How to spot a fake CV

We live in an world where ‘fake news’ is now a common occurrence – in fact, the term was named ‘word of the year’ by Collins in 2017. In this environment, not only are fraudsters becoming more sophisticated, but more individuals are also willing to lie themselves.

According to a recent anonymous survey from workplace social media platform, Blind, one in ten professionals admit to lying on their CV. And that’s just the one’s who have owned up. Identifying if false information has been put on a resume has simply become an expected part of the talent acquisition process.

But it’s not easy to achieve, particularly when we consider the tools available to facilitate CV fraud. Take fake education qualifications, for example. There has been a growth in use of diploma mills as people look to financially capitalise on candidates’ willingness to exaggerate their degree in order to further their career. The extent of this problem is clear when we consider that just last month Prospects reported that it has investigated 200 potential cases of degree fraud in the last four years and closed down 75 websites falsely offering UK degrees.

So how what red flags should you be looking for on CVs?

Diploma mills

If you’ve yet to be exposed to diploma mills, these are organisations that claim to be a higher education institution but, in fact, offer illegitimate academic degrees and diplomas – that often require absolutely no academic study – for a fee. They are not recognised by accrediting bodies and will often award degrees in a short period of time, based on ‘life experiences’. The challenge for talent acquisition teams when it comes to identifying these is that many diploma mills have impressive and convincing-looking websites, and provide ‘students’ with degrees and transcripts that look extremely authentic. However, there are ways to tell if a candidate has obtained a degree from one of these organisations:

  • No physical location: Perhaps the most obvious red flag is a lack of physical location. These organisations don’t need an address – after all there’s no library, campus or even cafeteria! If your candidate can only provide a P.O. Box address for their ‘university’, it’s unlikely to be a legitimate business.
  • The individual claims to have a degree based on life experience: If this is the case, they’ve likely gone through a diploma mill as they offer students credits for relevant work or life experience. Accredited universities, in comparison, could give credits for specific experiences relevant to the degree, such as internships, but not an entire degree.
  • The candidate references tailor-made studies: Diploma mills often offer customised courses that are tailored to the student’s degree of choice and may promise that it can be earned in a few months, weeks or even days. On the other hand, legitimate higher learning institutions are more likely to offer a variety of courses for students to pick from that take many years to complete.
  • No accreditation: While there are some higher learning organisations that don’t share their accreditation for certain reasons, diploma mills usually don’t have legitimate educational, provincial or territorial body or industry accreditation.


One of the most reliable ways to tackle this growing problem is to conduct a thorough education background check before you hire. Education verifications authenticate candidates’ academic history, degree type, honours received, industry qualifications and professional membership claims directly with registrars and administration offices. Remember as well that when seeking verification of education and training qualifications, you can go direct to registrars for confirmation of an individual’s claims.

Use social media – but use it wisely!

It’s often possible to verify much of an applicant’s information through social media – in fact it’s now commonplace for many hiring managers to turn to LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to check up on a candidate. However, it is crucial that you use these carefully. Aside from the fact that it is all too easy to lie on these platforms (though people are much easier to catch out when supplying false information on these channels), carrying out background checks on social media is a grey area and needs to be navigated carefully. Perhaps the biggest concern when using these resources to check up on an individual is the potential exposure to ‘protected characteristics’ such as gender, religion, race, sexual orientation or disability, which can inadvertently influence your hiring decision. In these instances, consider who is verifying the information on social media and how influential their unconscious bias may be on the process. Ask yourself is it necessary to have someone who is directly involved in the recruitment decision verify this information or would it be wise to include someone with no direct connection instead?

Reference checks

It’s also crucial not to overlook the power of reference checks. Often just speaking to CV references can help identify any lies – just look at the interview stage of The Apprentice. Many of the contestants making fraudulent statements have been caught out by simply speaking to those they have allegedly been involved with. It’s also important to bear in mind how valuable your network and that of your colleagues can be in identifying red flags. For those applications where an individual claims to have niche sector-specific qualifications or training, look at who you have in the business already with similar expertise and ask them if they are aware of the course in question. And, if possible, look at who the applicant knows already in the industry. It’s often possible to identify if further checks into the validity of their claims need to be carried out by looking at their professional connections. If they say they have worked at a company but aren’t connected with any other employees on LinkedIn, it’s fair to say the application looks suspicious.
Of course, checking for lies on a CV is both complex and, in some sectors, exposes a firm to risks if not conducted compliantly. The advice above is designed to help guide you in identifying any red herrings and shouldn’t be treated as legal advice. If you are unsure of how to go about verifying information and what the risks are to your firm, it’s always advisable to seek legal guidance.

Interested in recruiting fine talent? We recommend the Recruitment and Retention Conference 2019.






Steve is the Managing Director for Sterling EMEA, having originally joined Sterling in 2015 as head of Sales for UK&I. Previously, Steve spent nearly 10 years at REED, the leading recruiting firm in the UK, where he worked closely with senior HR professionals and Talent Acquisition leaders across multiple sectors helping to shape successful hiring programmes. He now leads Sterling's EMEA region, with strategic and operational responsibility for delivering robust background screening and identity solutions for clients and driving business growth for Sterling. Steve holds a BA from Cardiff University and is a regular speaker at HR and recruitment events across Europe.