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Business booms for background checkers

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SAN FRANCISCO — Two days after terrorist attacks toppled the World Trade Center, the chief executive of Empire International spent $40,000 for criminal background checks on all 500 of his livery drivers, most of whom work in New York City.

He couldn't really afford it, since the slowing economy was hurting his business already, and travel to New York-area airports was practically nonexistent since the attacks. But it was the only way he could think of to reassure his clients that they're safe with his drivers, some of whom have Middle Eastern backgrounds.

"We wanted to give people an additional sense of security," said David Seelinger, president and chief executive of New Jersey-based Empire International Ltd. "So they know who's driving their car and that there are no problems."

A week later, after all the checks "came back clean," Seelinger sent his clients a reassuring e-mail.

"Is it an extra level of comfort? Absolutely," he said. "Can you uncover something? Of course you can."

Dennis Stevenson, a driver with Empire International, said he didn't mind having his background checked.

"You're going to be picking up high-profile people," he said. "They need to know that you're OK."

Most industry experts agree that a criminal records check would not have rooted out the terrorists suspected in the attacks in New York and Washington. Still, if the flight schools that trained some of the hijackers had done an inexpensive identity check on their students, they might have discovered that the would-be pilots were misrepresenting themselves.

"An identity check is probably a better preventative measure for terrorism than a criminal background check," said Gary Cornick, president of San Jose-based Peoplewise, which does both.

Peoplewise charges about $6 for a basic identity verification, showing that a person's name, address, phone number and Social Security number all match up.

Renee Svec, spokeswoman for Florida-based HireCheck, the company Seelinger used to check his drivers, agreed.

"We can help employers make sure the person they're hiring is who they represent themselves to be," she said. "What we can't tell is if they're a terrorist. There's no database for that."

Many companies already do the minimum, verifying information on job applications. The next step is a criminal records check. Peoplewise said its own surveys suggest that 64 percent of U.S. businesses did some type of criminal record check on its employees last year, up from 44 percent in 1998.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, clients have called to explore doing more intense checks, and airport-based businesses are particularly concerned, said Dave Cook, with Atlanta-based ChoicePoint Inc., which does risk management and fraud prevention, primarily for the insurance industry.

"They're wondering, 'Should we be broadening our scope to cover more areas, more years, should we add checks on top of what we're doing?' " Cook said.

"We grow because of the fears of employers and landlords," said Robert Mather, president of Pre-employ.com. "I wish it was because we were selling Popsicles."