The ads are strikingly creepy, encouraging readers to be suspicious of those they know and love. In one (pictured at right), which has run in The Seattle Times and other local and national publications, there's a depiction of a wholesome young couple who, as evidenced by a packing box, are meant to be moving in together. In bold letters, the ad proclaims: "Get the whole story on him, before it's too late." Judging from what's scribbled on the box, the whole story on this handsome, dark-haired fellow includes "domestic violence convictions" and "bankruptcy." The ad continues: "Before making an important decision—like moving in with someone, hiring a nanny or letting a handyman into your home—protect yourself with a comprehensive background check."
"Appearances can be deceiving," intones a TV ad for the same company, Bellevue-based Intelius. "Nearly half of all crimes are committed by someone the victim knows." A montage of scenes flashes on the screen, suggesting that danger lurks beneath seemingly placid exteriors: a cute nanny wearing a T-shirt that reads, "3 drunk driving convictions"; a contractor on a suburban street taking equipment out of a truck that bears the words: "Ask me about my fraud convictions."
The ads refer you to Intelius' online background checks, which use public documents to delve into an individual's court records, property holdings, address history, and, the company claims, "relatives and associates."
"They're marketing by way of fear," observes University of Southern California sociologist Barry Glassner, author of the book The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. "The question we need to ask is whether the levels of concern and paranoia they're tapping into are un–reasonable." Glassner, who has researched crime statistics to make the case that our fears are out of proportion to the dangers we face, believes they are.
"Why not offer a half-price spousal investigation?" quips Gregory Solman, West Coast editor of Adweek, noting the ads' buy-one-get-one-free offer.
In a sleek, angular conference room overlooking downtown Bellevue, Edward Petersen, Intelius' executive vice president of sales and marketing, presents his own placid exterior. Clean-shaven with moussed hair, khakis, and a button-down shirt, Petersen reacts with mild surprise at the suggestion that Intelius is preying on peoples' darkest fears. "I don't think our message is that the sky is falling, that everyone is an ax murderer," he says.
Petersen claims that the impetus for the company's focus came as the six founders of the company were chatting about what services could best be provided online. But they didn't just want to provide people with a method by which to order a background check online; they wanted to deliver the background check via the Internet as well. In other words, it wouldn't be a derivative of Amazon.com, which takes orders online but ships them the old-fashioned way.
When the idea of background checks occurred to them—along with several other services they provide to individuals and business, including identity-theft protection—they were drawing on personal experience. Petersen says one of the founders hired a contractor who did one job but then skipped off with a down payment and promptly dissolved his company before doing any work on a second. Turned out, the contractor had done this before, leaving a trail of dissolved companies behind him.
Another founder hired someone to work around his house. At one point, the worker's duties included driving the founder's teenager to school—until the founder learned through word of mouth that the worker had been convicted of statutory rape.
Petersen says Intelius is selling "a way of life: to make sure you have the facts straight about important decisions in your life." He and his prosecutor wife recently used Intelius' employee background check when hiring a nanny for their new baby. Everything checked out, he says.
A couple of years ago, Kelli West, a 38-year-old Yahoo sales rep who had previously worked with some of the Intelius crew, was talking to Petersen about a man she had just met through Match.com.
She and her beau from Match.com, a contractor, had experienced a fabulous first date. They first went for a walk near West's Madrona home. They then drove to the downtown Seattle library, just in time to see the colors of sunset reflected in the library's soaring planes of glass. "I said, 'OK, this guy is cool,'" West recalls. And yet, she felt he had an "odd, mysterious way about him."
So Petersen suggested she try the Intelius background check. West obliged, and was startled to find out that he had declared bankruptcy and done jail time for assault. Nonetheless, after the contractor offered convincing explanations (the assault charge resulted from a bar brawl in which a friend was in danger), she continued to go out with him for three more dates before deciding he was not the man for her.
In three years of operations, Intelius says it has served 4 million customers. And in the last year, the company has grown from 40 employees to 113, who occupy three floors of their high-rise locale. No doubt, each incident like the recent shooting of a University of Washington staffer by a former boyfriend stokes more fear and generates more business.
Obviously, Intelius' background check provides some information, but just how much? A $50 fee will supply information from a variety of records at the state, county, and city level; an extra fee supplies a search of criminal records nationwide. When I checked myself out, I found addresses going back some 20 years to my time in New York City, but they didn't have dates of residence, and they were not chronological. Most impressively, the report dug out my parents' names and their address—although it also listed two additional erroneous addresses for them. The report included the assessed value of my house and the name of my husband, which is listed on the property. Yet, apparently going by people who share my last name and lived near a previous address, it listed a couple of supposed "relatives and associates" of whom I've never heard. When asked how Intelius comes up with relatives and associates, Petersen explains that the names listed are merely people who at one time lived with (and apparently, from my search, around) the individual in question.
But when I did a background check on Intelius CEO Naveen Jain, there was no mention of a healthy amount of civil litigation related to Jain's past tenure as CEO of InfoSpace, a Bellevue high-tech company where many of the Intelius founders used to work (and whose offices are right across the street). In those suits, shareholders accused Jain of misleading them and artificially inflating the company's stock value for private gain, a subject also explored in a 2005 Seattle Times investigation.
Petersen, himself an InfoSpace alum, explains that the information may be missing because the suits against Jain are filed in federal court, a venue not plumbed by Intelius' background check, which looks only at state records in the civil realm. But you have only to plug Jain's name into the free online records search offered by the Washington state court system to find 20 cases in King County Superior and District courts (not all related to InfoSpace), in addition to 30 cases filed in federal court.
Whether or not suspicion is useful armor to take with you through life, even Intelius, it seems, can't offer the whole story.