Interviews

OSPAs webinar: fraudulent degrees, qualifications

by Mark Rowe

After the latest OSPAs thought leadership webinar, the chairman of the panel, Prof Martin Gill, said: “I am more worried than I was before.” The two speakers – consultant Gavin Burton, and Keith Rosser of the recruitment agency Reed – set out the challenges to verifying that people’s CVs – their references, how they say they are qualified – are not exaggerated or made up altogether. Also made plain was the damage that someone can do, if let into an organisation on fraudulent grounds.

As Keith Rosser, group director at Reed, said towards the end of the session: do employers really know what they are looking for? The honest answer, he replied; probably not. An employer may take the ‘path of least resistance’; they may feel that checks add time to the hiring process; if a reference comes back, the employer can ‘tick a box’; the employer is covered, and can then move on. Keith Rosser suggested such an approach to checking job-seekers was ‘painting by numbers’. For those employers that want to get it right, he went on, the problem is to really understand vetting and checking of employees; something usually done by HR or talent acquisition specialists, not fraud prevention departments.

And as the webinar heard earlier, the world has a problem with ‘degree mills’; qualifications that’re bought online for perhaps 20 dollars, and as for references, fraudsters can offer (as a paid service) a call centre ready to take a call from an employer that rings to check a reference. As for the degrees from entirely invented universities, Keith suggested that it is hard for a UK employer to know what are the genuine institutions in their own country, let alone the whole world.

Might artificial intelligence provide an answer? AI is slowly being adopted, Keith said, for example for making a selection from ten candidates to five that are taken forward for interview; there is also debate about blockchain or other ledger technology, to help. However, tech is also evidently the problem, for Gavin described the internet as ‘bandit country’ because a degree mill may have one online presence shut, only to open again more or less at once at another address.

Staying with tech, Keith spoke of digital identities as having a lot of potential, for example for checking proof of address, which may be of particular use in the UK for ‘right to work’ checks. A concern however – and Keith mentioned the UK Government’s ‘levelling up agenda’ – if you are to seek a job online, and you first have to get a digital ID, for that you need valid and in-date proof of your identity.

Yet the challenges to verifying that candidates’ details are accurate are many: there’s the sheer amount of CVs that have exaggerated or made-up details; the difficulty of checking – after covid even more so – work experience or other work periods at employers that have since closed; and what of first aid or other occupational courses, that job-seekers may say they have, to meet the requirements of a job. Also raised by the audience were the trend towards online ‘micro-courses’; how to prove that someone completed one?

What are the consequences of fake degrees and other pieces of CVs? The speakers set out how it’s a matter of honesty and fairness – someone gets a job who isn’t qualified over someone who is. That can be dangerous, whether that person is a midwife or a dentist, if they are less than competent. And darker still, an organisation has let inside someone who may deliberately do harm.

The next OSPAs webinar has a non-UK panel, on Thursday, February 10, to discuss political violence. Topics for later webinars are mentoring; influencing opinion; horizon scanning – how good are we at it?; AI and security management; and whistle-blowers. You can register to listen for free at https://theospas.com/thought-leadership-webinars/.

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