Foiling Résumé Fraud

August 6, 2009
Finding high-quality employees who are as good on the job as they appear on paper is a challenge. That challenge is more difficult in these economic times when vacant full-time jobs are not plentiful and applicants creatively seek to distinguish themselves from the crowd. However, some candidates go beyond being creative and perpetrate affirmative falsehoods to increase their attractiveness to would-be employers. By recognizing a few of the most commonly used deception techniques, employers can better position themselves to identify unscrupulous applicants.

Fabricating educational qualifications
Some job applicants seek to improve their standing by making unsupportable claims about their educational backgrounds. Web sites such as and reflect how easy it is obtain a phony diploma. Additionally, applicants asked to provide a college transcript can create an official-looking document themselves with computer-imaging software and a high-quality printer. Applicants also can fool prospective employers who want to verify degrees obtained by listing a rented mailbox as their “alma mater’s” address. The request for degree verification goes directly to the applicant’s mailbox, after which they do whatever is necessary to substantiate their “credentials.”

These efforts can be easily thwarted. Using an education verification agency is a quick way to confirm the schools an applicant attended, the degrees obtained, grade point average and dates of matriculation. If an employer prefers to control the process through which it obtains an applicant’s transcript (instead of leaving open opportunities for subterfuge), it should ask the applicant for a written authorization permitting the institution to release a copy of the transcript directly to the employer. The employer can then access the institution’s Web site, obtain the necessary mailing address and send the transcript request directly to the institution.

Overstating past job responsibilities
It’s not unusual for applicants to describe their previous job responsibilities in a way that matches the qualifications of the vacant position, rather than reflecting what their former duties actually were. As the Web site counsels, “specific job duties or responsibilities can be rather freely expanded” and leave “a great deal of room for exaggeration or, if necessary, even outright fabrication.”

To weed out instances where an applicant is “expanding” his or her background, ask detailed questions about responsibilities the person claims to have handled in previous positions. For example, if the candidate claims to have managed a project, ask how many people were on the project team, what the budget was, why the project succeeded (or failed), and where the project finished in relation to the budget. If the candidate cannot readily answer these questions, your suspicions should be aroused.

The format of an applicant’s résumé and salary history may also provide clues as to the person’s fit for the vacant position. Functional résumés, which list job functions performed but do not tie those functions to specific past jobs, can be used to hide gaps in employment or to mask an applicant’s job-hopping or difficulty remaining in past positions. A “clutter” résumé—one filled with incidental hobbies, activities and experience not related to the vacant position—may be an effort to mask deficiencies in the applicant’s work record. And if the candidate’s salary history is too high or low for the jobs held, asking for details may unearth misrepresentations.

Some job vacancies have safeguards against deception built into the application process. For example, in instances where the interview process for the vacant position includes a written test or technical interview, those mechanisms will readily identify an applicant who is not qualified. Do not, for the sake of expediency or any other reason, omit these steps in the application process. If the application process does not require a test, consider making applicants who submit résumés electronically fill out an application on-site during the interview. After the on-site application is completed, compare it with the electronic résumé and ask questions to see if the candidate's verbal recitation of his credentials matches the written version. also provides suggestions for combining misstatements about job experience with deceptions about charitable endeavors:

“Another good way of putting down that you had experience is to say that you are a volunteer somewhere. That way you don’t have to produce any paychecks or W-2s. Call around town to volunteer organizations and find out if there are any departments that might have people with skill sets that you’re interviewing for. The American Red Cross has a history of using computer programmers. It’s highly likely that you can put them down on your resume that you did work there. It’s an easy way for you to add some experience on your resume but powerful because you did the work for free makes you look like a damn good person.”

If an applicant lists a charitable endeavor as a source of job-related skill, you can identify those who are being untruthful by asking questions focusing on why the person became interested in the charity. If the applicant becomes unnerved by this line of inquiry, or if the answers do not make sense, be wary. If the response seems plausible, your next step—asking for references—will ensure that you get the full story.

False references and misrepresented details of prior employment
The most common technique unscrupulous applicants use to deceive employers about their professional qualifications is to provide phony references or references that cannot be checked. An applicant can ensure that references will not successfully be checked by correctly listing their last place of employment, but inventing previous employers and listing them as references. Other devious strategies that have been suggested include identifying companies that have gone out of business, or identifying an executive listed in the obituary section of a trade magazine as a former boss.

Web site Alibi Network, meanwhile, provides those who want to create an impression that are actively employed “the cover of being an employee of one of our many partner companies” and “will provide you with all necessary infrastructure such as business cards, work phone number, e-mail and personal secretary if needed.”

Another way to create nearly uncheckable references is to use a mail drop that accepts correspondence addressed to large corporations. According to

“AT&T is a favorite because it is so large, decentralized, and hard to track down. A cheat gives a recruiter the mail drop and the name and number of a fictitious supervisor. If the recruiter calls the given reference, a “secretary” he’s set up (a friend who can act on the phone) says the company’s policy is to respond by letter only. Mail sent to the fictitious supervisor is forwarded to the cheater, who then writes his own recommendation. People believe paper documentation.”

When employers contact a previous employer about an applicant, they should recognize that some applicants will arrange for a friend to field the reference request. In situations where the applicant volunteers a reference with full contact information, or when the applicant provides a pre-prepared reference letter, contact the individual providing the reference to verify that it is genuine. Applicants who do not have associates willing to participate in the deception may submit partial or incorrect reference contact information in the hope that the employer will not take the time to obtain correct information and check the reference.

A savvy employer can short-circuit nearly all of these strategies by diligently checking references and verifying prior employment. Available technologies make it extremely easy to access an applicant’s background. Employers should recognize, however, that criminal record and other background checks may trigger obligations under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and state law, and employers should involve legal counsel to successfully navigate these obligations. Assuming that these obligations are met, the information gained through these tools can prove invaluable.

Another prudent step, rather than relying on a telephone number provided by the applicant (or set forth on a pre-interview prepared reference letter), is to use the Internet to access the previous employer’s Web site, call the telephone number provided on the Web site, and ask to be directed to the would-be reference writer. Verify that the individual on the telephone wrote the reference letter in question. Ask the individual if there are former colleagues, supervisors or direct reports—references beyond those provided by the applicant—who can speak about the applicant. Finally, ask if the applicant is eligible for rehire. If the applicant is not eligible for rehire, the would-be employer should have all the information needed for the hiring decision.

When interacting directly with the applicant in an interview, end the interview by asking the candidate if there is anything not reflected in the résumé or application that you should know about. For the applicant whose interview process has been littered with deception and falsehood, a “catch-all” question such as this will (at a minimum) cause anxiety or (at a maximum) elicit a response that is not rehearsed or scripted, and which could be more revealing than anything that occurred during the application process.

The bottom line is that some candidates who are desperate to find a job will work very hard to create the illusion that they are the perfect fit for your company. By outworking such applicants with thorough reference and background checks, and with probing questions during the interview process, you can avoid putting on your payroll someone whose only real skill is deception.