According to the Federal Trade Commission, a handful of mobile apps that provide background checks are being investigated for possible violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. (See this report: http://ftc.gov/opa/2012/02/mobileapps.shtm
While most consumers may find these apps to be useful, the FTC maintains that if a company is going to pull consumer information for the purposes of employment screening or credit purposes for example, they must comply with the FCRA. The FCRA is designed to not only protect consumer privacy but also makes sure the information that is provided is accurate.
However, it isn’t so much a question of whether the information provided by these mobile apps is a privacy violation, but what the companies that receive the information are using it for. How exactly is a mobile app provider able to monitor who uses the app and for what purposes? If the information is used for credit decisions or employment purposes, the FCRA requires that the consumer is notified when an adverse action is taken because of the report, such as a notification of denial of credit when based on a credit report, and the company that provided the report must be identified so the consumer has an opportunity to verify accuracy of the report (and contest if need be).
The companies that received letters from the FTC include Everify, Inc., InfoPay, Inc., and Intelligator, Inc. which all provide some form of background check service. Here is a quick look at a few of the apps in question.
A Look At the Apps In Question
Some of the apps in question are made by companies that include Everify, Inc., InfoPay, Inc., and Intelligator, Inc. The specific apps include the Police Records app, Criminal Pages app, Background Checks, Criminal Records Search, Investigate and Locate Anyone, and People Search and Investigator apps. I was able to download and try out the Criminal Pages App by InfoPay, Inc.
InfoPay, Inc. Criminal Pages App
This app is free which compared to most background check services online seems quite miraculous and should warn us of its reliability. Immediately upon downloading the app you have to verify that you are at least 17 years of age. You also have to immediately agree to the disclosure statement which specifies examples of lawful purposes and unlawful purposes in which to use this app. In case you wondered, lawful purposes include fraud prevention, asset verification, location of criminalsm witnesses, beneficiaries or heirs, research for debt collection activities, child support enforcement and compliance with federal, state or local laws or regulations. Basically, a bunch of baloney. It’s hard to fathom that a free mobile app could assist a person in child support enforcement.
Included in the disclosure (which you must agree to in order to use the app) are specific terms regarding the FCRA.
“NOTE: Criminalpages.com is not a consumer reporting agency as defined under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the information in our database has not been collected in whole or part for the purpose of furnishing consumer reports, as defined in the FCRA. You may not use the Website or Data to establish an individual’s legibility for personal credit or insurance, assess risks associated with existing consumer credit obligations; or evaluate an individual for employment, promotion, reassignment or retention (including employment of household workers such as nannies, housekeepers, or contractors …”
After reading through the terms, I’ll be surprised if anyone would ever use this at all? It is perhaps hardly not a surprise that we could not find the other apps that was mentioned in the FTC report.
In fact, I’m not sure if it’s a new feature, but you have to agree to this disclosure statement before each and every search, just in case you were thinking of using the information for an authorized purpose.
Which is all well and good, but how do the app’s creators keep this information from being used for unauthorized purposes? Simple. It doesn’t really work. Upon experimenting with the search features and repeatedly having nothing come up, it’s evident that the app doesn’t really do anything. Even including information for an inmate directly from the Department of Corrections resulted in no match. This app it appears is not violating the FCRA because it doesn’t really work. So you’re safe at least with this particular app.
Otherwise, there does seem to be a legitimate concern here. It is possible that these apps can be used to pull background information on people in order to make decisions based on employment and credit. However, I don’t see many legitimate businesses using a free or 99 cent mobile app for this purpose. Most will stick with services that are reliable and legitimate, where there is no reason to question if the information is accurate or violates the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
There is also no real privacy fear with these apps because for the most part, it appears that they provide information that is already public anyway. If you have access to the internet, you can already find someone and find out through public court records and the Department of Corrections, whether they have a criminal background. It seems that for now, these apps are available for entertainment purposes and may keep you busy looking up your friends and family. Otherwise, the letters sent out by the FTC are most likely serve as a warning or preventative measure in case other, more advance apps are developed in the future.