SAN FRANCISCO -- A clerical error landed Kathleen Casey on the streets.
Out of work two years, her unemployment benefits exhausted, in danger of losing her apartment, Casey applied for a job in the pharmacy of a Boston drugstore. She was offered $11 an hour. All she had to do was pass a background check.
It turned up a 14-count criminal indictment. Kathleen Casey had been charged with larceny in a scam against an elderly man and woman that involved forged checks and fake credit cards.
There was one technicality: The company that ran the background check, First Advantage, had the wrong woman. The rap sheet belonged to Kathleen A. Casey, who lived in another town nearby and was 18 years younger.
Kathleen Ann Casey, would-be pharmacy technician, was clean.
"It knocked my legs out from under me," she said.
The business of background checks is booming. Employers spend at least $2 billion a year to look into the pasts of their prospective employees. They want to make sure they're not hiring a thief, or worse.
But it is a system weakened by the conversion to digital files and compromised by the welter of private companies that profit by amassing public records and selling them to employers. These flaws have devastating consequences.
ERRORS GO UNCHECKED
It is a system in which the most sensitive information from people's pasts is bought and sold as a commodity.
A system in which computers scrape the public files of court systems around the country to retrieve personal data. But a system in which what they retrieve isn't checked for errors that would be obvious to human eyes.
A system that can damage reputations and, in a time of precious few job opportunities, rob honest workers of a chance at a new start. And a system that can leave the Kathleen Caseys of the world -- the innocent ones -- living in a car.
Those are the results of an investigation by The Associated Press that included a review of thousands of pages of court filings and interviews with dozens of court officials, data providers, lawyers, victims and regulators.
"It's an entirely new frontier," said Leonard Bennett, a Virginia lawyer who has represented hundreds of plaintiffs alleging they were the victims of inaccurate background checks. "They're making it up as they go along."
Two decades ago, if a county wanted to update someone's criminal record, a clerk had to put a piece of paper in a file. And if you wanted to read about someone's criminal past, you had to walk into a courthouse and thumb through it. Today, half the courts in the United States put criminal records on their public websites.
Digitization was supposed to make criminal records easier to access and easier to update. To protect privacy, laws were passed requiring courts to redact some information, such as birth dates and Social Security numbers, before they put records online. But digitization perpetuates errors.
"There's very little human judgment," said Sharon Dietrich, an attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, a law firm focused on poorer clients. Dietrich represents victims of inaccurate background checks. "They don't seem to have much incentive to get it right."
Dietrich said her firm fields about twice as many complaints about inaccurate background checks as it did five years ago.
The mix-ups can start with a mistake entered into the logs of a law enforcement agency or a court file. The biggest culprits, though, are companies that compile databases using public information.
In some instances, their automated formulas misinterpret the information provided them. Other times, as Casey discovered, records wind up assigned to the wrong people with a common name.
Another common problem: When a government agency erases a criminal conviction after a designated period of good behavior, many of the commercial databases don't perform the updates required to purge offenses that have been wiped from the public record.
A GROWING INDUSTRY
It hasn't helped that dozens of databases are now run by mom-and-pop businesses with limited resources to monitor the accuracy of the records.
The industry of providing background checks has been growing to meet the rising demand for the service. In the 1990s, about half of employers said they checked backgrounds. In the decade since Sept. 11, that figure has grown to more than 90 percent, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
To take advantage of the growing number of businesses willing to pay for background checks, hundreds of companies have dispatched computer programs to scour the Internet for free court data.
But those data do not always tell the full story.
Gina Marie Haynes had just moved from Philadelphia to Texas with her boyfriend in August 2010 and lined up a job managing apartments. A background check found fraud charges and Haynes lost the offer.
A year earlier, she had bought a used Saab, and the day she drove it off the lot, smoke started pouring from the hood. The dealer charged $291.48 for repairs. When Haynes refused to pay, the dealer filed fraud charges.
Haynes relented and paid after six months. Anyone looking at Haynes' physical file at the courthouse in Montgomery County, Pa., would have seen that the fraud charge had been removed. But it was still listed in the limited information on the court's website.
The website has since been updated but Haynes, 40, has no idea how many companies downloaded the outdated data. She has spent hours calling background check companies to see whether she is in their databases. Getting the information removed and corrected from so many different databases can be a daunting mission. Even if it's right in one place, it can be wrong in another database unknown to an individual until a prospective employer requests information from it. By then, the damage is done.