S1: Hello. Hi, Laura. Hi. Hi, it’s Celeste. Earlier this week, I called Lauren Kershner. She’s an investigative reporter at The Mark-Up who loves to dig into official records and pages of data. A couple of years ago, she took a close look at the algorithm that produces risk assessments in courtrooms. These risk assessments are used to help judges decide whether to grant bail or not. They’re based on automated background checks, and they produce a score that predicts how likely it is that an individual will commit a crime in the future. We actually did a show on this earlier this year law and found that the risk assessment scores, which are seen as objective, are actually biased against black individuals. This year she discovered that the same technology is being used in a wholly different situation.
S2: We got a tip from an attorney who had heard about a risk score given to tenants that were being used not only in the private market for landlords, but also in public housing authorities. And so I got intrigued to learn about these tenant screening reports.
S3: I wanted to learn where they were being used and which companies were most common to simple questions that turned out to be very difficult to answer, partly because there are so many companies doing background checks and partly because every company seems to use a different system to produce their reports. Lauren discovered that landlords are given an incredible amount of information about prospective tenants. Landlords have used credit reports for a long time, but these background checks go beyond your payment history and outstanding loans. They can also list arrest records, traffic tickets, small claims, court filings, evictions and child support history.
S2: And it takes all that information and compiles it and conveys it to the landlord. And sometimes the landlord in getting a tenant screening report will get the full information that has been compiled about this person who’s applying for an apartment. Or sometimes they’ll just get a risk score or a thumbs up or thumbs down, know a recommendation that the landlord either accept or deny this person for their housing.
S1: If you get a thumbs down, you are often denied housing. It’s that simple. And that report can follow you wherever you go, making it difficult to find anyone who will rent to you or give you a loan or a cell phone contract or a job.
S4: The kinds of decisions that these background checks are involved in are really high stakes decisions. You know, if you a mistake on your credit report and you can’t get a loan for a house that you want or if you have a mistake on your criminal background check and it looks like you’re a felon and you can’t find a place to live, I mean, these are these are really important moments in people’s lives.
S1: This can be a problem even when the background checks are accurate. But Lauren found these reports that decide whether you deserve housing are frequently wrong.
S5: Background checks are seriously flawed, and no one seems to be regulating an industry that wields so much power over our lives.
S3: Today on the show, the murky business of assigning scores to our lives, the damage caused when those reports get it wrong and how these mistakes could make the coming eviction crisis even harder on vulnerable Americans. I’m Celeste Headlee, filling in for Lizzie O’Leary.
S5: And you’re listening to What Next, TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.
S1: The 2008 financial crisis was partly caused by risky home loans. So since then, the mortgage industry has made it harder for consumers to secure loans. As a result, the percentage of households renting rather than owning is the highest it’s been in the past 50 years. That’s one reason the tenant screening industry has taken off. It’s now worth at least a billion dollars. And Lauren says that growth has mostly happened in the last 10 or 15 years.
S4: It really took off as public records went online. It used to be that to find someone’s court record, whether for their criminal records or their housing court records, those records were public technically. But you’d have to go in person to rifle through a filing cabinet. You’d have to go to a court clerk. You’d have to make a phone call across the country and track down a court. And as soon as those records went digital, it offered this opportunity for people to collect that information, compile it and present it in an appealing, easy to read, easy to understand way for a landlord, so so that the landlords didn’t have to themselves make a million phone calls and sort of take a leap based on a letter of recommendation from a previous landlord or whatever else they used to use.
S1: So what evidence do we even have that the background checks protect landlords? And in other words, if someone has a criminal charge somewhere on their background check, can we draw a line between that and someone who doesn’t pay their rent or causes property damage?
S4: What the background check industry says is that landlords are under a lot of pressure to, you know, make their properties as safe as possible for the neighbors. There are some crime free jurisdictions where landlords are actually held responsible for any crimes that happen in their properties or if the cops need to be called to someone’s apartment building. So there are a lot of pressures, but I just haven’t I haven’t been able to find any evidence or any proof that these background checks are leading to any particular outcome.
