Background Checks Now Include Twitter, Facebook

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Surviving a background check just got tougher. And it's soon going to get harder still, as Internet search technology grows more sophisticated: Employers have started scouring the web—social networking sites in particular—to check up on potential hires.

If you've ever posted anything that suggests you might be somebody who likes a racist joke, drinks too much booze or maybe is a bit too fond of guns—these all can be grounds for an employer telling you, "Thanks, but no."

And it's all perfectly legal. The Federal Trade Commission has just given the okay for Social Intelligence Corp. to sell these reports to employers and the file will last for seven long years.

But suppose you're clean as a whistle with your online use of social network sites. It's still possible that among your Facebook friends, unbeknownst to you, there's someone with a criminal record. An employer could turn you down for having iffy friends and not run afoul of any employment discrimination law.

"You can be deemed a bad apple by association," says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. "Are all your friends gay, rich, poor? Do they all live in California or New York or Kansas? What are your hobbies? Do they look expensive or entail high risk?" If so, Dixon warns, your chances of landing that dream job, depending on your would-be employer's predilections, may go poof. The employer's decision not to hire you may be ethically outrageous. But it's not illegal.

"It's kind of scary," says Tena Friery, research director for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "We know social networking sites can be hacked—that someone can post something under someone else's name. What happens if somebody wants to sabotage a job applicant? And would the potential employee even know it was taking place?"

Likely not, says Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.com, which provides products and services that a job seeker (or any other user of the Internet) can use to minimize the impact of false or inaccurate information posted about them. It's not the present, says Fertik, that job seekers should fear; it's the future.

Right now only one company—Social Intelligence in Santa Barbara, Calif.—specializes in conducting Internet background checks that are compliant with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The Act regulates the collection, dissemination and use of consumer information. Where a search turns up evidence that might be used to deny an applicant credit (or a job), it requires that employers notify applicants they are in danger of being disqualified and state the evidence on which disqualification would be based. The applicant then has five days to dispute the finding.

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