Government background check
May 26, 2005 10:28 PM   Subscribe

I opened my unlisted mailbox this morning to find an unaddressed business card with the seal of a federal agency, claiming that "The U.S. Government is conducting a background investigation on a person you may know." Is it for real and what should I make of it?

I'm not sure if it was meant for me or the guy who lived in my place before. It doesn't say whom it's to, but is signed "Jenny Kham" over the title INVESTIGATOR. It goes on to say, "Please call my office during the business day and leave a message of where and when I may contact you to arrange an interview." It has a local West Coast area code, not a Washington one, and in small print it says "IS Form 20" at the bottom.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (48 answers total)
 
Yeah, a couple of government agencies including the DoD (as in the case with the NSA) perform very extensive background checks for security clearance. Having gone through the NSA interview process where a security clearance of 'top secret' is required for all jobs, this is routine. Essentially, the person of whom is applying for clearance gives out names of folks that would know him/her and an investigator contacts those named and has a short sitdown with them regarding habits, history, etc... or in some cases, they may only ask you for names of people that know this person. I'd say give 'em a call, it's probably legit.
posted by grahamux at 10:40 PM on May 26, 2005


I dunno; it seems to me that if your name had been given as a reference for someone getting security clearance, you'd have received at least a somewhat less cryptic indication of that -- e.g., something along the lines of a phone message or letter saying "[Joe Blow], you have been given as a security reference for [Bob Schmoe]. Please contact us to assist us in this process." A business card left in your mailbox looks more like a fishing expedition not for a security clearance, but rather for, well, an investigation investigation. (I've had friends who have been investigated for both -- and for all I know, given my politics and many years as a very active rabble-rouser, I may have been investigated at one point too.)

I'm sorry, but with the Patriot Act being what it is, this just smells fishy to me. And I don't wish to sound paranoid, but it could also be a way of simply getting information out of you about yourself. (Are you of a "certain ethnicity"? Have you been openly involved recently with antiwar activities? Seriously, I know people who have been investigated on those broad bases alone). The fact is, you're under no obligation to talk to the feds for any reason -- even if they come banging on your door tomorrow, legally you don't have to say anything. If it's truly as simple and straightforward a matter as a security clearance for a friend, I honestly believe they'd say so at least somewhat more directly. My advice is to ignore it; if they contact you again (and they still won't tell you who/what they want to talk to you about), contact a lawyer.
posted by scody at 11:00 PM on May 26, 2005


scody -
If it was just a business card dropped in a box, it's likely they stopped by, knocked on the door, and anon wasn't home.
Ignoring it just slows down the process (getting a security clearance takes long enough already) and risks costing anon's friend the clearance (and thus the job).

anon -
Have you googled the phone number to see what shows up?
Personally, I'd call the agent and help them out, but if you're really paranoid, you could call the local(or regional, depending on the agency) and ask for "Jenny Kham". If they connect you, it's all on the up and up, if not, well, you can decide after that what to do.
posted by madajb at 11:25 PM on May 26, 2005


Ignoring it just slows down the process (getting a security clearance takes long enough already) and risks costing anon's friend the clearance (and thus the job).

That's assuming that this is about a friend getting a security clearance. There are plenty of other reasons the feds investigate people. Which is precisely why I believe that if it were about something as (relatively) straightforward and time-sensitive as a security clearance, they'd say so.
posted by scody at 11:29 PM on May 26, 2005


which isn't to say that I know for a fact that this isn't about a security clearance -- just that I've had friends investigated in the past couple of years for their political activities, and in more than one case it started out by the feds just "dropping by" to "ask a few questions."
posted by scody at 11:32 PM on May 26, 2005


If it was me I would ring them. (although googling the number sounds sensible) But I wouldn't give them any information whatsoever over the phone. But I would ask them a few questions such as how they found you, what it's about etc. If it's legitimate then they will want your assistance and so they should have to front up with some good I.D.
Oh... you say 'a federal agency'. I agree with madajb. I would google that agency, looking to see if they have a west coast office. Then perhaps you could ring them on their main number and enquire about Jenny Pham.
posted by peacay at 12:45 AM on May 27, 2005


Oh for goodness sakes -- do as madajb suggests, calling the main switchboard just to verify the agent is on the up and up. As for whether or not they're actually investigating YOU, well, just keep a cautious eye on what you say if you feel you have any reason to be concerned, and if they get pushy, clam up and get a lawyer.

