The CV Detectives

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You may be shocked to hear this, but a lot of people in the technology market lie on their CV. In fact, a recent survey found that more people in UK technology lie about their qualifications than in any other sector.

The potential rewards for the would-be CV fraudster are high – but then, so is the potential cost to the company of employing the wrong person. If firms employ someone they believe has the experience they’re looking for only to find out later that they don’t, it can result in a messy divorce and cost the company large sums of money in re-advertising the position, retraining the new recruit and so on.

This is why, increasingly, companies are turning to “CV detectives” to make sure the person described on a CV is really the person they are getting…

Corporate bodyguards

“Please don’t write that I’m some sort of control freak or anything special. I just probe into people’s backgrounds and do an honest day’s work,” says former spy, Alan Marsh. A tall, 53-year-old, pony-tailed Londoner, Marsh turns a larger salary checking CVs than he ever did doing dirty deeds for the British Government.

People like Marsh are seen as the new breed of recruitment checker and corporate bodyguard in an age where job applicants seemingly will do anything to boost their chances of getting a position with a six-figure salary and generous perks.

This former counter-espionage man is now a counter-fraud expert. His is still a world of intrigue, excitement and secrets; though he’s no longer hunting terrorist cells, the risks, if he gets it wrong, are still as high.

“Don’t get me wrong – nobody is going to blow up the world, but the consequences of someone getting into a job they can’t fulfill could cost that business tens of thousands of pounds in reputation alone. I can’t allow that to happen.”

The security issues emanating from people, whose silent aim in applying for any given position is to defraud a company or steal software or other intellectual rights, is enough to give any chief executive the odd sleepless night. If you don’t believe me, then just ask Bill Gates.

Three years ago in two separate incidents, Microsoft employees, Richard Gregg and Daniel Feussner, illegally sold software worth a total of $26 million. Both former employees abused an internal ordering system at Microsoft known as MS Market.

The system allowed authorized employees to order, at zero cost, Microsoft software and hardware that was “for business use only”. Gregg later served two years in prison and was ordered to pay Microsoft more than $5 million in restitution for software he had diverted. He later admitted that he had used the profits to pay off the mortgage on a house, bought a 1999 Land Rover Discovery and made a $48,000 payment on a 2002 M3 BMW.

Although the company has since changed its ordering system and is confident that there can be no further fraudulent activity, many agree that criminally-minded employees will always think that they are clever enough to try their arm and over-ride controls.

Lies, damned lies and Curriculum Vitae

Alan Marsh admits that the most common fabrications are, however, far from either being polished or refined. They involve exaggerating qualifications, inflating previous job titles and failing to mention being dismissed from a previous post.

Men in their early thirties are the ones most likely to be economical with the truth on both sides of the Atlantic, and the technology industry seems to attract more fibbers than any other, as Marsh is quick to point out.

“I carried out my own piece of research for a company by inventing a vacant post in the technology sector; it’s what we call a ‘dead drop’ – a vacancy designed to attract a certain type of person, at a certain level. Out of those who replied, 70 per cent of males aged 30-35 lied about their qualifications or background. This ranged from covering up gaps in their careers to claiming non-existent degrees. Fraud in the technology market is big business, my friend,” says Marsh. Names and contact details of those who bolstered their CVs are on the firm’s recruitment blacklist; the practice of advertising ‘dead drops’, you may be surprised to learn, is far from rare.

In fact anti-fraud measures are rising as fast as identity theft, the biggest growth industry in the world. This is partly because it can be surprisingly easy for a convincing talker to wheedle his or her way into a company and be offered their dream job.

And although there may appear to be a widespread acceptance of embellishment in the average CV (after all a resumé needs to put the candidate in the best light), many human resource professionals believe that in the competitive job market, applicants feel under great pressure to play up their achievements, even to the extent of creating entirely new ones – and therein lies the problem.

To the sophisticated liar, false references can easily be forged because so few human resource departments, according to Marsh, bother checking them. Yet when human resource departments do carry out checks, two thirds of companies withdraw job offers at the last minute because of poor employment history.

If you happen to know the right individuals, then the world of corporate fraud is your oyster. Publishing programs can be readily bought and anyone with just a little skill can make letterheads, copied from websites, look authentic.

It is also very simple to rig up an office in a business center or virtual office, where calls are answered by receptionists and forwarded on to whoever is paying the account.

One City of London technology business recently uncovered an applicant who paid for a separate line to be installed in his house and then gave a friend £500 to lie for him. He was only caught after the personnel director thought the supposed former boss too obliging about his former employee’s skills. It’s a risky strategy, but then if the position attracts a large salary it is often seen as a risk worth taking, especially if a golden hello or starting bonus is part of the package.

It was the lure of a salary of over £150,000 that drove 29 year-old English graduate Clive Meadows (not his real name) to apply for a job as a projects consultant for a major international hardware firm. He had been a teacher of English for five years and was a keen computer hobbyist. Deeply in debt and with the risk of his bank foreclosing on his house, he applied for the job with a forged CV, barely expecting to be invited to interview. After the fifth interview, which involved psychometric profiling and ability tests, he was offered the post. Six weeks later and under a huge amount of strain, he resigned citing bereavement.

