And you Are?

Steve Smith, managing director of Sterling EMEA on the rise of fake qualifications.

In recent years, the use of fake qualifications to dupe recruiters and hiring managers has skyrocketed. Last year, the BBC revealed that tens of thousands of people in the UK had purchased fake undergraduate and PhD degrees through institutions in Pakistan, known as diploma mills. Buyers included NHS consultants, nurses, and one large defence contractor. Already in the news this year is a former NHS boss in Oxford receiving a suspended prison sentence after claiming a false university degree, and a senior radiologist who was removed from his post after lying about being a qualified GP. Clearly, the need for secure screening processes is stronger than ever. These incidents can be prevented with the right checks and balances. While such checks are commonplace in regulated sectors such as financial services, it is perhaps even more important for those working with the public or vulnerable populations – healthcare workers, taxi drivers, teachers, retail staff, delivery personnel, or even contractors that may be working in your home. With this type of fraud getting far more sophisticated and harder to detect, it’s crucial that all businesses – especially recruiters – can tell the difference between real and fake. Here’s how to make sure your candidates are who they say they are.

Diploma mills

Diploma mills are organisations that claim to be higher education institutions, but offer illegitimate qualifications. Unfortunately, these institutions are rampant, and growing in both numbers and sophistication. Here are some of the major signs to look out for:

  • Credits for life experience: Legitimate institutions will not give a degree based on work history alone. The majority of a degree is earned in the classrooms or distance learning. This will be especially relevant if there is also no coursework as part of the final qualification.
  • No physical campus: It should be easy to find an address for an accredited university, even if they offer online correspondence. If this cannot be sourced after extensive searching, it may be a diploma mill.
  • Familiar name: Diploma mills are known to pick names that are very close to accredited institutions. One of the most high-profile cases in the UK was the East London-based Cambridge College of Learning, which sold several thousand fake postgraduate diplomas in business management and IT, charging between £2,500 and £4,000 for each qualification.
  • A flat fee: Real education institutions charge by credit, course, or semester, not via a lump sum.
  • Tailor-made studies: Diploma mills often offer customised courses that are tailored to the student’s degree of choice, and may promise that the degree can be earned in a few months, weeks or even days.

Reference mills

Unfortunately, it’s not just educational qualifications that can be purchased online. Reference mills have also surged in popularity, supplying job seekers with a chance to wipe the slate clean and start fresh with a brand new (and totally falsified) employment history, complete with company website, working phone number, and even past supervisors who can vouch for the applicant’s work ethic and qualifications.

Lying on CVs

However, even without going to the lengths of purchasing fake qualifications or work history, a large number of candidates have admitted to doctoring details on their CVs. In fact, a recent survey from CV-Library revealed that a staggering 92.5 per cent of Brits have got away with lying on their CV. Nearly three-quarters (71.6 per cent) of those said that they got the job as a result. In fact, almost one-third (31.4 per cent) said they would be willing to lie about the dates of their previous employment, while 27.1 per cent would happily falsify gaps in their CV.

How to be certain

So, how can this fraud be prevented, helping businesses to protect themselves from risk? Educational verification and employment verification: Educational verification is the number one defence against diploma mills. These checks will authenticate a candidate’s academic history claims directly with school registrars and administration offices. It also assesses the institution that awarded the degree in order to ascertain whether it is a diploma mill. In addition, employment verifications can authenticate job titles, dates of employment, confirmation of salary, reason for leaving, and eligibility for rehire. Reference checks: This is a tried and tested method that shouldn’t be overlooked. Reliable, thorough, and independent reference checks can provide detailed information about a candidate, including verifying CV facts. Criminal background checks: While not directly linked to identifying fake qualifications, a critical step in any comprehensive background screening programme is a criminal record check. This will help identify any red flags or individuals who may be willing to submit fraudulent information. There are three levels of criminal record checks available in the UK: basic, standard, and enhanced DBS checks. The latter can only be undertaken for specific roles, such as those that would involve contact with children or vulnerable adults. Consistency: Finally, consistency will be needed to create a good screening process that does not have holes where deceitful individuals could slip through the net. A background screening policy should outline the objectives, process and types of background checks for each position, and how results will affect hiring decisions. Social media verification: Social media verification is another method of ensuring that candidates are being truthful. If specifics on an applicant’s social media profile clash with details stated on CVs or references, this could be a sign of deceit. However, social media checks must be carried out with caution, as there is a potential for abuse. The main concern with social media arises when a candidate claims a decision was made not to recruit them based on ‘protected characteristics’. If it can be proven that a decision was in any way shaped by race, religion, or sexual orientation that’s been identified in an individual’s online profile, businesses could face huge fine.

Due diligence is key

Ultimately, there are numerous methods that, when combined, can help to fight back against the growing trend of fake qualifications, references, and deception that some candidates undertake. While many businesses may see this as a minor issue, dishonesty is becoming easier and more frequent than ever. As methods become more sophisticated, the need for robust screening processes is crucial as it only takes one ‘bad egg’ to cause an exorbitant damage not only to the employer, but also to the recruiter that recommends them. The fact that the issue can be common in areas like healthcare is perhaps even more alarming. In these sectors, fraud will not just endanger a businesses’ corporate interests, but potentially the safety of members of the public and children. Fortunately, with the right screening processes, the risk of a bad hire can be mitigated, and recruiters and hiring teams can rest easy that the people they deal with are really who they say they are.

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