Liv McConnell
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Recently, a friend of mine texted to ask if he could list me as a reference for a job he was applying to. I readily agreed, thinking he intended to list me as a personal reference; of course I was willing to help him out.

It came as a surprise, then, a few days later when a hiring manager called to ask me: “So, how long did you work with Jim*?” I paused a beat before asking them to clarify what they meant. It came to my attention this friend had, in reality, listed me as a professional reference — not a personal one. Apparently, Jim had wanted me to serve as a fake reference for him.

What is a fake reference?

As was my friend Jim’s intention with me, a fake reference often entails asking someone you’re close to — a friend or family member — to pose as a former colleague or business associate in order to up your odds of success on a job application. They can take the shape of a faked reference letter (an enterprise whole sites have been devoted to… but more on that later) or simply a few lines provided to a hiring manager listing a reference’s name and phone number. 

Sometimes a fake reference will have a basis in reality; e.g. the reference is someone you’ve truly worked with in the past, but in a different capacity from what you listed. On other occasions, candidates artificially construct a reference and the related job experience in full, with the expectation that no one at their prospective company will be the wiser.

Today, there seems to be a prevailing belief held by some job seekers that references exist as a mere formality, and that no hiring manager will take the time to look into them too thoroughly or weight them too heavily. This view was certainly echoed by my friend, who I called after telling the hiring manager they had the wrong number (which seemed my safest bet). He was confused by my anger. “What’s the big deal?” he asked. “I know this job is perfect for me. Why aren’t you willing to help me get my foot in the door so I can prove that?”

As I explained to Jim, at the end of the day, relying on a fake reference to get a job isn’t that simple.

Who might use them

In speaking to hiring managers and people who’ve worked in a hiring capacity for this piece, a few common threads emerged as to the types of people who are likeliest to rely on fake references.

1. A candidate who wants a job badly, but doesn’t have the experience to match.

“I think the reasons candidates fake them is obvious — they want a job and do not have the supporting experience to be able to get it, so they ‘invent’ the experience,” Adam Caller, founder and director of Tutors International, said.

2. A candidate who thinks the company won’t check their references anyway.

Caller is of the opinion that many companies aren’t as diligent in vetting hires as they should be, explaining that his own company “cannot afford errors with background checks” and takes “exquisite care” with them. To prove that other companies aren’t always as cautious, he says he performed an experiment. 

“I am registered under a pseudonym with several companies in my business sector, and I have provided referee contact details of other made-up people whose email accounts I control,” he said. “Not one company has spotted my ruse, and some have offered me work without even taking up references at all.”

3. A candidate who is nervous about taking up their references’ time — or is just plain lazy.

“Probably the case most often is the job candidate doesn’t want to take the time to actually have the reference write out a personal letter,” Ola Wlodarczyk, an HR Specialist at Zety, said. “It’s likely due to the fact that job applicants apply to so many positions that they don’t want to bombard their references with letter requests. It could also be that the job candidate doesn’t have time to get a letter for each position they apply to, and they want to bypass that portion of the application.”

4. A candidate who feels the company’s reference expectations are unfair.

A woman in the FGB Community shared an experience her friend had in which the company she was applying to wasn’t willing to lessen their reference requirements, despite her friend being entry level.

“She was an entry-level candidate with very little experience aside from her years working as an executive assistant to her dad,” the FGB’er explained. “Although she expressed this to her potential employer, they still required a reference. I felt like this was very wrong for her to do — but she did work incredibly hard at that company, and he was truly the only one who could speak to that.”

Where to find fake references

Most candidates who are considering using a fake reference rely on family and friends to provide them. But there are also websites that exist purely for the purpose of engineering automated reference letters for a fee. With a name that speaks volumes, CareerExcuse.com is one such site. 

For around $150, CareerExcuse.com promises job seekers a thorough reference letter that will not only incorporate their exact job specifications — it will also provide access to a live HR operator, a functional website for their fake company, and local telephone and fax numbers. The site’s founder, William Schmidt, seems to believe his work comes with an honorable mission: to “help disadvantaged job seekers find employment by acquiring professional references and obtaining a verifiable resume for their job search,” according to his site bio. 

A variety of these sites exist, from those targeted to counterfeit job references like CareerExcuse.com, Reference Pal and Paladin Deception Services, to sites like AlibiHQ, which forges everything from landlord references to doctors’ notes. But although these services claim to offer help, in reality, they do everything but.

Why fake references are a bad idea

Lying on any component of a job application is, simply put, never an advisable idea. Despite some people’s belief that references are just a formality and not something hiring managers actually investigate, there are plenty of hiring managers who do take reference checks quite seriously. According to a 2017 study from Career Builder, 75% of those hiring managers report having caught a lying candidate during the application process.

If honesty for honesty’s sake isn’t incentive enough, keep in mind that as a prospective hire with no intimate knowledge of a company’s HR practices, you have no way of knowing what type of hiring manager you’re dealing with. And if you take a gamble by faking your references and get caught — as plenty of reference fakers do — it could mean missing out on a great opportunity. 

Below, four hiring managers shared their horror stories of catching candidates with fake references red-handed.

1. The reference was actually the candidate’s boyfriend.

Beverly Friedmann, content manager at MyFoodSubscriptions, says she was once sent a fake reference — and didn’t realize until after the candidate had already been hired.