S1: And yet tenant screenings are incredibly common. The credit bureau TransUnion estimates that nine of 10 landlords in the U.S. use them, and the reports are a major factor in landlord decision making. That’s why a mistake in a record can be so devastating. So let’s talk a little bit about the mistakes that get made. And the first one is this thing you guys referred to as zombie data. And this is where I guess it’s information about you that just won’t die. Right? It’s it’s things that were on your record that were supposed to have been expunged, but they weren’t. How does some of this information that’s supposed to be removed from people’s records, how does it end up cropping up in these background reports?
S4: It’s really a side effect of the crazy, confusing data economy that exists all around us. Whenever someone has any kind of encounter with law enforcement or any experience with the criminal justice system, every agency in the system is creating records about them all the time. So when you’re arrested, when you’re indicted, when you’re prosecuted, when you’re charged, when you’re sentenced, when you go on probation, all these different agencies have records about those things. Now, if you live in a jurisdiction where you’re able to expunge some of those records, those records, according to the courts, should no longer exist. Those records legally do not exist. However, if there are records that have already been captured by data brokers, they don’t necessarily go back to make sure they are updated.
S1: Can you give us some specific examples? Tell me the story of someone who got caught up in this kind of trap.
S4: So in my story, I write about a man who had some felonies in his past. He went to prison for those felonies for, I think, two or three years. And when he got out, he was able to get those records expunged and was sort of hoping for a fresh start with his life. And when he went to apply for an apartment with his wife and child, they were denied because those three felonies from his past showed up. But not only those three felonies, he had a list of twenty nine felonies and twenty nine felonies is pretty shocking to see.
S1: Yeah, that makes you look very dangerous.
S4: It makes you look like not the best applicant. And what had happened was, although his record had been expunged from the court, the background screener in this case had apparently gone to the. Of corrections and found his prison records, which listed the crimes that he was in prison for, and twenty six other crimes which were actually disciplinary infractions, minor things that he had done wrong and gotten in trouble for. So like this one example was he had gotten written up for sexual harassment because he had told a prison guard to kiss his rear. And it was listed as a felony because he had been imprisoned for felonies, so this was just a record that was easily misinterpreted and then displayed to the landlord. So he was obviously rejected from that housing.
S1: These records that won’t die are just one type of error that can show up in a person’s history. Some people have also been rejected by landlords because they have a common name so common that a background check returns the histories of many other people whose names are the same or similar.
S4: There was a man named Leon Howard in Georgia who said he was denied housing because he himself had no records, but he had criminal records from someone named Lonnie Howard and eviction records from someone named Linnear Howard. You know, these records belong to people who have different names than his own. And those names are displayed on the report. But he’s he was still denied. And and that happens because of something called a wild card search, where they’ll be searching for the first few letters of the person’s name and then an asterisk to to, I guess, look for different variations of that person’s name. Or sometimes they’ll pick up someone who has the same name, but a different date of birth, but may be a similar birth year or something like that. And so these inexact matches can really cause problems for people. And when you just hear about it, it sounds like just an outrageous mistake. But it does happen all the time.
S1: I mean, I imagine especially if your name is something like Lisa Smith or Matt Jones or something, you probably you probably get confused quite a number of times.
S4: Yeah. One woman I talked to for my first story, Samantha Johnson. Samantha Johnson is a very common name and she has just countless times been rejected for housing and and jobs because she keeps on getting mixed up with so many different Samantha Johnsons across the country. A year or two ago, she went to apply for an apartment in St. Helens, Oregon, where she lives. And the background check that her landlord got was just staggering. It was just pages and pages and pages of rap sheets. I saw it. It just kept going on and on and on. And it was crimes like meth distribution, burglary, theft, assaults, lying to a cop, jumping bail. It just went on and on. And it was these crimes were attributed to people who lived in Kentucky, Minnesota, California, North Carolina. Some of them had her same name, but a different date of birth. Some of them had her first name, but not her middle name or her last name or part of her date of birth. Some of them had someone else’s name, but that person had used Samantha Johnson as an alias when they were arrested. It was so, so much information. And, of course, the landlord, when he got it, was just totally overwhelmed.
