Tracey Woods was desperate for a job. After working for 19 years as a civilian aide in the St. Louis city police department, she had been unemployed for nine months. With four kids to raise, the single mom applied for seasonal work at FedEx Ground and was quickly hired—pending a background check. Given Woods's police experience, that seemed a formality. But when she showed up to start work, a supervisor sent Woods home because he hadn't yet received her background check results, which could be an indicator, he said, of a criminal history. Woods, who had never been arrested, insisted there must be some mistake. Still, the job went to someone else. "If this is happening to me," she says, "it is happening to other people."

It is indeed. In recent years companies nervous about security in the post-9/11 world, as well as concerned about liability for criminal acts that employees might commit, have been scrutinizing job applicants as never before. According to the background screeners trade group, businesses did roughly 25 million such checks last year—up 25 percent over the previous year. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, 80 percent of employers conduct background searches. Background companies contend that the incidence of "false positives"—innocent people, often with common names, who get confused with people having criminal records—is exceedingly low. Perhaps, say experts, but with the increase in checks come more errors. "It's a boom business," says Prof. Kerry Fields, of USC's Marshall School of Business, who has studied the industry. According to a survey, he says, "15 percent of background checks have something wrong in the file." Adds Beth Givens, the head of the PRC: "A lot of background checks are done rather crudely. I would hate to be in the job market right now."

In Woods's case it didn't take her long to figure out where the company that had conducted her background search, IntelliSense Corp., had gone amiss. In January she received a copy of the report and noticed a conviction for a misdemeanor and a sentence of one year in jail—which even a cursory check would have shown was served while Woods, 41, was actually working for the St. Louis police. (Background searches generally range from $10 to $200.) She also recognized the name of the person implicated in that crime, Sheila Hollins, who happened to be Woods's own troubled sister. The search company had connected Woods to the crime because Hollins, who was murdered in 2000, had used her sister's name as an alias and had also given out Tracey's birthday as her own.

Rhonda Taylor, the president of IntelliSense, which is based in Bothell, Wash., contends her company, which was asked to do only a minimal background and criminal search, did everything by the book. In Missouri, IntelliSense conducts its review through the state police, which made the match between Woods and her sister based solely on the name and birthday. (Citing confidentiality, FedEx Ground would not comment on the case.) But Col. Everett Page, the now retired assistant chief for the St. Louis police department, who was Woods's boss for 17 years, argues that a single phone call, either by FedEx Ground or IntelliSense, could have cleared up the discrepancy. "Anyone doing a background check with an ounce of intelligence could have figured out what happened," says Page.

Under federal law, prospective employees have the right to review the results of any background check used to make an adverse decision so that they can contest errors. But as in Woods's case, getting the actual criminal or court report can take weeks. If there is a problem, the company has often moved on to hire another candidate by then.

Christy Smith, a registered nurse in the Baltimore area, discovered there are ways to fight back. Last August she applied for a position in the operating room at Franklin Square Hospital Center. Among nurses, "working in an operating room is a job everyone wants" because of the regular hours, says Smith, 26. "You practically have to have someone die to get one." But Smith was the one who nearly keeled over when the background check came back showing she had once been arrested for felony theft. "I never even had a speeding ticket," she says.

Smith pleaded with hospital officials to hold the position until she could clear her name. Rather than go to a private background agency, she paid $23 to a Maryland state agency to run her own name and fingerprints. That search showed the original review, by Kroll Background Screening Group, had confused Smith with another Christy Smith, this one 98 lbs. (nurse Smith is 163 lbs.), who had been busted in 2003. (Adding to the confusion: There were 447 Christy Smiths in Baltimore County alone.)

Kroll makes no apologies for how the case was handled. The company's general counsel Jesse N. Bacon says that Kroll flagged the hospital that the match was only the result of a name and thus warranted further checking. He adds that when dealing with huge databases, a certain number of mix-ups are unfortunately inevitable. "In a former life I was a district attorney, and I used to see it weekly," says Bacon. "You get crossed records, or maybe somebody transposed a number or you don't have a middle initial."

Background companies rightly point out that one of the biggest problems they face is that criminal-records databases very rarely include the social security number of those convicted, which would be a handy tool for avoiding confusion. But it is ultimately up to the employer to decide how to handle any red flags that crop up. Last May, Patricia Hill, 43, started a job as a business analyst with Hewitt Associates in Lincolnshire, Ill., but was terminated within a month after her screening turned up discrepancies in her résumé. Hill says she managed to straighten out all but one of the problems—the exact dates of employment for her first job out of college. But the company, without offering specifics because of privacy concerns, now insists the matter was not cleared up. "I was shocked," says Hill, who now works in human resources for a Chicago firm. "I couldn't believe it."

In Tracey Woods's case, she caught a break. In January she got a position doing data entry at the St. Louis airport. Rather than hire a private screening firm, the airport went directly to the police and made sure there were no social security matches between Woods and known felons. The report came back clean, as Woods knew it would. But she still cannot shake her anger over what befell her, all because of a mix-up over a name. "It's a common name!" she exclaims. "You are talking about somebody's job!"

CHRISTY SMITH NURSE, 26
DURING A ROUTINE SCREENING, THE BACKGROUND COMPANY LINKED HER TO ANOTHER CHRISTY SMITH, THIS ONE WITH A CRIMINAL RECORD AND WEIGHING 98 LBS. "I HAVEN'T WEIGHED 98 LBS. SINCE I WAS 12," SAYS THE LAW-ABIDING SMITH, WHO HAD TO CLEAR UP THE CONFUSION HERSELF BEFORE SHE COULD LAND A JOB AT FRANKLIN SQUARE HOSPITAL CENTER

TRACEY WOODS DATA ENTRY, 41
A FORMER EMPLOYEE OF THE ST. LOUIS POLICE DEPARTMENT, SHE GOT MIXED UP WITH HER SISTER, WHO HAD A CRIMINAL RECORD. IT ULTIMATELY COST HER A JOB AT FEDEX GROUND

PATRICIA HILL BUSINESS ANALYST, 43
WHEN SHE GOT CHECKED OUT FOR A JOB, DISCREPANCIES ON HER RESUME—WHICH SHE SAYS BOILED DOWN TO A SINGLE MINOR ONE—LED TO A DISPUTE WITH THE EMPLOYER. SHE WAS TERMINATED

  • Contributors:
  • Eileen Finan/Nashville,
  • Oliver Jones/Los Angeles,
  • Frank Swertlow/Los Angeles,
  • Melody Simmons/Baltimore,
  • J. Todd Foster/Virginia.