Fake Job Reference Services Add New Wrinkle to Screening

By Bill Leonard Nov 20, 2009
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New web-based services that offer fake work histories and references to job seekers are changing the complexion of resume-padding. These services further complicate the challenges employers face in identifying and hiring honest, qualified employees.

Even though fake job referencing services might seem like a bad joke, businesses like AlibiHQ and web sites like careerexcuse.com and fakeresume.com are no laughing matter to businesses that are desperate to hire dependable employees.

“At first glance, these web sites were difficult to take seriously since they seemed to be wholly inspired by the 'Seinfeld' episode in which George Costanza asks Jerry Seinfeld to act as a fake reference,” said Michael McAuliffe Miller, an attorney with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLC in Harrisburg, Pa. “It took me a surprisingly long time to dissuade myself that these web sites were not some obvious prank or satire.”

The false job reference services, however, are very real and offer a new type of resource to desperate job seekers, according to William Schmidt, founder of CareerExcuse.com. Schmidt, who claims to have worked in HR for a large food services company, is unapologetic about the services CareerExcuse provides and says he believes strongly that he is helping unemployed people who have run out of options.

“For most people who are interested in my services, they feel that a bad job experience or bad reference is a blot on their record that they just can’t overcome,” Schmidt told SHRM Online. “Many feel that time’s running out, and they desperately need a job, so they turn to CareerExcuse for help.”

According to Schmidt, about 60 job seekers had subscribed to his service as of November 2009, and he has helped place “around 20” people into new jobs. Schmidt says he launched CareerExcuse in February 2009 after he saw dozens of job seekers on Twitter and Facebook asking friends and acquaintances to provide bogus job references for them.

“It struck me: If that many people were looking to get references from friends and people they don’t know very well, then a job reference service might be something people would pay for,” said Schmidt, who claims that he was unemployed and looking for work at the time.

Some of these businesses appear to have short life expectancies, such as AlibiHQ, which was launched in 2008 and offered services to workers from false doctor’s notes to fake reference letters. The company even would send customers fake invitations to parties and weddings to provide the “perfect excuse” for skipping unwanted events or to avoid working on weekends. The link to AlibiHQ’s web site now directs web users to a page that states the web address: www.alibihq.com is for sale.

The Trouble with References

The fake referencing services point out the flaws in asking applicants for job references in the first place, according to Gerry Crispin, a partner with CareerXroads, a New Jersey-based recruiting and hiring consulting group.

“Have you ever known a job applicant to use someone that will give them a bad job reference?” Crispin asked. “Of course, they aren’t going to do that. And you really have to question: Who in the world would use a service like this to provide job references? Surely there is someone, somewhere that will say nice things about you. If there isn’t somebody, then you probably have more problems than just needing a job.”

Crispin wonders why employers still go through the charade of calling personal job references and calls it an “outdated and unnecessary” step.

“You know what the answer will be if the applicant provided the reference, so recruiters and employers should ask themselves: Is this really necessary?” Crispin said.

Personal job references aren’t the real problem, however, when it comes to fake referencing companies. The fact that these companies promise to provide false job histories should send shivers up and down the spine of any HR professional or hiring manager.

A Legal Landmine

“It is revolting really, but that’s my personal and not my legal opinion,” said Jonathan Segal, a partner in the Philadelphia law office of Duane Morris LLP. “Companies that provide these type of services and anyone who chooses to use the services are taking huge legal risks, because they are actually conspiring to perpetrate fraud on an employer. And this type of fraud would most likely be actionable as a tort.”

Miller agrees.

“From a civil law perspective, plainly, these companies are exposed to claims of fraud, misrepresentation and detrimental reliance,” he said. “Depending on the various laws of the states in which they operate, the company and its owners may also be subject to criminal prosecution.”

Schmidt insists that the services his company provides are not illegal and says that he has worked with attorneys to create disclaimers and ensure that the company does not violate the law.

