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Appalling Reference Issue HR Pros Should Watch Out For

by Michael B. Leahy

Recently, our colleagues in California brought a shady — and possibly criminal — Web-based reference service to our attention. What we saw shocked us.

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Every excuse in the book! supplies fraudulent job references to employers looking for information on job applicants. In addition to providing fraudulent paycheck stubs and reference letters, the company has created fake websites and e-mail domains for what its employees euphemistically refer to as “virtual companies.” If you’re not careful, these fantasy companies can cause your company more harm than any fantasy football league.

For the low price of $65 down and $20 a month, provides its clients with a fake “800” number that directs an employer checking references to a computerized operator. After an operator takes the employer’s message, sends the employer an employment verification release form and questionnaire. The questionnaire is then turned over to the prospective employee to fill out and return to, which provides it to the employer. I called the company to check it out, and although the representative I spoke with told me that the service would not help me get a job as a lawyer or doctor or a job with the federal government, nothing else seemed to be off limits.

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What’s in a name?
The “virtual companies” aren’t incorporated in any state and have names that mimic the names of well-known businesses. For instance, the customer service representative I spoke with directed me to as an example of a previous employer I could claim to have worked for and assured me that many more of these “virtual companies” are available if I wanted to choose a different one. A quick glance at the reference may fool you into thinking Harris USA is the same as Harris Communications, which is a legitimate company unaffiliated with

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Don’t fall victim
Obviously, the creators of this service (and others like it) are acting in an unethical and probably illegal manner. We hope they face their own legal issues over their behavior. The issue all HR professionals face — now more than ever — is how to effectively verify job references. In these tough economic times, making the wrong hiring decision based on a fraudulent reference means, at worst, an employer might be exposing its company to the dangers associated with allowing dishonest or even violent individuals into its workplace. At best, it means an employer is missing out on an opportunity to hire individuals with legitimate experience.

We typically advise our clients to take the following steps to avoid being fooled:

  • Look up the company’s website. Obviously, is providing a fake website. Call the telephone number on the firm’s website. With Harris-USA, I was welcomed by a computerized operator, which gave me the option to reach sales, HR, the operator, or a directory of employees. When I selected “2” for sales, I was told the number I entered was not a valid entry. If you’re greeted by a fishy-sounding computerized operating system, select a different entry and ask someone to transfer your call to HR.
  • Insist on talking to a real person. My conversation with the customer service rep at made it clear that the fake employer wants to avoid live conversations with HR professionals and prefers to produce only the written questionnaire responses.
  • Create a paper trail by using e-mail.
  • Ask the company what state it’s incorporated in. If it doesn’t answer, that’s a red flag. If it does answer, check the secretary of state’s corporation database to verify. Each state has a different one.
  • Amend your handbook policies and application forms to make it clear that falsifying a resume or references is grounds for immediate dismissal.

With the unemployment rate higher than it has been in many years and job seekers becoming more desperate with each passing day, it’s not surprising that some dishonest individuals are turning to unscrupulous tactics to find employment. A service like this should serve as a wake-up call to stay on your toes and give those references more than just a quick once- over.

Michael B. Leahy is an associate at the firm of Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. He can be reached at (413) 737-4753

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