Tom Lancaster wasn’t surprised to learn that the man applying for a job at a local retail clothing goods store had four felony convictions. That’s because more than 10 percent of the potential employees that companies take the time to run background checks on have criminal records.

Joan Schield’s statistics are even more sobering—during a recent one-month period in which her company, Verifacts of Tacoma, kept tract, was analyzed, 18 percent of the applicants whose backgrounds were checked had records.

With growing regularity, folks like Lancaster and Schield are who companies throughout the country turn to when they want to know more about an applicant’s background. Lancaster owns Profile Research, which is located in Tacoma. In addition to Verifacts, Schield owns Tenant Security Search, which provides much the same service for landlords.

“This is a new industry that has been around less than a decade,” says Lancaster, whose company is seven years old. Tenant Security is 15 years old, says Schields, and Verifacts was founded in 1993.

There are two steps to the process of making sure a potential employee doesn’t have anything shady in his or her past, says Lancaster.

“First we verify the name, locate any aliases and verify where they have lived,” he says. Next, he adds, he tracks down any evidence of a criminal record.

Schield is convinced that far too many firms don’t bother looking into the backgrounds of job candidates.

“I’ve let employees go for bad work habits,” she says, “and never got a reference call for them.”

She says the topics applicants most commonly lie about are criminal record, education, who they worked for, for how long and why they left.

Lancaster is tight-lipped when the topic turns to the number of checks he does and how much he charges for each background check. He says his largest client has a employee base of 70,000 and provides enough assignments to keep him busy year-round and that his prices are comparable to those charged by the state, which gets $10 to $20 for a report on an applicant’s criminal history.

Verifacts has a wedsite——where customers can use credit cards or establish a pay-in-advance account to check criminal histories within Washington at $10 per search. Schield says a complex menu of other services is available at prices ranging from $10 to $495.

The state can only provide information about convictions within its jurisdiction, says Lancaster. The quality of information accumulated by the dwindling number of businesses that still run their own background checks can be nearly as limited, Lancaster adds.

“We’re cost effective,” says Lancaster.

Lancaster and Schield agree that a major contributor to the growth of the background-check industry is the fear of liability if employers fail to look into the history of a candidate who commits mayhem after getting the job .

If a man with a criminal record his employer hasn’t bothered to find out about sexually harasses a woman in the workplace, the woman’s contention that her employer is liable becomes considerably stronger. Lancaster dismisses as insignificant the potential for coming up with misinformation on a job candidate.

“If a mistake is made,” he says, “I simply report it to the county or whoever provided the misinformation, then do another report for the client.”

Liability insurance isn’t a requirement for those who provide background checks, Lancaster says. He has it, he says, but doesn’t anticipate using it.

Schield’s reputation for accuracy helped earn Tenant Security the 1997 Northwest Small Family Business Award and recent illness got the firm a mention in the July issue of Success magazine, which looked at 50 companies nationwide that have overcome extreme difficulties on their way to success.

Lancaster says he got into the business after working in a courthouse where he conducted a great deal of legal research.

“I thought, why work by the hour when I could go out and do this on my own,” Lancaster says of the days when he worked for a title company.

“I’ve seen everything you can imagine,” Lancaster says of the background checks he has conducted since turning pro. For example, the case of the male job candidate who admitted on his application he had been convicted of “unwanted touching.” It’s not uncommon for an applicant to be semi-forthright, he says: They’ll admit they’ve been convicted but make the conviction sound as innocuous as possible, he explains. It turned out the applicant had been convicted of first-degree rape.

Just because an applicant has a record, adds Schields, it doesn’t mean he or she will not get the job. For instance, she says, someone who has convicted of embezzlement can probably get a job driving a truck.

“You just don’t want him overseeing your cash flow,” she says.

Though most of his customers are large national companies, Lancaster says, his customer base tends to be diverse.

In the wake of highly publicized incidents where convicted felons turned up in the public school system, Lancaster says, school have even turned to background check

Despite the growing popularity of background checks, and in some cases, the legal mandate for them, Matshusita Semiconductor Corp. in Puyallup is among the area companies that limit their research to reference checks.

“We have not had any problems,” says personnel director Dennis Vercillo.

By Craig Coovert, Business Examiner staff