“We are opening doors for job seekers who sometimes just need a second chance,” he said. “Many people make mistakes in their life, especially when going through a difficult divorce, illness or other unforeseen events in their life.”

Miller says that providing disclaimersfor these services doesn’t necessarily make it legal—no matter what some people want you to believe.

“I believe that merely including some lukewarm disclaimer that persons use these sites at their own risk or that the ‘doctor’s notes’ provided by the sites are for ‘novelty purposes’ is little protection,” Miller said. “And it doesn’t hold up well when the rest of the site demonstrates that its promoters are well aware of the fact that they are providing information that they know to be completely incorrect and that they know potential employers will rely upon in making hiring decisions.”

Segal cited several court precedents in which businesses have been held liable for providing false and inaccurate job references for former employees.

“If you give a fake reference and job history that a person worked as a nurse and then that person is hired by a doctor or a hospital and a patient then is severely injured or even killed under that nurse’s care, then the company giving the false reference could be held liable in that death,” Segal said. “It’s a very risky and certainly unethical practice.”

Schmidt says that he does set limits on the references he provides and refuses to offer references and job histories for jobs in the health care industry. He claims that he reviews criminal backgrounds and histories and refuses to offer services to anyone looking to defraud the government or conduct criminal activities.

Learning from Mistakes

“We just want to help people get back on their feet, and the people who get hired are elated to get a second chance. And I believe that they will be hard workers and have learned from their past mistakes. It makes me feel good when I help someone who’s been down on their luck to get another chance.”

But the choice to use a false referencing service is a risk that job applicants shouldn’t be willing to take, HR experts say. Nearly every job application states clearly that false statements and misrepresentation by an applicant will be grounds for immediate dismissal.

“Any person who deliberately falsifies information on their applications and resumes takes a huge risk, because not only can they be fired, any employment contract or benefits accruals can be immediately nullified,” Segal said. “If you wanted to list bad employment decisions by job seekers, I think this should top the list.”

Due Diligence Works

Most employers would likely be able to spot the false references by practicing due diligence in their job screening practices, says Matthew Levine, vice president of operations for Checkpast, a background and job screening service in Dallas.

“Due diligence is really the key to turning up suspect and false references,” Levine said. “We use several different procedures and processes when conducting background checks that can help identify and uncover trouble spots.”

Levine said that most large employers outsource their companies’ job history and reference services and that it would be difficult for anyone claiming to work with a large company to falsify job records. He says that problems arise when dealing with small businesses.

“Anyone can claim that they worked at Joe’s Consulting for five years and then maybe have a friend or some service confirm it when a job screener calls,” Levine said. “Frankly, that kind of job reference will be much tougher to identify as fake. If the ruse is elaborate enough like creating a web site or using a bankrupt or out-of-business company, then it could be especially problematic for smaller employers that may employ only one or two HR people and don’t have the resources to hire job screening services.”

He recommended several steps that employers can take to protect themselves, such as performing Internet searches on a company to see if it exists and cross-referencing phone numbers.

“A reverse telephone search service on the Internet is especially useful, because you can find out whom a telephone number is actually registered to,” he said. “When doing a background check, we will never call a cell-phone number. You have no idea whom or where you’re calling if it’s a mobile number, so it’s a good idea to always check on the Internet or with directory assistance to find the phone number and physical address for a business.”

Tax records, such as W-2 forms, can be a useful resource too if there are legitimate concerns about an applicant’s job record, Levine suggested. Attorneys advise employers, however, to make sure that they treat all applicants equally. Employers that require an applicant to provide tax documents but do not require the same from other job seekers could face claims of discriminatory treatment, according to Segal.

“I believe there actually is a positive in all this for HR professionals,” Segal said. “The fact these services exist is proof that it is clearly worth all the effort and procedures HR must take and have in place to protect an organization from fraud and from hiring dishonest employees. So if anyone in your organization ever asks, ‘is all this really worth the effort,’ then you can point to these type of unethical services and give them a resounding ‘yes it is.’ ”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.

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