S1: Another problem, Lauren says, is how hard it is for people to get their faulty background checks fixed.
S4: There’s one estimate there are two thousand background screening services operating in America, and that’s totally an estimate. They are under no obligation to register with any agency or anything, basically any person with a computer who can Google for somebody’s name or go in person to a court and look up someone’s court. Records can say that they’re a background screener. So that’s a problem, too, when people are denied housing or a job because of a mistake on their background screening report, they can go to that company and request a correction and make sure that that doesn’t happen again. But if they apply to another apartment or job that uses a different companies background screening service, then they might run into that same problem again.
S6: Samantha Johnson, she’s she’s an example of someone who this had happened to her before so many times, because every time when she corrected her record with a background screener, the next time she went to apply for something else, it would just happen again because there are so many different companies doing this.
S7: We’ll be right back.
S1: So what is the recourse if this happens to someone, especially considering that these background check people are are consulting real records when you’re denied an apartment because of a background check like this, you do have the right to learn.
S4: Landlords are supposed to tell you that you’ve been rejected because of something that came up on a background check and they’re supposed to tell you the name of the company that did the screening. So then it’s on you to contact the company, explain the situation. They might have you send in some proof of identity and they’ll do a reinvestigation. But it’s true, like the reinvestigation might just resurface. The same records that exist out there in the world. You’d hope that the reinvestigation would include a little more detailed search. So if the first search was automated, maybe the next searches involve somebody calling the court and saying, hey, there’s a record here, but it doesn’t say what the charges. Can you tell me what it is? And if that doesn’t work, a lot of people end up bringing these companies to court, which is how I found out about these these particular examples.
S1: I think that might surprise people considering how much power these background check companies end up having the power over whether you get an apartment or a rental house or not. And there’s not a lot of there’s no process set up really for protest or I guess compensation if it turns out that you lost an apartment because of a faulty check, is that correct?
S4: You know, when people run into these problems, sometimes they’re chasing down these mistakes for years. Sometimes they’re getting denied and denied and denied and paying non-refundable application fees everywhere they go and getting rejected for jobs and things. And they can complain to their state attorney general, they can complain to the FTC or the CFP and maybe they can sue the companies. But there’s no real proactive way to make sure that it doesn’t happen to them, which is what’s so scary and kind of disempowering.
S1: Lauren has spent much of the past year reporting on these automated screening reports, and she’s watched as the coronavirus led to massive layoffs, especially for lower income Americans. Now, with federal unemployment benefits running out, she’s afraid there’ll be a wave of people who need to find housing, who find themselves blocked by faulty automated background checks.
S4: There’s an eviction crisis that is unfolding across the country. And to me, that makes these problems even more pressing. People are being evicted and they’re looking for housing quickly. And so when there are mistakes on their background checks, you know, whatever the source of those mistakes are, it’s really hard to get those fixed in time to get the apartment that you’re looking for because the housing market moves so quickly.
S6: You know, we’ve mostly talked about mistakes and criminal records, but there are also a lot of mistakes in eviction records. So I think that this this set of problems is going to play out for many years to come.
S3: Lauren, thank you so much.
S6: Thank you so much for having me.
S8: Lauren Kirchner is an investigative reporter at The Mark-Up. You can read more about her series Locked Out at the Mark-Up, Dawg. And that’s our show for today. Thanks for listening to is produced by Ethan Brooks and edited by Allison Benedikt and Torie Bosch. TV as part of the larger What Next Family DVD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I’m Celeste Headlee. This episode will be my last filling in for Lizzie O’Leary, who will be back next week. If you want to keep up with me, you can find me at Celeste Headlee on Twitter. Have a great weekend. Monday is a holiday. So Mary Harris will be back in your feed on Tuesday.