ChoicePoint: Blur

Among his alleged crimes: child molestation and rape.

Calderon tried to protest his innocence.

He told his captors that his Social Security number and birth certificate had been stolen nine years before. He told them that they could look up his file.

He had reported the theft to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Station in Norwalk, Calif., 15 miles up Interstate 5.

He asked the Anaheim Police Department to check his fingerprints. Instead, his hands were put in cuffs.

He was taken to a back room. The file that got checked was … his wallet. Sure, his driver’s license listed him as three inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter than the man described on the arrest warrant. But he was Hispanic, and he had the right name and birth date.

Calderon spent the next week in jail—for crimes he didn’t commit.

How did he end up in this mess?

A Fry’s manager, Tyra Fizel, had requested a background check when Calderon was being hired. The criminal warrants came in a report provided by The Screening Network, a service of ChoicePoint, the $1 billion-a-year data broker based in Alpharetta, Ga. When she saw the felony charges, she called the police.

Eighty percent of medical bills have errors. Sixty percent of retail invoices include wrong products, wrong quantities or wrong weights. Ten percent of all direct mail is undeliverable because of bad addresses.
It’s only going to get worse. The information stored by U.S. companies is doubling every three years. No company’s information is always accurate. Companies such as ChoicePoint, which sell information on individuals for a profit, say it’s not their problem. But if you’re the wrong Steven Calderon, it becomes your problem. Or you wind up in jail.


But no one—not Fizel, not Fry’s, not the police—stopped to ask if the data ChoicePoint supplied was accurate. If they had, they might have found out that he was, indeed, an innocent man. Calderon’s identity theft report, which he made in Norwalk, Calif., in 1993, wasn’t connected with the criminal files that were created in his name.

ChoicePoint, since its Feb. 15 admission that it was fooled into selling personal information on 35,000 Californians to fake businesses set up by Nigerian criminals—and its admission two days later that it really sold information on 145,000 people—has become the poster child for problems in keeping corporate data secure.

Several class-action lawsuits have been filed in the wake of the February security snafu, both by ChoicePoint shareholders and by people whose information ChoicePoint may have sold.

Government bodies—from Congress, to the Federal Trade Commission, to a group of state attorneys general—are in the midst of investigating ChoicePoint for violation of laws regarding the security of information held about consumers by for-profit companies.

Story Guide:

Blur: The Importance of Accuracy

  • Not Just Security, But Accuracy
  • ‘Serious’ Errors Are Common
  • Data Customers Pay the Costs
  • Collecting Data Without Garbage Filters
  • Records ‘Full of Inaccuracies’
  • Crap In, Crap Out
  • Fix It Yourself
  • No Way to Check
  • ChoicePoint Data at a Glance