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Automated background checks freeze out renters


Burglary and domestic assault in Minnesota. Selling meth and jumping bail in Kentucky. Driving without insurance in Arkansas. Disorderly conduct. Theft. Lying to a police officer. Unspecified “crimes.” Too many narcotics charges to count.

That’s what the landlord for an apartment in St. Helens, Oregon, saw when he ran a background check for Samantha Johnson, a prospective tenant, in 2018.

But none of the charges were hers.

The growing data economy and the rise of American rentership since the 2008 financial crisis have fueled a rapid expansion of the tenant-screening industry, now valued at $1 billion. The companies produce cheap and fast — but not necessarily accurate — reports for an estimated 9 out of 10 landlords across the country.

The automated background check for Johnson cast a wide net, looking for negative information from criminal databases even in states where she had never lived and pulling in records for women whose middle names, races and dates of birth didn’t match her own. It combined criminal records from five other women: four Samantha Johnsons and a woman who had used the name as an alias, even though the screening report said she was an “active inmate” in a Kentucky jail at the time.

“You can totally tell we’re not the same person at all,” said Johnson, who eventually got the apartment after she convinced the landlord she wasn’t a criminal.

It was not the first time she had been the victim of incorrect automated screening reports. It wouldn’t be the last, either.

False reports of crime, with no human review

The reports can be created in a few seconds, using searches based on partial names or incomplete dates of birth. Tenants generally have no choice but to submit to the screenings and typically pay an application fee for the privilege. Automated reports are usually delivered to landlords without a human ever glancing at the results to see if they contain obvious mistakes, according to court records and interviews.

A review of hundreds of federal lawsuits filed against screening companies over the past 10 years shows how hasty, sloppy matches can lead to reports that wrongly label people deadbeats, criminals or sex offenders. Among those who say they were wrongly maligned:

  • Davone Jackson, who was denied low-income housing in Tennessee after the screening company RealPage reported that he had twice been convicted of trafficking in heroin in Kentucky and was on Wisconsin’s sex offender registry. In fact, those records belonged to an Eric Jackson and a James Jackson. After the denial, Davone Jackson said, he and his 9-year-old daughter were forced to live in a small motel room for nearly a year.

  • Glenn Patrick Thompson Sr. and Glenn Patrick Thompson Jr., who said they had been left homeless near Seattle after a tenant-screening company called On-Site, which is now part of RealPage, told two different landlords that the father and son had been previously evicted. In fact, the eviction was for a Patricia Thompson, who was not related to them.

  • William Hall, who lost out on a duplex in his small town in Georgia after TransUnion Rental Screening Solutions said he had sexually abused a minor. The criminal record belonged to a William Hall who was 30 years older and possibly dead. Hall said the landlord had stopped returning his telephone calls after receiving the incorrect report.

Hall’s suit is pending; the others were settled for undisclosed sums.

The screening process happens so quickly and the competition for apartments can be so fierce that prospective renters don’t always know why they were turned down, much less whether an incorrect background report was the cause. FULL ARTICLE