However much we'd like to think that the Government is out to get everyone they contact (conspiracy theories are far more fun than the mundanity of everyday life), this is so far from the truth that it's ridiculous. I'm sure things are more J. Edgar Hoover-ish (replete with the dresses and make-up) than they were 10 years ago, but less than, say, 40 years ago.
posted by incessant at 12:47 AM on May 27, 2005


No conspiracy theories here; I'm fresh out of tinfoil hats, really. The fact remains that I have friends who've been investigated under the Patriot Act -- yes, by agents very much on the "up and up" -- and this is how it started in more than one case. As for watching my own back, I personally wouldn't say a single word to a federal agent to begin with because...

just keep a cautious eye on what you say if you feel you have any reason to be concerned, and if they get pushy, clam up and get a lawyer.

...I don't see any point in giving them any information or an opportunity to get pushy in the first place. I'm under no legal obligation to speak to the feds (no matter how "cautious" or clever I'd like to believe I'd be) or give them any information just because they ask.

I'm sure things are more J. Edgar Hoover-ish (replete with the dresses and make-up) than they were 10 years ago, but less than, say, 40 years ago.

Huh? So you're saying that yes, domestic spying has gotten worse in the past decade and has been accompanied by a resurgence in cross-dressing? But that we don't still have to worry until things get as bad as they were under Hoover? That's neither particularly logical nor comforting.


Anyway, anon, that's my 2 cents. If it's as simple as a security clearance, I believe the burden is on them to say so. If you feel you (or your friends/family) have no reason to fear making contact, go ahead and call. If you have your doubts, call a lawyer instead.
posted by scody at 1:25 AM on May 27, 2005


Personally? I think it has nothing to do with the government. I've been involved in giving references for people for clearances before and normally I just got a phone call from somebody who clearly identified themself and gave a clear way to verify that they were who they claimed to be.

I would be hesitant to assume that "the government" would be so cryptic. My money is on either viral marketing, or possibly a scam. If it's viral marketing I wouldn't be suprised if it were politics-related. By "West Coast" do you mean greater San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle? I wouldn't put it past a local political campaign to be raising awareness of the Patriot Act by going door-to-door.

I could be wrong, but anytime I've been involved in security clearance references it's been very straightforward.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 1:26 AM on May 27, 2005


Scody, my point was that it's very sexy to think of the government as being out to get you, but I just don't buy it. If they're gonna investigate you, they're gonna investigate you. Setting up an adversarial relationship with any government agent simply because they're a government agent is inane. Not everyone is a bad guy, including g-men.

It's a given that domestic spying is up. The government's abuse of power has risen since 9/11. But a tick upward doesn't mean that we've fallen into a police state. I know it's practically a crime to say such things among lefties, of which I consider myself, but I'm sick of an us vs. them attitude.

Anon, just find out what they want. It's probably nothing, but think scody and be cautious. Ignoring the request won't make them go away -- it'll just make them want to make your life more difficult.

Does anyone think this is Jenny Kham?
posted by incessant at 2:05 AM on May 27, 2005


They're probably just running a background check on a neighbor (hence a person you may know), likely somone in the military who just got a promotion and needs a higher secruity clearance.

A few years ago I got a mysterious letter like this and like you I was immediately sceptical. I called the FBI's Honolulu office and (after some initial confusion) confirmed the investigator's legitimacy and answered a few questions (though not many and not very helpfully since I didn't even know the neighbor in question that well).

Not a big deal but I was surprised that they don't anticipate this level of scepticism and attempt to head it off in advance, by providing the branch office phone number for example and inviting verification.
posted by zanni at 2:17 AM on May 27, 2005


Does anyone think this is Jenny Kham?

