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Tenant Screening

Information about you is largely unregulated and information brokers are largely invisible
to government or individuals

More landlords use 3rd party sources to screen prospective tenants, more info is available on line, and you create more info without your knowledge. 

Credit reporting agencies:
  Equifax, Transunion and Experian provide "credit" reports that are generally in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act.  If a homeseeker is denied a rental unit BASED ON A CREDIT REPORT, the homeseeker must be notifed in writing that a credi report was used.  You can view your credit report once a year for free.  Many services will also SELL you this info.  HINT: don't pay for what's free. 

Data Brokers are the new kids on the block.  Their business model is different than credit agencies which gather info from merchants and public sources to create a personal report for each consumer.  Data Brokers harvest data from a variety of sources including your on line transactions (searches, purchases, social media comments).  Data brokers may use anonymous "references".  Then the Data Brokers profile you and provide that profile to landlords.  The profile is not personal--just says that the company thinks you fit into that category.  Right now data brokers are largely unregulated unless you can prove that the information provided was false.

Tenant Screening companies straddle the fence between credit reporting agencies and data brokers.
  • Landlord Service Providers (Yardi, others) offer a broad range of rental support services from accounting to managing security deposits and...providing tenant screening services. Typically these organizations are serving large management companies and operating (more or less) transparently in compliance with the law. These large multifunction companies don't make much money of tenant screening and may offer screening as loss leader for their other services. Large service providers may do some reference checking (landlords and employers) if, I am told, there is a discrepancy that emerges from the “objective” findings. These services are invariably fee for service operations.
  • Screening Info Providers.  This service will pull together data from credit reports, criminal background databases, and court records...some, but not all, use “reference” information in their reports and/or will gather reference information by interviews, maybe “other” sources.. Organizations like RenTec seem to comply with FCRA requirements and do not do investigations of “references” These services are both membership based and fee for service based. This slide show provides a nice overview of this type of “Consumer Reporting Agency”.
  • On line websites:  There are a significant number of tenant screening “businesses” that don't use objective data from public records in favor of gathering and supplying  personal references submitted by landlords (and presumably members of the public). These services range from more sophisticated (eg. to more blatant eg. The National Tenant Reporting Company, but all share the characteristic of not disclosing who is behind the company and where and how they get their info. Some of these sites are member based; several offer free memberships and services, perhaps as a way to avoid FCRA coverage, but begging the question as to how the make their money (see mugshot websites business model).  
  • Blacklists also include informal networks of landlords who share information about tenants in their local communities. As one landlord in Vinton County told Spencer Wells (RHINO Community Manager): “We know all the troublemakers and their families.” Because these are voluntary associations carrying out a non-financial sharing (rather than a business) I suspect only an “insider” would know what was going on. I think that maybe the Landlord Protection Agency s the closest that an outsider can get to this form of tenant screening.
Don't want your landlord to know, be careful what you share on line
    More than half of the problem with "landlord surveillance" is the fact that tenants give away all their secrets.  Today's Pittsburgh Post Gazette features an article entitled:  Surveillance Society: Rewards cards double as data mines:  Retailers use them to compile customer purchase histories.  But it's not just retailers, it's anyone who wants to buy your profile from a data broker. ...the average U.S. household belonged to 29 programs, though they were active in just 12. In successful programs, he said, 'the focus is about marrying the behavior data to the other data available — [including a customer’s] Internet searches and answering surveys.'”
    Read the story here.  Read more about data brokers here.
What's News?
AUG. 16, 2016 New York Times On Tenant Blacklist, Errors and Renters With Little Recourse
        Margot Miller, who has been living at a convent in Harlem, was disqualified from an apartment because she had once been sued by a landlord, landing her on a tenant blacklist. 
       After two years of being homeless, napping in stores open all night and more recently staying in a convent in Harlem, Margot Miller found out in March that her luck was about to change: She had qualified for an apartment for low-income older adults.

1/14/15 President Obama pledges to re introduce Privacy Bill of Rights Bill would create a VOLUNTARY standard for on line companies. RHINO says: small first step.

1/14/15: Coincidence? Former HUD Secy joins First Data as "government relations" advisor. Read it here.

5/2/14 White House Panel Reports A panel
commissioned by President Barack Obama to examine the implications of "big data" concluded that cloud and e-mail content should be constitutionally protected—a recommendation that Congress is seemingly unwilling to adopt. Summary at: and here:

Civil Rights organizations question role of big data in discrimination In the Washington Post there's an article about mainstream Civil Rights organizations raising questions about big data as a tool for discrimination...echoing some of the concerns raised several months ago in rhino!UP. Here's the take away: "Big data has supercharged the potential for discrimination by corporations and the government in ways that victims don’t even see," said Wade Henderson, chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "This threatens to undermine the core civil rights protections guaranteed by the law in ways that were unimaginable even in the most recent past." Here's the link

Consumer protections are slim or none

Fair Credit Reporting Act
Consumer Sales Practices Act (Ohio) doesn't apply to households seeking rental housing, but...(see below)

Possible steps in challenging false information that is being used to make rent to decisions are:

1. Ask the prospective landlord to give a written statement of the basis for the denial. Did the prospective landlord give any clues about the basis for the denial? Is there reason to believe that prospective landlord used a 3rd party reference? Some skilled interrogation can sometimes be helpful. Asking a management company what sources they used to get reference material will sometimes reveal some helpful leads. Asking a landlord or manager to be “more specific” about what he or she discovered in the background check can reveal some leads.

2. If false information is discovered, then:
Tenant screening organizations which are trying to operate under the provisions of FCRA should be willing to provide information on what info they have about an applicant and to correct mis information.

It is unclear if the OAG could investigate a tenant complaint against a prospective landlord under the Consumer Sales Practices Act (depending on the OAG's interpretation of Heritage Hills v. Deacon)...but a complaint against an consumer information provider might be easier to handle.
you might find that a data broker will share what information it maintains about you. Here's an example: Find out what Axcion knows about you

Other steps to challenge true information that was used in making a denial decision.

Offer the landlord offsetting or countervailing evidence that tips the balance in the home seeker's favor. Tenant with an old unresolved debt has a stellar record of paying rent at his current location. Since no homeseeker is perfect, usually landlords are making decisions based on the preponderance of the evidence and tipping that scale can make a difference. Example-a bad landlord reference may be offset by a good reference.

If a bad report was DIRECTLY the result of a disability, homeseeker can request a “reasonable accommodation” of the owners tenant screening policy. For example-an eviction or criminal record based on behavior that was the result of alcoholism or mental illness (but not substance abuse) may be "accommodated" if the tenant can show that the behaviors have been brought under control.
Preventing a problem

Anything you do on line is subject to become "data" for use by a data broker. Think twice before responding to an on line survey or posting questionable material on a social media site.
Keep a file of documents to show that you were a good tenant. Thanks notes, references. Jeep your rent receipts so that you can counter a false claim that you had a bad payment record.
If you do file a complaint about conditions, keep pictures, inspection reports or witness statements about the condition to show that your claim was legitimate.

Subpages (1): Data Brokers
Spencer Wells,
Dec 29, 2013, 9:11 AM
Spencer Wells,
Dec 30, 2013, 7:26 AM
Spencer Wells,
Dec 29, 2013, 9:12 AM