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Tenant screening could cost you rental

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"Nobody cared that they were gathering this information," Fishman says. "This only becomes a problem when they're using screening reports to deny apartments."

Criminal records checked too
Another potential source of headaches for prospective tenants is the criminal background check. While many believe they'll sail smoothly through a criminal check, that may not always be the case because of the way these checks are conducted.

Ideally, screening companies would use the states' CORI (criminal offender record information) systems to get a complete picture of an individual's criminal record. Unfortunately, because state governments often charge a fee for access to these systems, screening companies may use arrest records instead. This can cause those who have been charged with a crime to be red-flagged even if they were later acquitted.

"The police blotter is public information, but it doesn't tell you the disposition of the case," says Mac McCreight, a senior attorney with the housing unit of Greater Boston Legal Services. "The tenant will have to prove the disposition was positive, and sometimes that can be tricky."

Finally, like their credit bureau brethren, tenant screening bureaus have a tendency to mix up the records of those with similar names. "There can be identity issues that can be problematic," says McCreight. "Those with extremely common names can have problems." In other words, even if you've never done anything that would land you on a tenant screening bureau's blacklist, being a John Smith or a Judy Jones might be enough to get your records scrambled with someone who has.

You are responsible
So is there anything prospective tenants can do to prevent these screening snafus? It's a good news/bad news situation.

The good news: Most tenant screening companies and tenant databases are willing to change inaccuracies or at least investigate them in order to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a Federal law that requires consumer information collected by credit and tenant bureaus to be fair and accurate. "As with any information that is reported to a credit reporting company, if the information is inaccurate, the consumer can fill out a dispute form online or call us directly," says Clifton O'Neal, director of public relations for TransUnion. "There's a very streamlined process specified by law that ensures a consumer will receive an answer to his or her disputed item within a 30-day period."

The bad news: The burden of finding and changing these inaccuracies and omissions is on the consumer. And by the time an error is corrected, your dream apartment will probably be long gone. "Everything else happens in the meantime and the unit is rented out. There's no link between correcting the information and the process being ground to a halt," says McCreight.

Under the FCRA, consumers are entitled to a free copy of their consumer data from any tenant screening bureau that considers itself a consumer reporting agency (CRA). First Advantage SafeRent maintains a Web site that gives instructions on how to send for a free copy of your file.

The process for disputing bad information with a tenant screening bureau is nearly identical to the process required to change incorrect information on a credit bureau report.

So if you're looking to rent in a tight market, take a look at your credit report and contact a tenant bureau for a copy of your consumer file. A little bit of planning might prevent your perfect apartment from becoming the one that got away.

Claes Bell is a freelance writer based in North Palm Beach, Fla.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: Aug. 17, 2007
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