The name sounds like a bad play on JenniCam. Use of a homophone for "Cam[era]" also sets off my "they're not who they say they are" detectors. If the FBI wanted to talk to you then you'd know. If they were spying on you then you wouldn't find a card taped to your door.

That said, if it's her real name then I feel silly.

Just my $0.02 (or $0.04 since it's my second time in).
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 2:18 AM on May 27, 2005


DoD employee here. When my brother applied for his top secret clearance, agents interviewed his neighbors. The questions were along the lines of "does he keep regular hours?" That is probably what this is. When I got my clearance they did the same, and also asked me to list three friends/acquaintances who they could call. I of course notified my friends to expect a call. It's probably legit.
posted by fixedgear at 2:32 AM on May 27, 2005


Yeah, very similar to a security interview. Your box was probably listed by your friend.

Call the agent and determine what it is about. You won't be compelled to talk.

There isn't any security risk in doing this since your box is already known. If you don't want to talk, it's nice to tell the agent. Otherwise they end up having to go in a loop trying to find you.
posted by rudyfink at 3:36 AM on May 27, 2005


If this happened to me, I would wait for them to contact me in person or by phone and tell me just what it is, exactly, that they are doing.

If it's viral/phone-mail spammers who think they have come up with a clever way to make you call them, they are probably breaking the law, big-time. It has to be a federal offence to forge documents, even if the seal isn't quite the same, etc. Can you find an image online of what this seal is supposed to look like? (if you are curious, that is.)
posted by taz at 3:57 AM on May 27, 2005


Some reasons to be rationally suspicious:

1) "Jenny Kham" is a very unusual name. A nexis search turned up one (1) Jenny Kham in the U.S.

2) A general Nexis news search of the sentence, "The U.S. Government is conducting a background investigation on a person you may know" turned up zero (0) articles with this sentence, over the past two years. I would expect that some columnist or reporter on some newspaper or magazine would have written about this in some way if it was a common type of thing.

3) A google search uncovered one entry with the exact sentence, "The U.S. Government ..." You may want to contact Benjamin, who got a similar card back in Dec. 2002. An excerpt from his blog entry:
"I came home on the 23rd to find a business card on his front door. Kim Dotson of the United States Office of Personnel Management. This is what the card says word for word.
"The U.S. Government is conducting a background investigation on a person you may know. Please call my office during the business day and leave a message of where and when I may contact you to arrange an interview."
posted by young_simba at 4:06 AM on May 27, 2005


I 2nd simba approach .. is the seal of the government agency true ? If so you should ask the same agency about somebody using their seal, probably by simply looking for their relationship-with-public telephone number and try to find out if the person exists, if it really works for a public well-known government agency et al.

It could as well be some scaring you into revealing information about you by using the "brand" of an agency..be sure that if any govt wanted to have you you'd already be in some jail with out without reason.
posted by elpapacito at 4:35 AM on May 27, 2005


For some reason, the wording "leave a message of where and when I may contact you" trips my alarms. It should be "saying where and when" no? I find weird diction is always a good tip off to spam/marketing scams. Then again, who says govt agents can write good?
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:54 AM on May 27, 2005


If the card doesn't *clearly* state what Agency this person claims to be working for, what you need to do is call the FBI, and have them investigate.

If it does list the agency, do what many upthread have suggested. Get a phonebook, call the switchboard, explain the situation. If the person is real, the operator can forward you to them. If not, the operator can forward you to somebody who'd really like to know who's pretending to work for them.

The posts about background checks are correct. Esp. for those seeking Top Secret and various complemented intelligence clearances, the background checks can be very thorough, and involve personal interviews.

However, the one time I was contacted, it was by a member of the FBI, who clearly identified themselves as such, stated that they were performing a background investigation for a security clearance (but not what clearance, or who, on the message), and they would appreciate it if I could contact them via the local FBI office (he left a number, which was the switchboard. )

The way this one is being done raises alarms -- but my encounter was 15 years ago.

