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Verifying Qualifications – When Lying Is Just Not Enough

Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself –everyone else is already taken”. However, these words of wisdom seem to have been placed aside based on the logic that sometimes being yourself may not have the desired outcome! Enter the increasing occurrences of CV fraud and the resultant exposure of employers to the risk of hiring a person who is not “being themselves” as their CV has proported them to be. Verifying qualifications is the key!

When background checking was a fairly new concept in the Australian market, CV fraud was fairly straightforward. A touch of grey, an exaggeration or an outright lie was not uncommon on paper when it was unlikely that your qualifications, memberships, employment or integrity of character would be validated.

However, with the sharp rise in the number of organisations that now incorporate a rigourous background checking policy into recruitment processes, lying is simply not enough and candidates, with a little help from the internet, have been forced to get a little creative. This has lead to candidates providing both fake degree certificates claiming qualifications from legitimate institutes and evidence of qualifications that have been issued by degree mills.

In this article, we will take a brief look degree mills, what they are and why they have flourished, even amongst Australian candidates. Then we will explore some recent PeopleCheck case studies relating to falsified qualifications and the key lessons these impress upon employers about ways to avoid being deceived by candidates who present with fake qualification documentation.

What is a degree mill?

A degree mill issues individuals with “degrees” without requiring the study which would usually be associated with the qualification. The qualifications (often referred to as lifestyle degrees) are awarded based on the individual’s work/life experience, although there is generally no verification of the experience that an individual claims to have.

The scams of degree mills have changed over the years along with the increased awareness of background checking and fraud prevention and developments in technology. They now provide professional websites, notarised qualifications and even verification services to allow for a candidate’s qualification to be validated!

Why have degree mills flourished?

Qualifications can be such a crucial part of what employers are looking for in a suitable applicant, and this gives candidates a strong incentive to stretch the truth so that they appear to match this position criteria. For the same reason, certain industries include confirming the candidate’s qualification as a mandatory part of the recruitment process, although this often involves simply viewing the candidate’s certificate or transcript. The opportunity of being provided with a legitimate-looking qualification document where no qualification exists has never been so valued as it is by candidates in these situations!

Further, some degree mills work on the premise that the “degrees” are awarded based on work/life experience.

This preys on the pride a candidate may have in their achievements to date and supports the very convenient view that experience is worth more than qualifications! Whether or not this may be the case practically in certain roles, degree mills have given candidates a platform to put themselves forward as someone they are not, along with a means of justifying their actions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, degree mills provide their service for just several hundred dollars and without the years of cost and commitment that a genuine degree involves. We should therefore not be surprised to find that lifestyle degrees and evidence of degree mill qualifications are infiltrating the Australian candidate pool.

Case Study 1 – Qualification Check

PeopleCheck recently undertook the validation of a candidate’s engineering degree from an Indian institution.

This candidate provided a degree certificate copy with their application, along with their roll number. The candidate’s roll number is required for Indian qualification validations, as verifications are undertaken based on the candidate’s number rather than their name due to the number of students that graduate in this country.

PeopleCheck contacted the institute and were advised that there was no record of the candidate’s attendance, the roll number provided did not exist and the degree certificate the candidate had provided had been falsified.

When we reverted to our client with the unfortunate news that their candidate had in fact not completed the claimed qualification, their response was one of surprise for the reason that is very typical of employers in this situation, asking the following questions:

  • The candidate has worked with larger organisations – surely they checked the degree?
  • The candidate is working in Australia on a skills visa – surely DIAC checked the degree?
  • The candidate is a member of an industry institute – surely they checked the degree?

Unfortunately, the answer to all three of these incredulous questions was most likely “no”; there was no indication that this degree had been verified by any of these organisations. One wonders how long the candidate’s deception may have continued based on the assumption that it had if our client had not undertaken this simple background check that revealed the truth.

