Nobody saw it coming. The guy apparently didn’t have a record and had passed a criminal-background check before being hired as an installer by a Chicago cable company.

I say “apparently” because there is no national database on criminal records, and bad guys can sneak through the hodge-podge of documentation.

This creep was arrested and charged last December with the sexual assault and murder of a young woman who let him into her home to repair her Internet service. He was a suspect in the murder of another woman two months before under similar circumstances. The police didn’t tell his employer he was a suspect because there wasn’t enough evidence to arrest him. (He subsequently was charged with the first murder as well.)

Our local media have been bashing police for failure to warn the employer, but the real culprits are the civil libertarians who have created a climate in which everyone has to tiptoe around common sense in order to avoid lawsuits. One newspaper story said that the police did tell the cable company that their employee was a possible witness in a homicide investigation and had been questioned. That sounds to me like the cops were winking and nodding, but nobody at the cable company picked up on it. Or maybe they did, but they, too, were afraid of casting aspersions without rock-solid proof. Too bad about the young women whose lives were so cruelly snuffed out. At least we can take comfort knowing the cable creep’s civil liberties were not violated.

Always a chance

Stuff like this doesn’t happen every day, but there’s always a chance of it happening when people open their door to strangers going about legitimate business. And while home service technicians don’t commit murder often, every day does bring a slew of lesser crimes attributable to the worst among them. Residential service contractors dread getting complaints about things missing from the home after a visit from one of their service technicians, and many of them have had the experience at one time or another. Clever thieves can last a long time on a payroll because they know how to disguise their crimes. Missing jewelry might not get noticed for days or even weeks after the service call. Sometimes the theft doesn’t occur during the visit, but with a subsequent break-in.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not even close to saying that a large number of plumbers or heating technicians are crooks. I think their ranks contain a smaller percentage of criminals than most other occupations. It’s just that the nature of their work makes it crucial to make sure they are solid citizens. One unsavory character on the payroll can destroy your company.

Criminal background checks are no guarantee you’ll discover the darkest secrets of job applicants. But it’s virtually guaranteed that you won’t discover them - until it’s too late - without doing background checks.

Trust but verify

Considering the stakes, it’s amazing how many service contractors don’t bother to check criminal and driving records of prospective workers. It’s not always their fault, however. Laws in certain jurisdictions actually limit the transmission of such information and prohibit holding criminal convictions against job applicants. The civil libertarians say it’s unfair to discriminate against people who have done their time and may, after all, be rehabilitated.

Thievery is not limited to the blue-collar world. A little-noted criminal epidemic consists of small-business owners robbed through embezzlement by people hired to keep their books. Small trade associations also are vulnerable.

HVAC contractors are inviting targets because so many of them have an aversion to bookwork. They prefer to spend most of their time supervising jobs in the field or working with tools, and are happy to hire someone who actually likes the boring duties of bookkeeping and accounting.

One large residential contractor recently told me of losing about $40,000 last year to a bookkeeper with a gambling problem. He’s fortunate to be an astute business operator who actually had controls in place to identify embezzlement. That’s why his loss was limited to $40,000. I’ve heard of less well-prepared companies getting ripped off for millions over time.

Jim Olsztynski - pronounced Ol-stin-skee - is editor of Supply House Times, a sister publication of Snips. He can be reached at (630) 694-4006, or e-mail