Reporting by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

Checking Backgrounds in Wake of Attacks

OAKLAND -- Did you "forget" to tell your boss about the time you've been arrested for drunk driving or did you exaggerate on your resume?

If such oversights or white lies caused minor clashes earlier, they could put you into trouble in the world post September 11.

Since then, an increasing number of companies have hired the service of private investigators to do background checks on current and future employees. The checks, employers hope, will uncover any potential terrorists or troublemakers within their own organizations.

"I can easily say that we have 20% more demand for background checks than three or four years ago," said Patrick McKee, a private investigator of Excelsior services, Inc located in Oakland. "Companies are asking for more thorough background checks."

McKee said the largest demand is from delivery companies and transportation companies that face new concerns about security.

A basic background check usually includes checking the employees driving records, criminal records in the local area, and credit history. Now, McKee said clients want criminal record checks in other states as well as wanting checks that cover as long as ten years. They are also willing to pay for interviewing neighbors, previous employers and education checks.

McKee thinks it's appropriate but not just because of the September 11 attacks. "Half of the people lie on their resume about previous studies or previous jobs," he said. "What kind of employees are they going to be? If a person has civil records of credit debts of 500,000$ it's a bad idea to let him work in cash registry and you will never know it unless you check the civil records."

Richard Harris, owner Of the East Bay Detective Agency in Oakland, agreed.

"People are little more leery about people they are associate with," he said.

Employers who want to check immigrant status, parents who want to check their babysitters and even boyfriends or girlfriend who want to check their beloved ones before getting married contacted Harris in the last few weeks.

"People are nervous," he said.

Background checks range from $75 to more than $1000.The average amount that employers tend to pay is not more than $200. "It depends on the nature of the job," said McKee. "You will not do the same background check for a CEO who suppose to handle millions of dollars as for a delivery driver who will get 9$ an hour."

Both McKee and Harris have new customers in the East Bay including Berkeley. McKee said that though people in Berkeley usually are more concerned about civil right, now, they prefer to keep their working environment safe. "People change their opinions right now even if it's (regarding) a small coffee shop," he said.

However, some of the top employers in Berkeley have not changed their policies, mainly because they already had their own measures to conduct background checks.

"We usually check former employers, verify information on applicant job title, there exact salary and maybe talk to supervisor for (applicant) performance," said Frank Pacheco of the human resource department at the city of Berkeley. Pacheco said that the police department conducts their own background checks which include contacting friends and relatives.

The Alta Bates Medical Center has also kept its same policy. A subcontract company, Corporate Screening" does the Center's background checks, which include looking at the criminal records, education and previous employment history of the applicant.

The Oakland airport checks ten years of criminal and civil records along with other checks which the FAA required. The FAA refused to declare whether they changed their requests since the September 11 terror attacks.

A local private investigator who asked not to be identified because of personal safety reasons said he personally he had seen no increase in business.

"The Silicon Valley companies", his main source of customers, he said, "are more concerned workplace violence." In 1997 an angry fired employee, entered his company and shot several co-workers. Another famous incident was of a CEO, who lied few years ago about being a Harvard graduate and a famous athlete. Both cases triggered many companies to do more detail background checks. "They are afraid of being sued for 'negligent hiring' or simply for their reputation," he said.

For the last couple of years ,however, he saw an increase in demand for international background checks but these are harder to conduct. Those who thought it isn't necessary before are willing to pay now. "In some other countries the criminal records isn't public records as the USA," he said, "and it cost more."

Nevertheless, he thinks that the Silicon Valley companies will continue to hire people on a working visa "because of their skill (the foreign workers) and to save a buck but they will desire to check them."

"The truth," he said "Is that the terrorist who supposedly committed the September 11 attacks didn't have a stamp in there passport saying they belong to al - Qaeda. They were educated people."

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