What are the key lessons we learn from this case study?
  • CV fraud candidates are bold in their provision of falsified information. Do not assume that because a candidate provides fancy documentation and even a student/roll number that this means their claim is legitimate; and
  • The assumption that a qualification must have been verified previously by others is a common misconception which can lead to the decision not to have the qualification validated….and in turn, to hiring an unqualified candidate!
Case Study 2 – The notarised degree

A recent candidate on which PeopleCheck was undertaking background checking had provided a degree certificate along with several copies of certified transcripts in support of his claimed qualification.

The first step for our researchers in validating this qualification was to attempt to locate contact details for the institute. Research revealed that the university website had an online verification email portal; however, no physical address or telephone number was available.

Additional research undertaken by our team suggested that the university was an unaccredited university, offering degrees based on life and work experience. The only accreditation able to be located was by bodies that related to the university, or by “peers”, rather than by recognised accreditation bodies. Further, our team located a significant amount of information in online forums and other sites describing the university as a “lifestyle university” or degree mill.

Upon being advised of PeopleCheck’s findings, our client raised this issue with the candidate. The candidate qualified his degree by indicating that qualifications had been received through study, sitting exams and “experience”. These comments provided by the candidate are concerning, particularly the reference to the involvement of “experience” in gaining his degree.

The candidate referenced the fact that his qualification documentation had been notarised. The candidate also explained that previous employers and universities had recognised this degree based on the notarised copies; however, there is no evidence that these employers undertook the appropriate research to verify the degree. In fact, information from one source indicated that some states in the United States will actually accept degrees that are issued based on life and work experience. PeopleCheck’s recommendation would be to proceed with caution in such a situation.

What are the key lessons from this case study?
  • Beware – degree mills do exist and Australian candidates are submitting lifestyle degrees as part of employment applications;
  • Some degree mills offer online validation of the attendance of their “students” and in so doing, seek to provide another layer of deceit for their customers and those looking to validate their qualification. Verification enquiries should only be undertaken with a recognised accreditation body;
  • Where possible, independent contact details should be obtained and direct contact made with the institute to validate a qualification;
  • Verify not certify! A degree that has been certified/notarised carries no additional assurance being legitimate than one that is not. The purpose of a notary is only to verify that a document is a true copy of an original regardless of the origins of the document in question; and
  • Candidates claiming qualifications awarded by degree mills can feel completely justified in misrepresenting themselves in this way and employers cannot assume that confident candidate assurances are based on truth.
Case Study 3 – The “closed” university

Some candidates go to the next level in trying to ensure that their CV fraud is not detected. Another method employed by some candidates to disguise the fact that their qualification was issued by an illegitimate institute is to claim that the institute has since closed.

A background check for one of PeopleCheck’s recruitment clients involved validation of a candidate’s degree from the UK. The candidate advised that they completed their studies externally and the university had since closed. The candidate provided both a certified degree certificate and transcript in support of their application.

When our research team undertook enquiries, it was unable to locate any evidence of a webpage for this university, except for memorabilia. Extensive internet research (which even went as far as a Google Earth search that revealed the physical address for the university was an unoccupied shop!) indicated the university was a degree mill offering qualifications based on employment history and life experience.

What are the key lessons we learn from this case study?
  • Validation of a candidate’s qualification (and this can also be extended to the candidate’s employment history) should never be disregarded based on the candidate’s assurance that the organisation no longer exists. Research should still be undertaken to validate the information put forward by the candidate; and
  • As with the previous case study, a certified degree certificate and transcript meant very little.

It is not enough to view a certificate, as this can be very easy to fabricate and there is no additional assurance should this certificate have been certified.

The presence of degree mills and the examples in these case studies call for vigilance when it comes to validating candidate qualifications. Taking qualification documents (even when certified) on face value carries with it risks that in their severity far outweigh the time and cost involved in simply verifying the candidate’s qualification.

More Information
For more information on how PeopleCheck can assist with background checking requirements, please contact us on +612 4023 0603 or validate@peoplecheck.com.au

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