Don Cameron is a smart job hunter -- smart enough to know that something he experienced may affect others, too.

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Don Cameron is a smart job hunter — smart enough to know that something he experienced may affect others, too.

Cameron ran a background check on himself to see what potential employers might find. One service he found online returned a shocker.

“Supposedly tied to my Social Security number was a 1956 conviction for involuntary manslaughter. Seriously,” Cameron says. “Didn’t matter that the individual named in the report had a different middle initial than mine.”

The report, for which he paid $19.86, also had Cameron’s date of birth wrong.

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Cameron complained to the company. It apologized in writing and refunded his money. But he doesn’t know what damage to his reputation might have occurred.

He also doesn’t know whether job hunters or prospective employers read the fine print when they engage some background-checking services. The apology and refund letter he received included a “disclaimer of warranties.” It said:

“Instant checkmate does not guarantee the accuracy of information found on the site or through the services. Use of the site, the services and any data accessed while using the site or the services is at your sole risk. The site, the services and all contents of each are provided on an ‘as is’ and ‘as available’ basis.”

Cameron’s experience dovetails with a report in mid-February by the Federal Trade Commission. It found a 1-in-5 chance there’s an error in credit reports issued by the three major agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

The commission encouraged people to check their own credit reports to help avoid problems with employers, lenders or insurers.

Cameron urges personal vigilance. He reached county and state attorneys general offices about his problem and found no jurisdictional or staffing ability to address his complaint.
Some background checks may be flawless, so this isn’t an indictment of all such services. It’s just a reminder to watch for mistakes and act when they’re found.

More screening tactics
If you haven’t been in a job hunt lately, you may not know how things have changed.

The best way to get a job is still through personal contacts. A study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that referred candidates were twice as likely to get interviews and 40 percent more likely to be hired than candidates without inside advocates. And that’s also how you avoid some of the screening tactics that are shocking some applicants.

One of the surprises is being required to present your W-2 form from last year to proceed in the interview process. It’s a way for employers to see your salary history and whether it fits with their budgets and expectations.

Another shocker comes from Brian, a job hunter who will remain otherwise anonymous. Here’s a sentence verbatim from a job posting he was considering: “A final step in the hiring process is for candidates to arrange personal reference calls with former supervisors as well as others we may choose.”

Let that sink in. You, the candidate, will be required to do what hirers themselves have found that they can’t do — get good reference comments from your past employers.

And why is that? Because the very same human resource department that is requiring you to set up your own reference interviews has told its employees that they aren’t supposed to give out any substantive reference information to other employers.

For years, human resource departments and the employment law attorneys who advise them have mandated company policies that say bosses and co-workers should give out only the scantiest information if called in a reference check.

They have pared down the list of acceptable information to verify only the name of the former employee, dates of employment, job title, pay level and eligibility for rehire — that being code for whether the employee was fired “for cause” and thus ineligible to be rehired).

So the chicken’s come home to roost. Employers aren’t getting good reference information by following the rules they set, so they’re burdening applicants with the task of circumventing those rules.

It would be funny — except for qualified job hunters who can’t get those phone calls returned because of their former employers’ policies.

Diane Stafford is the workplace and careers columnist at The Kansas City Star. Email her at