A few years ago, Daniel Zubairi caught a job applicant in a flagrant lie. The woman's résumé said she worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That didn't sound right. Zubairi's Bethesda, Maryland-based cybersecurity company, SydanTech, worked closely with NOAA--and Zubairi had never heard of her. As it happened, Zubairi was at the agency's offices during the woman's phone interview. He asked to meet her in person. "Sir," she said, "I'd like to end the interview now." Click. Zubairi ran a background check. She was a home nursing assistant.
Job seekers have been fudging their accomplishments forever. But founders across the country say they've lately seen a surge of incidents that take job-applicant fakery to new--and shadier--levels. Totally false résumés featuring fictional employers. Professional interviewees. Covert coaching of candidates with no experience.
The stories have spread virally among business leaders. A CEO has a suspicious experience. She talks to another CEO, who says he's heard similar stories. At a meetup of 50 CEOs this past summer, Zubairi shared his story. "Everyone agreed that they've seen something to that effect," says Ahmed R. Ali, founder of the Rockville, Maryland-based Tista Science and Technology Corporation, who was in the room.
Zubairi and his peers have identified a growing problem, one that's been largely unreported. It starts with low unemployment--now at its lowest since 1969. A tight labor market can be especially tricky for fast-growing startups. (SydanTech, No. 78 on this year's Inc. 5000, certainly qualifies.) An imbalance of available talent and a company's needs can send a dangerous message: These guys are desperate to fill seats.
Zubairi says he's now caught multiple applicants in similar lies, and even identified a SydanTech employee who successfully faked his interview and worked at the company for nine months--before being caught and fired. Cybersecurity firms are especially vulnerable: The industry's unemployment rate has been near zero since 2016. And many of Zubairi's available jobs pay a minimum of $120,000 per year.
Cybersecurity is far from the only field affected. About the same time as Zubairi's first encounter, Biju Kurian was in Oklahoma City, running Objectstream, an aviation IT company. ("We make flying safe," he says.) Objectstream is also growing quickly--No. 2,992 on this year's Inc. 5000--in a lucrative field with a talent gap. Kurian's problem: A woman who'd impressed over the phone had a different voice when she arrived for her first day, and seemed unfamiliar with the conversation they'd had. Eventually, he confronted her. She broke down, confessed, apologized, and quit on the spot.
On the surface, these appear to be candidates taking desperate measures. But the candidates themselves may not be the only ones at fault. As recruitment has migrated online and become automated, says Ben Zhao, a University of Chicago professor who studies online marketplaces, opportunities for scammers have arisen. Professional recruiters, who get placement fees when they land candidates in jobs, have a clear incentive to game the system, Zhao says. They are "middlemen who can make significant profit by misrepresenting clients."
They might hire professional interviewees to do phone interviews, or feed answers to inexperienced candidates in real time. Or they might fake client résumés to make them look better to hiring algorithms--sometimes without telling those clients. Michael Mathews, founder of Toledo, Ohio-based automotive recruiting firm Moxee, estimates that as many as 20 percent of recruiters are at least dabbling in such tactics. "It doesn't surprise me anymore," he says.
Zubairi thinks he's found a way to screen some fakes. After his CEO meetup, he downloaded résumés submitted to SydanTech through the job site Indeed--and found dozens of near-identical documents. They bore the same formatting, titles, and job descriptions, down to the word. The only differences: the names of the applicants and the companies they claimed to have worked for. (Indeed declined to comment, but Inc. reviewed a selection of these documents.)
One common name on many of the dubious résumés: the Nigbel Group, whose bare-bones website describes it as an IT company in Houston. Zubairi says he's called its phone number and nobody has ever picked up. Nigbel did not respond to multiple Inc. requests for comment, nor is it listed in the Texas Secretary of State's database of taxable entities. To Mathews, the company sounds strikingly similar to fictional businesses he's seen created by other recruiters to help punch up fake résumés.
In an age of digitally driven misinformation, perhaps it's not surprising that fake job applicants would surge. As with other online-marketplace scams--say, counterfeit goods on Amazon--startups are more vulnerable than larger companies, simply because they have less money for prevention. "Smaller companies that don't have resources will continue to be defrauded by these attackers," predicts Zhao. And tech platforms will continue to play catchup with their hijackers.