It’s a problem that people with common last names face often: being mistaken for another with the same name and birthdate. But Richardson-based RealPage, which provides tenant screening information to landlords and property managers, ran into trouble when the FTC found their tenant screening software misidentified potential renters as criminals, who then were turned down for housing.
RealPage will pay $3 million, the largest civil penalty to date, to settle FTC charges that allege they violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by failing to take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of tenant screening information provided to its clients.
“You shouldn’t get turned down for an apartment because someone has the wrong information about you,” said Andrew Smith, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a Oct. 16 statement. “This case shows that, especially with today’s tight rental market, we will hold tenant screening companies responsible for the accuracy of their reports.”
The FTC alleges that from at least January 2012 until September 2017, RealPage compiled screening reports through an automated system that used the applicant’s first name, middle name when available, last name, and date of birth when searching for criminal records. Its matching criteria only required an exact match of an applicant’s last name along with a non-exact match of a first name, middle name, or date of birth, the FTC alleges. For example, if RealPage searched an applicant named Anthony Jones born on October 15, 1967, it would deem a match if it found a criminal record for Antony Jones 10/15/67, Antonio Jones 10/15/67, and Antoinette Jones 10/15/67.
For years, screening companies have relied on name and date-of-birth combinations for personal identification, absent of more accurate, but sensitive, personally-identifying information such as Social Security or driver’s license numbers.
“We were disappointed that the FTC singled out RealPage for an issue that has confronted the entire screening industry, namely how to match applicants with common last names to public records when most courts do not make social security or driver’s license numbers available as part of those records,” RealPage said in a statement. “We believe our newest matching technology provides market-leading accuracy in spite of these challenges. While we disagree with the FTC’s assertions, we agreed to settle this matter in order to avoid the expense and distraction of litigation.”
RealPage calls the percentage of people falsely associated with criminal records “a minuscule fraction” of its screening report results.
According to a 2015 IDAnalytics report, “The Trouble With Names and Dates of Birth Combinations as Identifiers,” data analysts found that 92 percent of U.S. residents in its database could uniquely be identified solely by their names and dates of birth.
IDAnalytics found the five most common first names were John, Mary, James, Robert, and Michael, which comprise well over 50 percent of the population. But the five most common last names—Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, and Brown—account for only a small fraction of the population. The data represents Social Security Administration data from the birth years of 1900 to 2010.
However, IDAnalytics, a subsidiary of Lifelock identity protection software, warns in the report, “Although not very common, during recent decades, state agencies reliance on name-DOB combinations have known to produce unpleasant, sometimes catastrophic outcomes for persons who were misidentified as criminals or other type of law-breakers.”