Friday, January 13, 2023

The Work Number

Turns out, there is yet another database out there that tracks your life.

I recently became aware of "" which is an Equifax company and has employment records for millions of people.  Apparently, it has been around since 1985 (no doubt in fax form back then) as a means for employers to verify employment data.  As an employee, you can request a copy of your employment data, but it isn't easy.

I tried logging onto the site for "employees" and it asked me for my employer information.  Having been self-employed for the last 20 years (before I retired 4 years ago) I tried using the names of law firms I worked at (all merged by now) and then the Patent Office and then Carrier.  Each time, it sent me to a login page for that company - as if I was trying to log in as the company owner.  I checked and re-checked and it kept going around in circles before it finally locked me out.  I guess I will have to mail in a request for my employment data.   At this point, it is moot, but I am curious as to what they have, if anything in their files.  You can also request a "freeze" in your report, which is interesting, but I am not sure what that does, other than prevent others from viewing it?

Like I said, it is irrelevant for me, and likely irrelevant for most people.  All it contains is employment data from companies that subscribe to the service.  If you work for a Mom-and-Pop operation or are self-employed, that data likely will not appear on the report.

When hiring someone to work for a company, Human Resources managers theoretically do a number of checks on the background of an applicant, including:

  • Credit Report
  • Criminal Records Report
  • Banking Report (Chex Report)
  • Employment Verification

As you can see, a lot of your life is stored now on computers, and if that data is less then flattering, it could come back to haunt you later in life.

That's why, in part, I sympathize with the plight of young people today.  As I noted before, when I was a kid, many of the cons and scams of today were flat-out illegal.  Gambling was limited to one state and lotteries simply didn't exist, outside of "numbers running" by the mafia.   If you had a poor credit history, no one would loan you money and thus it was a lot harder to get into debt, unless of course, you went to a mafia loan shark.

You see the connection here  All this stuff that was illegal was run by organized crime.  Today, organized crime is legal, leaving the mafia with little to do in their spare time, other than to create labor strife or pad government contracts. But all that other stuff?  Perfectly legal now. Well, maybe except prostitution and some drugs.  But they'll probably legalize that soon, on the grounds that the taxes on it will fund our schools.  Won't someone think of the children?  I guess they could have vocational training in high school to become pole-dancers or something.  That's legal.

But I digress.

Back in the day, you screwed up your finances, it was no one's business but you and your lenders.  If you were overextended or late on payments, well, they stopped loaning you money.  Today, they ruin your credit report and keep loaning you money, but at onerous loan-shark rates.  And since your credit rating is shot, you can't buy a house or even rent a decent apartment.  You can't even buy a car - other than at some "buy here pay here" scammy used car lot.

So you screw up once, at age 18, it haunts you for a decade or more - not just in terms of being able to get a loan or mortgage, but in terms of employment and housing and who knows?  Maybe even dating.  Maybe a pre-nup in the future will have to include a copy of your credit report!

All that being said, it isn't going to change anytime soon.  Or more precisely, making your life plans predicated on major social change isn't always a smart idea.  Social changes are difficult to enact, and can be easily reversed.  Sadly, I am sure there are some kids today signing student loan documents and saying to themselves, "No worries, Uncle Joe will get my loans forgiven!"  But as we are seeing, Uncle Joe doesn't have omniscient powers and Congress is too weak to legislate any form of loan forgiveness - which is still unpopular with a lot of people.  And Presidents change every 4-8 years.

No, you still have to play by the rules as they are, rather than crying "unfair!" and asking for a do-over.

But is it fair to use these computerized records to judge people?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  When you hire someone in America, it can be damn difficult to fire them, particularly in some States.  If they turn out to be duds - not working, stealing from the company, causing drama, harassing other employees - you have to carefully document each offense and even then, if you accumulate enough to fire them, they will be the type to sue you for wrongful termination.

Similarly, if you are a landlord, you own this piece of property that may be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and can be easily destroyed by a tenant - or at least damaged.  Worse yet, they might not pay rent and you have to hire a lawyer to evict them - which in some jurisdictions can take months.  You might lose the property to foreclosure in the interim, if you can't keep up with the mortgage payments (oddly enough, banks can evict almost on a moment's notice!).  So you want to make sure you have a decent, rent-paying tenant, before you hand over this expensive thing to them.

People don't get that.  Employees and renters - the passive folks who never own but always owe - look at things only from their perspective and whine about how unfair it all is.  And sometimes it is indeed, unfair.  The world is often an unfair place.  That does not mean, of course, that you have no options.

When I was young, I made a whole host of financial mistakes, including massive amounts of drug and alcohol abuse (that shit's expensive!).  I bounced checks to the point where the bank asked me to take my business elsewhere.  So I joined the credit union - they weren't too keen on me bouncing checks either.  It was pretty stupid - paying a $15 check bouncing fee for a check that was less than $15.  That's how the poor get poorer.  Some claim this is an inevitable part of being poor.  Others disagree.

So what's the point?  Well, only that is hasn't gotten better, but worse.  In the days before computers and the Internet, it was a lot easier to hide your wrongdoings.  I recounted before how, while working at Domino's Pizza, I was sent to a wrong address and nearly mugged.  Today it is all on computers, and if some address is "off" they might not send a driver.  Similarly, if you are the kind of customer who complains a lot and tries to wangle a free pie, you might get spiked from the system.

Our computer society has some advantages.  But you get on the wrong side of the ledger - even due to "computer error" (which is a euphemism for "operator error") it can be damn hard to get back into the good graces of the system.  Today, you make big mistakes in life, they basically throw you away.

We talk big about "rehabilitation" in prison - offering college courses to felons so they can get a leg up when they are released.  But as soon as they are released, they find out they are not welcome anywhere - or damn few places, anyway.  And often, even employers are not at fault.   You hire someone with a criminal record, your insurance company might cancel your policy.  Or you may be sued if the felon  you hired assaults a customer.  You had a duty to investigate his background and you failed!  So it isn't just employers, but an entire system at work.

But even if you don't break any major laws, but instead just have shitty credit, you may find yourself falling off the edge of the earth, as no one will hire you, marry you, or rent you an apartment, much less sell you a house.  Of course, to me, the opposite was often true - some of my best tenants were decent people who made financial mistakes earlier in life, who wanted to turn things around, but were summarily rejected by the "big name" apartment complexes.  Those folks paid their rent regularly!

Others don't see it that way - once a scofflaw, always a scofflaw, once a deadbeat, always a deadbeat.  No second chances!

OK, so that is not the fault of "The Work Number" which just lists where you worked and when.  But it illustrates how everything in your life is now stored in a computer somewhere - including all your social media posts and blog entries (one reason I am no longer employable!) and even your text messages and e-mails.  And yes, I have heard of instances where potential employers, police officers, and border guards, demand to see your phone and that you provide the password to it so they can see if you a terrorists or not.

Pretty scary stuff.  Oh, brave new world!