Liar for Hire
Professional deception services that help applicants dupe employers through lies and fake references are on the rise, but there are ways HR can step up its game to double-dupe them.
By Harvey Meyer
You're enchanted with an applicant whose sterling credentials appear to make him an exceptional find for your company. Personality fit for the department and corporate culture? Check. Work history ideally suited for the job opening? Check. And a former supervisor who sings the candidate's praises? Check.
But ever-fretful HR professionals wonder: How do you know the applicant hasn't pulled a fast one? Or even sneakier, that he hasn't hired someone to camouflage his background? These days, the latter may present a mounting concern because of the emergence of so-called professional deception services.
These liar-for-hire enterprises front for candidates who sometimes put down fake past employers, fake jobs, fake salaries and fake supervisors. The ultimate prize: Fake out a potential employer so it will hire someone who often isn't qualified for the position.
Tim Green, owner of Forest Lake, Minn.-based Paladin Deception Services, claims his firm's deceptions have never been unsheathed by a company or pre-employment screener -- "that I'm aware of." Even Fortune 500 firms?
"Yes, that's happened a couple of times," says Green, "but I won't divulge who they are ... . Just because a firm is big and successful doesn't mean [it doesn't] have idiosyncrasies and lapses here and there" in the hiring process that can't be exploited.
That many applicants mislead or exaggerate on their resumes is hardly new. Consider Scott Thompson, the former CEO of Yahoo who last year was ousted for a resume fabrication. But Green and others believe more well-qualified candidates, in part prompted by fallout from the Great Recession, are seeking a competitive edge -- even if it means outright lying about their work history.
Of course, employers are hardly defenseless against deceivers. Many conduct thorough background investigations themselves or hire pre-employment screeners to vet candidates' employment, criminal and -- sometimes -- credit histories, in addition to checking references. And that's not even taking into account substance-abuse and social-media checks, psychological assessments, knowledge and skills tests, licenses, in-depth interviews and perhaps other hurdles applicants must sometimes surmount.
Craig Kwasniewski, HR director for Cleveland-based, 1,700-employee Strang Corp., which oversees many hospitality enterprises, says he has studied deception services "fairly extensively." In part because Strang retains an employment screener, Kwasniewski says, he hasn't encountered a deceiver. But then he adds a qualifier: "That I know of."
Still, mindful of imaginative measures aimed at fooling potential employers -- for instance, some deceivers say they hire references for clients who speak fluent Chinese or Spanish or impersonate southern drawls and other accents -- Kwasniewski is on alert.
"I don't think a lot of HR professionals realize the depth to which these deception services are taking things to help applicants," he says. "Employers need to step up to make sure we're crossing our t's and dotting our i's so that the information we're getting from applicants is legitimate."
Gauging their Popularity
It's difficult to grasp the impact and reach of the deception services, several of which were launched during or shortly after the last recession. Chris Dyer estimates 5 percent to 8 percent of the applicant-background checks his PeopleG2 employment-screening firm performs involve ruses to dupe employers. His Anaheim, Calif., firm doesn't categorize applicants themselves by whether they deceive or hire others for that task.
Paladin's Green says his four-year-old company is doing "good business," averaging 200 to 300 job-seeking clients monthly. Five employees work nearly full-time and Green occasionally hires another 30 or so associates, many posing as professional references. Paladin is hardly the only firm that gets paid to lie; a quick Internet search reveals others may include Careerexcuse.com, The Reference Store, Fake Your Job and FakeResume.com.
"My first reaction when I heard about [deception services] was disbelief. I was completely shocked," says Nick Fishman, chief marketing officer at EmployeeScreenIQ, a Cleveland pre-employment screener. His firm maintains a roster of deception services.
Most clients who contact Paladin from word-of-mouth references or Internet marketing -- though Facebook recently banned Paladin from advertising -- are middle-aged professionals searching for higher-paying management positions, according to Green. He says many clients are too embarrassed to ask family members or friends to engage in subterfuge, presenting an opening for his anonymous and confidential service.
Siti Williams of Orange, Calif.-based Care Ambulance doesn't condone deception services. But the HR generalist at the 1,000-employee firm also comprehends some job seekers' plights.
"People still have bills and their families to take care of," says Williams. "Whatever their circumstances, they may feel desperate enough to choose deceptive tactics to gain a position."