To repeat: If the card lists an agency, call the main number for that Agency and ask about it. If it doesn't, call the FBI.
posted by eriko at 5:27 AM on May 27, 2005


It's worth noting that you don't really have a choice about whether or not to cooperate with a federal investigation. You ought to verify credentials, of course, but unless you want to take the Fifth, you're going to have to give them whatever information they want if they persist in asking. And you can imagine the consequences of taking the Fifth on a security investigation...
posted by MattD at 5:44 AM on May 27, 2005


Hell yeah dude, call the FBI. Period.
posted by stevejensen at 5:53 AM on May 27, 2005


The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducts background checks for prospective and active employees of a number of federal agencies for security clearance purposes at a variety of clearance levels (the FBI used to do this stuff for DOD - not sure if OPM does it for them now or not).

When a prospective employee initially fills out the questionnaire, they list several persons they feel can vouch for them. OPM sends out an investigator to talk to them & during the interview asks for additional names of friends/acquaintances who can speak to the applicant's mental, emotional & financial stability. Obviously an applicant would want to list on their application people who knew what was going on & would speak favorably about them (& make them sound like Captain America and Bucky) - that's why the investigator asks for additional names & why you may get contacted without the applicant giving you a heads up.

Anyone with an active clearance is reinvestigated every 5 years just to see if anything's happened in the interim that would be a concern about the employees stability, susceptability to blackmail, etc.

If you're concerned about the legitimacy of the card, by all means contact OPM and give them the name & number on the card and ask if it's legit. When the investigator talks to you, tell them the truth - don't embellish. A first interview can be kind of intimidating just because you have all these "what ifs" running around in your mind, but there's no real reason to be paranoid (as long as you stash the bong, if that's your thing) - these guys are not there to investigate you.
posted by Pressed Rat at 6:17 AM on May 27, 2005


Do any of your friends who might be pursuing government jobs know your unlisted mailbox address? If not, then I'm going to side with all the other paranoid people here, and advise you to either contact the FBI about the suspicious piece of mail or ignore it altogether.
posted by odinsdream at 8:00 AM on May 27, 2005


I agree with Pressed Rat--contact OPM. When I was having my background investigated for my Federal job I notified the people I had listed as contacts, plus my neighbors and other friends just in case, to give them a heads up so if they were contacted by the investigator they would know it was legit.
posted by govtdrone at 8:01 AM on May 27, 2005


Can I just put in a request that you give us an update once you figure it all out? Thanks! I guess the policy is to put updates in the thread these days.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 8:13 AM on May 27, 2005


If someone gave you as a reference, wouldn't they have given your phone number as well as your address? Or if the government was otherwise looking for you in particular, wouldn't they have simply looked up your phone number?

That they are asking you to call them with your contact info makes it seem like a stronger possibility that they may be looking for the former resident of your house, and they tried to call that person but the phone was disconnected because he moved.
posted by clarissajoy at 8:52 AM on May 27, 2005


Can I just put in a note that it's downright eerie that this is even an issue for you folks? It says a lot about the state of the union when an innocuous note causes this level of suspicion and wariness.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:55 AM on May 27, 2005


I went through this for a friend in the Army and there was nothing suspicious about it: my friend asked me if it was okay to use me as a reference, then a few weeks later the DoD called my house, explained what was going on, and asked when was a good time for an interview. So I arranged an appointment, the woman came out to interview me, showed her ID, and we had an hour-long or so sitdown interview in my living room. (the usual questions you'd expect, then a few additional ones that struck me as somewhat odd.)

About just getting a card in the mail: if they know where you live, why wouldn't they check your credit history and find out your phone number so they could talk to you directly? As it is, there's no proof the card is even for you, and I'd be inclined to throw it away.
posted by Tuwa at 8:57 AM on May 27, 2005


Based on my experience, I second what Pressed Rat said above. Contact OPM. By the way, the "IS" on the card stands for "Investigation Services"
posted by vacapinta at 9:38 AM on May 27, 2005


It says a lot about the state of the union when an innocuous note causes this level of suspicion and wariness.