“It came to our attention via social media that this reference was actually the candidate’s (now employee’s) romantic partner,” Friedmann said. “It seemed plausible that they could have worked together in the past; she had presented him as her former direct report on a lengthy reference list. But based on all of her personal accounts, she never made mention of them working together.” 

Friedmann said that after “further digging and a phone call,” she discovered the candidate had never worked at her supposedly past company at all — only her boyfriend did.

“While her partner did, in fact, work for this company and made a bold move by sending her a faked reference via his work email, she had faked an entire position as well as the reference.”

Things with the employee wound up ending “for other reasons,” but Friedmann cautioned other job seekers not to test their luck similarly, adding that “when references are faked, it is usually discoverable by social media.”

2. The reference was real, but the letter was fake.

Wlodarczyk, the HR Specialist at Zety, shared a time where a candidate shot themselves in the foot by faking a letter for an actual reference.

“The reference letter seemed really strange at first, so our team did an investigation,” she said. “We googled some of the phrases in the letter and realized that they simply copied and pasted a reference letter that was online. The candidate admitted to the fake reference letter, but interestingly, the reference itself wasn’t fake. The candidate copied and pasted the letter, but it was signed by a real reference. Needless to say, the reference wasn’t happy about it one bit!”

Wlodarczyk cautioned job seekers to stay 100 percent above the table in their job application dealings.
“Competition is so fierce that anything can send smoke signals our way, and it can cost you a great position,” she warned.

3. The candidate forgot the name of their reference in the interview.

Claire Mason described a particularly strange encounter she had with a candidate interviewing for a position at her law firm, Farzam Law. The paralegal, she said, not only faked his references, but “made up an entire business model.”

“He claimed he’d been working for a ‘general legal consulting business’ for 14 years and said that we could contact his prior boss (only via email, no phone calls, please) for references,” Mason explained. “He forgot the name of his supposed boss of 14 years repeatedly during his interview and also fumbled the street address. When we received an email from his prior employer, certain vocabulary, speech patterns, and misspellings identical to those in his cover letter raised suspicion.”

After investigating, Mason’s team discovered not only that the candidate’s supposed boss didn’t exist — the man had been practicing law without a license.

“Needless to say, he was not hired,” she added.

4. The supposed “reference” raised red flags by revealing proprietary information.

Matthew Ross, co-owner and COO of The Slumber Yard, recently received a reference letter that left him in and his business partner “scratching our heads.”

“In the letter, the author made a statement regarding a special project the individual worked on that most managers or bosses would not be willing to share, especially to a company that operates in the same industry,” he explained. “Given I thought the letter was a little odd, I decided to do a little research on the individual who supposedly wrote it. Well, it turned out the supposed author (according to his LinkedIn page) left that company two years prior, so there is no way it was him.”

Ross said this was a shame, because they’d been “planning on offering the candidate the position — until we figured out her reference letter was likely fake.”

How to spot a fake reference when you’re hiring or conducting a reference check: 5 tactics

Clearly, there are plenty of candidates out there who, despite the risk involved, are willing to try their luck with fake references. What can hiring managers do to spot them?

1. Use a reputable background vetting service.

Entire businesses are built on the premise that accurately vetting candidates takes time. And, as a hiring manager, bringing on a candidate only to learn afterward that they were dishonest has the potential to lose your company plenty of time and money. Some of these services can skew toward the pricier side, but in the end, the peace of mind they provide may be worth it.

2. Find the candidate on social media.

As one hiring manager mentioned above, one of the most common ways lying candidates out themselves is through social media. Does the candidate claim they were working out of a New York office in 2017, yet 90 percent of their updates from that same period was posted in Texas? Are they connected to their reference, or anyone from their alleged past employer, on LinkedIn? Does a birthday message posted on the candidate’s Facebook wall make it clear the reference in question is actually a relative? There are plenty of small but significant missteps a lying candidate might make on their social media accounts. 

3. Look for similarities between the reference letter and other application materials.

Finding identical misspellings, as one hiring manager noted above, or other similar language on a reference letter and the candidate’s other application materials might be a red flag that the authorship is less-than genuine. 

4. Ask the reference if they can recommend additional colleagues with whom you can speak.

If the reference you were given seems suspect — offering only the vaguest of praise, or mentioning details that contradict other information provided to you by the candidate — ask the reference whom else the candidate worked with that you should speak to. 

If you’re nervous your suspicion could come off as offensive, note that this is a plenty reasonable question to ask, and that there are also mild ways to ask it (e.g. “The project you describe sounds interesting! Can you recommend anyone else involved with it who I can speak to?”). An above-the-table reference won’t be fazed. A “fake” one likely will be.

5. Call the reference. 

Generally, this should be standard practice. But at some companies, due to the volume of candidates being processed, hiring managers may rely more heavily on written references. It’s much trickier, however, to pick up on whether a reference is disingenuous if your only interaction with them is through email or simply through a letter the candidate themselves provided. Actually speaking to a reference can take away their ability to rely on rehearsed answers and equip you with a more authentic read on the situation. Area codes, too, can be telling, particularly if you ask for the phone numbers of multiple references. Is there alignment between the area codes of the references and that of the theoretical company?

In short, there are plenty of methods one can use to uncover the use of fake references. And it would save everyone involved time — the candidate, hiring managers, and the company — if job seekers simply relied on the legitimate references that should be in their arsenal to begin with.

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