One deception service -- New York-based The Reference Store -- says on its website that everyone deserves a second chance, even those "whose moral compasses have pointed a little off course." The website says all people, including the homeless, convicted felons and those down on their luck, deserve opportunities for meaningful work.
Many of Paladin's clients want to mask employment gaps in their work histories, says Green. Maybe they were fired, laid off for an extended period or served time in prison. Or they worry their former supervisor won't tender a positive professional reference. Green, a long-time former private investigator who works from his home, has firsthand experience with the latter.
"I was working for the federal government in the 1980s and I had a supervisor shoot out my car window," says Green, a recent photograph of whom depicts a shaved-headed man with large black-frame glasses and a tattooed X on his left cheek. "So obviously, this wasn't an individual I was going to put down as a reference."
Green -- who is seldom criticized for his services in person but has garnered scathing rebukes online -- notes the majority of his clients are one-time users. He further justifies Paladin, saying he only makes positive remarks about individuals seeking much-needed employment.
"If we fibbed a bit on [employment] dates and strung along a line of deception, so be it," he says. "Deception has been used through the ages for both negative and positive reasons."
What the Deceivers Offer
For deceivers, the deception is in the details. According to the Reference Store, it will create for clients a fictitious past employer with a unique domain name and local phone number and address.
It further boasts that its fake companies appear so genuine they field sales calls from the public. The company's website says it hires "former military operators" to collect specific information on an employer targeted by clients. The Reference Store -- which claims it has fooled employers as renowned as PepsiCo and General Electric -- will even act as your current employer to provide a fake reference in your bid to work for a new firm.
At Paladin, Green says invented past employers are almost always small (100 or fewer workers), which presumably makes a large web presence unnecessary. Possible employers are provided with a phone number and email address of a fictitious reference, usually a client's fake supervisor or HR department. The reference typically won't divulge fake salaries, claiming it's against company policy, says Green.
For one reference, Paladin initially charges $54 per month for a dedicated phone line that any number of potential employers can dial. For two references, which require another phone line, clients are charged another $19.95 monthly.
While initially posing as reference providers can be heart-thumping for his associates, some of whom are community theater actors recruited from Craigslist ads, Green says the job quickly becomes routine. Still, he says, his associates exhibit pride in their work and welcome clients who sometimes test the reference provider's believability by posing as employers themselves.
"Bravo for them," says Green. "They just want to make sure everything is in place."
For a firm that lies for a living, Green claims certain things are off-limits: For instance, Paladin won't provide false references for jobs in healthcare and law enforcement. For legal reasons, it won't supply fake references for any real company. And it won't be party to clients falsifying criminal or higher-education backgrounds.
"We're not breaking any laws," says Green. "We're very careful."
Jonathan Yarbrough, labor and employment attorney and partner in Atlanta-based Constangy Brooks & Smith, says it's "iffy" whether deceivers are doing anything illegal. Certain states criminalize the impersonation of others in an employer-employee contract. But Yarbrough says he's unaware of any court cases involving deceivers.
"There are a variety of repercussions for the applicant," says Yarbrough. "If the employer finds out [about significant fraud], they'll withdraw a job offer." Or if they're hired, most organizations will simply fire the employees.
Green says it's easier to hoodwink smaller employers, because they typically don't put time and resources into double-checking applicants. Meanwhile, he says, firms with 400 or more employees may be more challenging to bamboozle, because their HR departments often investigate candidates or hire employment screeners.
"Some larger companies are doing a lot more research, asking more questions," he says, adding that reference providers are typically ill-equipped to address overly technical issues. "They probably are more aware of fictitious [employment] scenarios. Nobody on the phone will say, 'We think you're a bunch of liars.' But they have individuals who would probably stamp a little caution [on an application] saying, 'We're just not certain about this.'"
EmployeeScreenIQ's Fishman recalls the unraveling of one employment deception: The past employer of the applicant had no website and there was no cross-referencing phone number for the supposed business. Moreover, a reference couldn't answer specific questions related to the applicant's job responsibilities and other matters. And the applicant couldn't provide W-2s.
"It was very benign initially," says Fishman. "But in the end, it sounded like [the reference] was just making up answers to our questions."
In truth, it can be difficult to know whether a deception service has been retained by a candidate. But it behooves employers to expose deceivers, whether they're applicants or hired guns, because of increasingly costly negligent-hiring cases, says Fishman. Among other things, a hiring-gone-wrong could harm company productivity and morale and, in worst-case scenarios, produce workplace violence.
