data brokers, Coney said. "They know the documents they are getting have errors, but it does not stop them from using [them]," she said.
"The core foundation of their business is telling their customers how many bad people they know about. They are not into telling someone what a wonderful person this is, because they don't want to be held accountable if something goes wrong."
Coney said the only way to manage the unregulated data-broker industry is to make it transparent and allow people to view their backgrounds regularly, as they can with their credit scores.
"Individuals are the only ones who are going to know if the information is accurate," she said.
No one is held accountable when a bad background report is produced and sent to an employer, Coney said.
"The problem is they are not getting penalized for doing this, so they keep using bad data practices," she said. "They are vilifying the names of the people who have no idea their names are even out there."
For Kevin Hutchinson, the problems persist.
"I don't want to be out of work," he said yesterday. "I wanted to work, I wanted to collect a paycheck, I wanted to work two jobs at one time. . . .
"Overall, it really has put my back against a wall, and the worst thing about it is it wasn't of my doing. I actually wish that some people in higher places could hear my story and see that some people actually do want to work."