Or it says a lot that activist groups have done a very effective job of making people aware of the risk of a slippery slope based on relatively small changes and that has everyone a bit paranoid.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 10:41 AM on May 27, 2005


... an innocuous note causes this level of suspicion and wariness.

An 'unaddressed business card' is NOT a note, nor is it proper mail. As one who has had a clearance in the past, it's my experience that references are contacted with a returnable postcard, asking the reference to verify that they know Joe Blow, and for how long. Top Secret clearances involve an actual interview with the reference.

I'm confused by anonymous' use of an 'unlisted' mailbox -- what's that mean, exactly? A PO box, a private mailbox? Whatever, it's not a phone number... is there a directory of mailboxes one can be delisted from? (I've maintained a PO box for decades, and have never heard of such a thing.) I find it very unusual that an agent would request that postal personnel place his calling card in a box, and that they'd play along -- isn't using the mail system like that (without postage) a crime?
posted by Rash at 11:25 AM on May 27, 2005


Occam's razor, people. What's the most basic explanation? That this is completely routine, not a conspiracy, not a scam. C'mon! And devildanced, you just made fish's point for her.
posted by incessant at 11:29 AM on May 27, 2005


I have a feeling, anonymous, if you were doing anything shady or had any friends one could say were not quite status-quo, you wouldn't even be asking this. If the worst crime you commit is downloading music, you're fine. For the sake of curiosity, please call the number and update this thread (un-anonymously preferably, e-mail Matt -- I'm sure he'd post for you).
posted by geoff. at 11:42 AM on May 27, 2005


I'd have to agree with five fresh fish. If you haven't done anything that would warrant a ticket to Guantanamo, for god's sake just call this Jenny (speculation from watching Alias: if it's not a real name, and there's no reference information on the card, the name may just indicate the case, be a kind of case number where who you talk to is not so important).
posted by scazza at 11:54 AM on May 27, 2005


Occam's razor, people. What's the most basic explanation? That this is completely routine, not a conspiracy, not a scam.

Really? The world is full of scammers who have all kinds of ridiculous stories designed to help them to get their hands on your money or personal information. Without verifying that this "Jenny Kham" person is actually an employee of the government agency in question, it is absolutely reasonable to consider this mail as a possible scam. This has nothing to do with paranoia or "the state of the union".

Take Pressed Rat's advice; contact OPM and find out who this person is.
posted by yarmond at 12:53 PM on May 27, 2005


MattD writes "It's worth noting that you don't really have a choice about whether or not to cooperate with a federal investigation."

Is this true for a background investigation? I mean, clearly you have to cooperate with a criminal investigation, but does the government have the power of subpoena for a non-criminal matter?
posted by mr_roboto at 1:55 PM on May 27, 2005


Setting up an adversarial relationship with any government agent simply because they're a government agent is inane. Not everyone is a bad guy, including g-men.

That's ridiculous. "Not everyone is a bad guy, including g-men"--and everybody else, so there's no reason to be suspicious of Mafiosi, storm troopers, KGB agents... Hey, there are bad apples in every barrel! I personally would be very wary of contact with government agents. You're saying not everyone is a bad guy, so you're probably OK; I'm saying there are bad guys, and if you run into one, you may be fucked. And it's my government that has set up an adversarial relationship with me, not vice versa.

Listen to scody and taz.
posted by languagehat at 2:20 PM on May 27, 2005


The boogy man vibe is overwhelming. Call them and find out what's going on. What are they going to do? Suck out your soul over the phone line? If it turns out to be the trilateral commission, the other guys in on the Kennedy assassination or the new world order tell them they can kiss my ass.
posted by Carbolic at 3:38 PM on May 27, 2005


Carbolic, incessant, and others saying "dude, just call": have you not been paying attention? Several people in this thread who have either gained security clearance themselves or who have been used as references for other people gaining security clearance have indicated that the scenario Anon is describing is not how the federal government checks for references. To wit:

thedevildancedlightly: I've been involved in giving references for people for clearances before and normally I just got a phone call from somebody who clearly identified themself and gave a clear way to verify that they were who they claimed to be. [...] I could be wrong, but anytime I've been involved in security clearance references it's been very straightforward.

