There has been a surge in interest in criminal background checks in the last 15 years. Private companies conduct millions of such checks a year. By comparison, the number of lawsuits claiming inaccurate information in the reports is relatively small.
Donna Uzell, the chair of the National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact Council, which sets policy on the use of criminal records for non-law enforcement purposes, said private background screening companies provide a valuable service for employers and landlords.
"People who are doing background checks are doing so for a reason, for the safety of their constituency or out of concern about potential liability they may incur," she said.
But lawyers and advocates say those companies are not doing enough. The information contained in the reports is generally based on searches of names and other data such as dates of birth, but not on fingerprints.
"These reports are being used by all types of social organizations, the NCAA, little leagues, boy scouts, churches," said Leonard Bennett, an attorney who has filed several lawsuits against criminal records companies. "The impact can be devastating."
Background check companies are regulated by Fair Credit Reporting Act, which sets up a process to correct inaccuracies.
Cohen said that fear of identity theft has led many courthouses to redact personal information, such as social security numbers, from court records, making it more difficulty to conduct checks.
Frank Campbell, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Policy, who worked on background screening policy, said employers are not supposed to take adverse action against potential employees until the background check is correct.
"As a practical matter, it doesn't really work that way in the real world," he said.
Campbell said in a 2006 report that the government in some cases should allow access to records in the more comprehensive FBI database, which are based on fingerprint identification.
That may have helped Raymond Phillippi, who said he has not been able to get consistent work in more than a year, since he was rejected for a position as a machinist after a background check turned up a false felony conviction for burglary.
"It's been tough," he said. "I wouldn't hire a felon either. But they should make sure they get their information straight."