The next time you apply for a loan or a new job, a lender or prospective employer might go online to access a database instead of calling your human resources department to verify your employment and income.
In most cases, they'll be contacting a company called TALX Corp., which developed a service called The Work Number.
Companies, government agencies and creditors, such as credit card companies and mortgage lenders, have been using The Work Number for almost a decade, tapping into a database with approximately 165 million to 170 million individual records (an employee has a separate record for each employer) covering roughly a third of the American work force, says Janet Ford, vice president of St. Louis-based TALX, which is a subsidiary of credit bureau Equifax.
Employers use TALX to handle salary and employment verifications and, in turn, share their payroll information and often several years' worth of payroll records. Employees can challenge the accuracy of any information.
Participating companies submit payroll information every time they process paychecks, Ford says. "So the data is as fresh as the last time they ran payroll," she says.
Before a company can access the database, it has to go through a credentialing process, says Ford, who adds that the majority of users are businesses attempting to grant credit, or government agencies attempting to grant benefits.
Employers pay a fee for TALX to store the data and to respond to employment and salary inquiries. They can also elect to receive a monthly report with the Social Security numbers of their own employees whose records were accessed, the date of the request and what type of records (salary or employment history) were viewed, says Ford. But employers are never told who is making the request or why, she says.
Companies, including would-be creditors, that make inquiries pay to access the data, which cost from $12.50 to $31 per employee, depending on the number and type of records they need, says Ford. To access salary information, they need the employee's permission.
Employment verification data includes: the company name, the employee's job title, whether the employee is active or inactive, the start date, the most recent hire date and the total length of time with the company, says Ford.
Salary inquiries would include the same information, along with pay rate and frequency, year-to-date earnings and two years of wages, she says.
To access a work history, a company needs to provide the employee's Social Security number and a legitimate reason in accordance with the inquiring company's business, says Ford.
"We are a conduit to efficiently and electronically provide this information to verifiers who need it from employers who have it," says Ford.
A database like The Work Number that uses online interaction can be "a significant convenience for employers and employees," says Peter Swire, law professor at Ohio State University and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
At the same time, "the size of the database makes it a big, new target," he says. Besides the risk of insider abuse, or identity theft, he says, "it's also a tempting target for government investigations and discovery in lawsuits.
"The first rule of databases is, 'If you build it, they will come,'" says Swire.
And the Social Security number isn't the big secret a lot of people assume it is, he says. "For millions of Americans, their Social Security number is up on the Web," says Swire. "So using a Social Security number as a 'secret' is bad security."
Still, online and electronic systems "for better or for worse, make background checks easier," he says.