eriko: the one time I was contacted, it was by a member of the FBI, who clearly identified themselves as such, stated that they were performing a background investigation for a security clearance (but not what clearance, or who, on the message), and they would appreciate it if I could contact them via the local FBI office (he left a number, which was the switchboard. )

Rash: An 'unaddressed business card' is NOT a note, nor is it proper mail. As one who has had a clearance in the past, it's my experience that references are contacted with a returnable postcard, asking the reference to verify that they know Joe Blow, and for how long. Top Secret clearances involve an actual interview with the reference.

tuwa: I went through this for a friend in the Army and there was nothing suspicious about it: my friend asked me if it was okay to use me as a reference, then a few weeks later the DoD called my house, explained what was going on, and asked when was a good time for an interview.

What Anon is describing does not fit this general pattern, so caution is a perfectly rational reaction. Anon, if you're not comfortable ignoring it altogether, then call OPS per Pressed Rat's advice and check to see who this investigator is and with what branch.
posted by scody at 3:53 PM on May 27, 2005


that is, contact OPS OPM.
posted by scody at 3:57 PM on May 27, 2005


Pshaw. Dude, just call. From a payphone if need be. Don't give out personal details, just ascertain wtf is going on. Then you'll actually have some information, and can make an informed decision.

Sheesh.

It's not like they're going to reach through the phone line and grab you by the neck. Hell, they already know where you pick up your mail...
posted by five fresh fish at 4:09 PM on May 27, 2005


Scody: And so, you make the call, you ask for some way to verify the validity of the request and if you find out it isn't on the up and up you move on. Where is the harm in making the call? I've been contacted for background checks several times. The process wasn't exactly the same each time. When I made contact I was quickly offered a way to verify the veracity of the person making the inquiry and was encouraged to take advantage of it. Again, I don't see a negative flowing from the act of making contact. Still, I guess you could just sit around worrying about it.
posted by Carbolic at 4:18 PM on May 27, 2005


Personally, I wouldn't sit around worrying about it -- I'm the one who's first inclination is to ignore it, remember? ;)
posted by scody at 4:20 PM on May 27, 2005


Anon seems concerned. I think the quickest way to gain ease of mind would be to make the contact. Nice photos from the meet up post (sincere comment, no sarcasm intended).
posted by Carbolic at 4:26 PM on May 27, 2005


If it was about someone else's security clearance...don't you think that person would have told *anon*? I mean, if I were trying for a security clearance...(hey, quit laughing), I know that every person I wrote down would be getting a phone call from me to let them know the feds were coming, the feds were coming.

That said, I've dealt with the feds when they are investigating potential new hires, and they don't do it by dropping a spooky -sounding card in your post box.

If they can't reach you on the phone to set up an interview time, they will send you a letter...on agency letterhead...with your name on it. (Dear Ms X...)

I would assume the thing *anon* got is bullhooey until proven otherwise. If curiosity is a vice, then I would start with the advice above and call the agency in question...not from the number on the card, from the number in the blue pages or the web.

In scanning various sites for paperwork and forms, I'm coming up empty when trying to find form "IS FORM 20" Most of the Form 20 references I'm finding are Form 20-F...which are securities related.

Me, I think it's probably a scam of some denomination.
posted by dejah420 at 5:00 PM on May 27, 2005


something as (relatively) straightforward and time-sensitive as a security clearance

Ahem. In May 2004, it was reported that average amount of time for a government contractor, IT or otherwise, to get a security clearance is more than a year

In short, yes, the dropped-off card is quite consistent with a process that has a large backlog.
posted by WestCoaster at 8:33 PM on May 27, 2005


Well, there's no harm in calling the FBI directly, rather then the name on the card.

Without knowing who, exactly, left the card it would skeeve me out a bit to just call up.

It's not that the government is out to get you, but other people (who may at some point pretend to be the government) might try.
posted by delmoi at 10:23 PM on May 27, 2005


Updates?
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 6:41 PM on June 2, 2005


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