When Congress formulated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) more than 30 years ago, it noted that the law was enacted in order to protect consumers against “the trend toward…the establishment of all sorts of computerized data banks

[that placed a consumer] in great danger of having his life and character reduced to impersonal ‘blips’ and key punch holes in a stolid and unthinking machine which can literally ruin his reputation without cause [116 Cong. Rec. 36570].” This intent has been clearly supported by the amendments that followed allowing greater and more effective protection. But despite the leaps and bounds in legislation, much controversy still exists about the level of protection that this law provides to consumers.  And confusion abounds about the compliance requirements for consumer reporting agencies (“CRAs”) on whom the FCRA places “grave” compliance obligations. “There is a need to insure that consumer reporting agencies exercise their ‘grave’ responsibilities with fairness, impartiality, and a respect for the consumer’s right to privacy [15 U.S.C. § 1681(a)(4) (2006)].”

The FCRA mandates that “[w]henever a consumer reporting agency prepares a consumer report it shall follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information concerning the individual about whom the report relates [15 U.S.C. § 1681e(b)].” So what does this mean? Courts have taken two positions in interpreting the language of this section. The “consumer-friendly” version holds CRAs liable for reports that are technically accurate, but may be misleading or incomplete. (Koropoulos v. Credit Bureau, Inc., 734 F.2d 37, 40; D.C. Cir. 1984: “Congress did not limit the Act’s mandate to reasonable procedures to assure only technical accuracy; to the contrary, the Act requires reasonable procedures to assure maximum accuracy.”) The “business friendly” interpretation requires only technical accuracy in the CRA’s reporting.  [Todd v. Associated Credit Bureau Servs., Inc., 451 F. Supp. 447, 449 (E.D. Pa. 1977)].

While this case law is helpful in understanding the CRA’s liability under the statute, there is no doubt that a comprehensive guidance on the methodology to assure maximum accuracy is still much needed especially in view of the proliferation of the so-called “national databases” in the recent years. But despite the lack of clear guidance, a reputable CRA knows that “to assure” means “to earnestly inform or tell positively; state with confidence.” And reporting a record that was identified by name only or relying solely on private database record information in an employment background check does not pass the reasonable procedures test by any standard.

In an Internet marketplace that touts instant results, a CRA’s practice of sending searchers to the courthouse, pulling dozens of cases, and reviewing legal documents to ascertain correct subject identification and record information may be counterintuitive for many employers. And it takes time and money to assure the most accurate and up-to-date results. On the other hand, in a world of over a million people, is a quick and cheap database background search of any real value?