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False references: How concerned should employers be?

References are an essential part of the pre-employment screening process for all companies. As HR professionals will attest, as well as verifying the experience and credentials of an applicant, they can provide valuable insight into their potential employee’s integrity.

For many job-seekers, there will be little concern when a previous employer is contacted for a reference. But a small number of applicants would rather their new employer receive a rather extraordinary type of reference – a false one.

If an applicant is found to have provided a false reference to gain employment, their integrity should immediately come into question. However, if the fraudulent act goes under the radar during the pre-employment stage, the recruit could be the catalyst for the risk of insider threat becoming a reality, which could have reputational, regulatory and/or monetary consequences for an organisation or employer.

References: What you need to know

Three reasons why some individuals provide a false reference

  • There is a gap in their career history: Fake references can be used to cover a period of unemployment that the candidate can’t explain, or doesn’t want to. Instead of being honest and transparent they instead embellish previous job roles.
  • To falsify their experience: If applicants aren’t qualified for a specific role, many might opt for a false reference to make them appear more desirable, grossly misleading a potential employer. According to a recent survey carried out by Cifas, this appears quite common, with one in five UK people admitting to having either falsified their CV qualifications or knowing someone who has done so over the last 12 months.
  • Hiding an adverse reason for leaving their previous employment: This may be because an individual has left their old job on bad terms, they’ve been dismissed or are still under investigation, even after resigning.

Getting real about references

The knock-on effects of fake references

Falsifying documents can have serious repercussions for an organisation. Lying or exaggerating about their experience and knowledge could put an employee in a position where they make significant mistakes. Not only could this have a detrimental effect on the business but also on its customers and suppliers, potentially causing serious reputational damage.

Additionally, the candidate might find themselves in trouble with the law as falsifying documents – such as CVs and qualifications – is first-party fraud. Not only could the individual struggle to open a bank account or get a job in future, but they could also face a prison sentence.

Furthermore, there’s a very real risk of the candidate being subjected to blackmail or extortion. In many cases, employees have been contacted by the criminals they purchased their false references from, and threatened with exposure unless they divulge confidential data or customer information.

Should standard references be scrapped?

Why employers should know about reference houses

While focusing on spotting a fake reference before the problem escalates, it’s also important for employers and HR professionals to know where false applications might have originated from, so they can identify and tackle them in future.

This is where reference houses come to the fore. In a digital-first world, fraudulent reference houses continue to grow in popularity with the criminals behind these enterprises, taking advantage of being able to operate remotely and create the required false paperwork or evidence.

Reference houses are typically set up to supply false information directly to a potential employer on behalf of an applicant in exchange for money. The criminals themselves will even go as far as to answer phone calls to confirm a candidate’s history or qualifications. They may also conduct their fraudulent operation via a website, giving the impression of a legitimate company, to alleviate any suspicions during the all-important pre-employment screening checks.

The lengths these criminals go to is quite extraordinary. For some roles where specific knowledge would be helpful for a candidate, many even offer crash courses in specific subjects along with false references, often in exchange for less than a month’s salary.


Top tips to identify false references

Don’t be afraid to question any discrepancies. Look beyond spelling and grammar errors.

Ask yourself, is the letter on headed paper or is the reference email a corporate address – rather than Gmail or Hotmail – for example?

What about the formatting? Also, do the referee’s details match-up online?

  • Cross-reference the application form to the CV. It isn’t uncommon for the latter to not have been updated and contain details of legitimate employment roles that can be followed up.
  • Review sites that job seekers might use, such as LinkedIn. If the employment history doesn’t fit with a candidate’s application form, question and investigate further.
  • Keep an open mind and don’t make assumptions without delving deeper. Candidates of all ages and varying levels of expertise and experience can use a false reference.
  • If there’s a lack of expertise within an organisation to identify suspicious applications during the recruitment process, consider utilising the services of a vetting specialist to help undertake these checks.
  • Trust your judgement. If something doesn’t look right, always carry out additional checks.

In summary, it is illegal to make a fraudulent job application regardless of what stage in the recruitment process a candidate might be.

For job-seekers, while it might seem a harmless act, providing false references and employment information can result in serious consequences: from having a bank account shut down to receiving a prison sentence.

For employers, it’s critical to conduct diligent screening checks throughout every stage of the employee lifecycle – regardless of job title or length of service. This is where the HR function can continue to make a real difference in relation to workplace wellbeing and safety. Ensuring there is the correct amount of investment to mitigate the threat of insider fraud will not only protect workforces, but future-proof organisations to tackle further threats.

See the Cifas Insider Threat Protect solution and sign-up to its Digital Learning programme to upskill your workforces in how to tackle the insider threat.


Tracey Carpenter is insider threat manager for the fraud prevention service, Cifas