Dyer presents another worry for organizations: Candidates talk. If some get away with supplying false information to a company, they'll tell others to apply for jobs there.
Fortunately, many organizations enact exhaustive measures to mitigate employment deception. Strang Corp.'s Kwasniewski says hiring a reliable employment screener is perhaps the best way of uncovering deceivers. He is comforted that his screener -- EmployeeScreenIQ -- proactively unearths deception services and is one of a select few accredited by the 759-member National Association of Professional Background Screeners for meeting NAPBS' best-practices standards.
"[Organizations] need a background-check partner they're comfortable with to ensure [they're] hiring better people," says Kwasniewski, adding that effective employment screening helps reduce companies' legal risks. "Many companies just don't have the time to do the necessary research. But it's time and money well spent [to hire employment screeners] to help make good hiring decisions."
Some larger companies with resources for conducting comprehensive applicant-background checks do so inconsistently or lack rigor. Or they rely too much on their gut instinct about candidates, says PeopleG2's Dyer.
"People don't want to believe someone is telling them a lie," says Dyer. "People think they are good judges of character ... . But good organizations put that aside and say, 'We're going to check these people out and make sure they are who they say they are and did what they said they did.' "
Among other things, Fishman says, EmployeeScreenIQ works with trusted sources to track domestic and foreign diploma mills that produce phony higher-education degrees. While online databases on criminals' backgrounds are available, they often aren't updated, he says. So Fishman counts on a network of more than 3,000 researchers nationwide to do on-site inspections of applicants' criminal records in county courthouses.
"When we know our people can get better data by walking into a courthouse," says Fishman, "we're not going to replace it with an online search."
Fishman says he'll ask some past employers he's uncertain about to fax him information on company letterhead. He may also cross-reference the companies' web presence with Yellow Pages, Dun & Bradstreet or other third parties. If there's still a concern, he may advise companies to ask candidates for W-2s to verify work with a past employer. He'll always request applicants' Social Security numbers.
Dyer says he's more wary about applicants who list past employers that are now out of business. In that case, as with all unfamiliar firms, he says PeopleG2 will not only search for companies' web presences but how extensive they are and whether they show up in cross-referencing.
With references, Laura Randazzo, past NAPBS chair and longtime board member, advises checking with the past employers' HR department to confirm that both the applicant and listed supervisor worked at the organization. Aim to verify information with at least two sources, she says. Even with added scrutiny, Randazzo -- compliance officer at the Arlington Heights, Ill.-based Aurico employment-screening firm -- acknowledges that phony supervisors can still be planted.
"But [employers] aren't making hiring decisions off of references only," she says. "They're taking into account the entire background check."
While some organizations fret they'll run afoul of state laws by performing social-media searches on candidates, attorney Yarbrough offers another take: "There are obviously things you can find out about applicants through social media like race, sex, religion and disability," he says. "But I wouldn't hesitate to look at LinkedIn or some other platform to compare it with the applicants' CV or resume or application to look at gaps or what's missing. Are the [employment] dates off? How does an online reference compare to what I'm hearing from another reference? That's a pretty simple, cost-effective solution for an employer."
Beyond resume- and reference-checking measures, firms such as Care Ambulance require applicants to pass other hurdles en route to employment. For instance, Williams says, most of its employees are emergency medical technicians who must be state-certified with a clean driving record and pass a company exam and skills test.
Of course, effective interviewing also mitigates the risk of hiring unqualified individuals. Aside from performing in-depth reviews of applicants red-flagged by its employment screener, Kwasniewski says behavioral-based interviewing focused on real-life-work experiences helps tease out imposters.
Even with all these tools, Kwasniewski frets that deception firms are becoming increasingly sophisticated -- and perhaps more challenging to unmask. He believes many HR professionals are unfamiliar with deceivers' tactics and urges additional education.
"I would be a huge proponent of the [HR] industry spending more time and education on this," says Kwasniewski.
As it is, he says, some in his corporation encourage him to speed up hiring. But deception services and other challenges underscore the value of HR departments taking due time with applicants.
"It makes me realize how challenging it is to ensure we're making the right hire," says Kwasniewski. "So [the hiring process] may take a little longer, but we want to be comfortable we're making the right choices."