“I thought I could wing it with the knowledge I had of computer systems, but I became too stressed. I would have caused the business huge problems and stolen thousands of pounds in software before someone found me out. The interviews were hard going, but I beat 2,500 other hopefuls to get the job. It goes to show that even the largest firms checks can fail,” he tells me.

On the trail of the fraudsters

In America, the number of technology companies screening potential employees is rising fast, with as many as 80 per cent calling in a ‘CV detective’ to root out the liars from the high-fliers. This type of investigator (including some who ask candidates for blood and urine samples for drug testing) may be relatively uncommon in the UK, but an increasing number of companies are signing up for similar investigations every day.

“The majority of companies in the UK believe CVs and application forms contain lies or exaggerations. Academic qualifications alone can’t provide them with an accurate insight into whether a person has what it takes to succeed in a role,” argues another freelance investigator Bob Roberts.

Roberts is a former investigative journalist, with a penchant for houndtooth check trousers. He goes to all sorts of lengths to check potential employees for his clients. Academic qualifications are verified by phoning universities and schools. Another tactic, in order to check that people are who they say they are, is to employ stool pigeons (usually attractive women for male candidates and men for females) who chat them up in bars and hotel rooms laid on by the company interviewing the candidates.

Private detectives trail people on buses, trains and aeroplanes to see where they go and whom they see, just in case a candidate might be into a bit of corporate espionage. Asked whether he thought all this clambering around and playing secret agents was a bit too much for a 65-year old former Fleet Street reporter, Roberts shared a recent experience.

“It is an absolute necessity of today’s market-place,” he says wearily. “Granted, it can be rather worrying if someone knows we’re going to peer into their background but the honest candidate has nothing to be scared of. Our clients never question our methods and if people do, I relate the story of a 32-year-old who applied for a position as a software programmer. He was up for a job worth around £80,000 a year; with bonuses it would have added up to well over £100,000.

I was doing routine eavesdropping and discovered he was planning a robbery and kidnap at the firm who had hired him as a part-time consultant.

He had timed the security guards coming in and out, had the home addresses and telephone numbers of senior staff, and even photographs of some of their children. I was able to tip off the police the day before he was planning to strike.

They found 3 guns in his apartment, as well as teargas, handcuffs and other restraints. It was a highly unusual event and it’s the first time I’ve come across anything so serious, but the threat is always there. I’m glad I made the right call,” he says.

The day-to-day work of Roberts’ mini-firm is nothing as dangerous. It involves him liasing with HR departments in all sizes of firms, from multi-nationals to 3 or 4 partner businesses. Once somebody has been offered a job, they will be told that further checks will be done into their history. This includes Roberts or his wife Patricia (a former British army intelligence officer) checking previous addresses, credit history, county court judgments and criminal records.

Roberts warns that he can swoop even after somebody has used a fraudulent CV to get a job. Many of his clients conduct further checks if somebody is promoted, or if they are moved to a more sensitive part of the company.

If someone is promoted to senior management, full investigations can go back ten years or more into somebody’s history. Roberts spends hours in his car staking out an individual while armed with a digital camera or a camcorder. People he knows are not beyond breaking into someone’s house by using an electric lock picking gun and then planting something called KeyKatch, a covert device which, when plugged into a computer, can document anything typed on the computer keyboard. The captured information can then be viewed at leisure by keying in a selected word.

High fliers can also be given a ‘rigorous tabbing.’ This can involve Roberts contacting neighbours, former partners, friends and anyone else who might have information to pass on about a successful candidate. Checks on media files (newspaper stories, broadcast history, websites) to see if there are nasty stories or ‘strange pursuits’ that they neglected to mention when being interviewed are also inspected. Rogers has visited 9 countries in the last 6 months in an effort to uncover what he views as ‘vital information’. However, he is rewarded for his hard work; grateful clients paying him very well indeed, with each ‘case’ fetching in anything between £1500 and £5000 plus expenses.

If caught, the penalties for the wrongdoer can be far-reaching. Employers may be able to sue for recruitment and training costs, or call in the police if they think it appropriate. With 70 per cent of fraud being carried out by insiders, hiring the wrong person can be a very costly business.

Given what Roberts knows about fraudulent employees, what is his advice for the would-be employer?

“I would like to think that most employers are clever enough to detect lies at the interview stage but very few people have the skills. Psychometric tests and winkling out information from former employers can help, but I think the best way of hiring any new expensive employee is to make sure they are aware that someone is looking into their background.”

As Roberts never tires from pointing out, he should know the tricks of the trade. He got his first break in journalism by pretending to be an experienced reporter after turning down his former ‘career’ as a housebreaker. It takes an excellent fraudster to know a good one.

About the author

Richard Morris

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Richard Morris is a journalist, author and public relations/public affairs consultant. He has written for a number of UK and US newspapers and magazines and has offered strategic advice to numerous tech companies including Digital Island, Sony and several ISPs. He now specialises in social enterprise and is, among other things, a member of the Big Issue Invest advisory board. Big Issue Invest is the leading provider to high-performing social enterprises & has a strong brand name based on its parent company The Big Issue, described by McKinsey & Co as the most well known and trusted social brand in the UK.

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