Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 30 June 2013

Are there different degrees of CV fraud?

Most CVs contain minor inaccuracies: dates slightly out of alignment, achievements a little inflated, nothing too serious. Others have gross misrepresentations – fake doctorates, concocted job histories, blatant lies.

Verification agencies say there is a substantial increase in serious CV fraud. Websites offering degrees for sale are proliferating. Very well reproduced diploma and degree certificates are now easily obtainable.

Aggressive competition in the job market and competing for access to institutions of higher learning force candidates to put themselves forward in the best possible light, even, it seems, if this means cooking things a little.

Danie Strydom, managing director of Qualification Verification Services, says criminal syndicates that specialised in forged passport and ID documents are now diversifying into the lucrative market of CV fraud. A fake Matric certificate can be bought for R2,000.

Recently a Chinese couple was found to be in possession of more than 1,000 stamped and signed University of South Africa certificates.

It is not just people trying to get onto the first rung of the career ladder who are doing it. There seems to be a burgeoning culture of embellishment even in the highest reaches of government, of corporations and of academic life. Last year, Johnny Molefe, who had been newly appointed to the position of Vice Chancellor of Tshwane University of Technology, was found to have a highly questionable doctorate from a shady “university” in the Caribbean.

Carl Niehaus, who in his prime was the official spokesman for the ANC, was forced, when confronted, to admit that he had lied about having a doctorate from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

In the UK the Telegraph reports that a new degree verification service is being launched to stop graduates from lying on job applications.

Even in straight-laced and pedantic Germany, senior politician Annette Schavan’s PhD was revoked by the University of Dusseldorf when it was found that she had plagiarised substantial parts of her thesis.

In May last year Yahoo “parted company” with its CEO Scott Thompson after he had been in the job for only five months. The severance came about for several reasons, but mainly because he lied about having a degree in computer science.

Now the University of South Africa has started a focussed campaign to root out bogus qualifications and as a matter of policy will be prosecuting all those who have used false qualifications to gain entry to the university. Martin Ramotshela says the university has prosecuted 94 cases of qualification fraud over the past three years.

In the UK, Mike Hill who runs the careers service Graduate Prospects, says it is only going to “get worse”. In a survey of 1,300 students that his company commissioned, responses indicate that “four out of ten students said that the introduction of new fees would make people more likely to exaggerate their achievements”.

The question that has to be asked is, when is a person who has submitted a CV with “inaccuracies” liable to be charged with fraud? Is there a level of minor inaccuracy that is more forgivable? Or is any level of faking sufficient subject for prosecution?

If we should choose to overlook small inaccuracies such as wrong dates or fudged work histories, where is one to draw the line and at what point does it become serious enough for prosecution?

If the numbers are to be believed and if the rapidly growing ranks of CV fraudsters are to be taken seriously, can we imagine how the already overburdened courts will cope with a deluge of CV prosecutions? As in the case of traffic fines, will we end up with “CV courts” on site at university registration offices or employment agencies?

CV fraud at any level is a problem, but it can become life-threatening when perpetrated by someone purporting to be a qualified professional, but isn’t; a fake medical doctor prescribing drugs or, heaven forbid, practicing surgery; or a fake engineer managing safety in a factory; or fake teachers let loose on your children.

What is to be done? Simply looking for the degree certificates on the wall of a doctor’s surgery is no longer sufficient. Expert copies can be ordered by e-mail.

Longing for a time when people could trust each other and a man’s word was his bond is no longer an option either. Trust in our society is not a given anymore. Does this mean that we now need elaborate checking mechanisms before engaging with any professional person? Or even a tradesperson such as a plumber or electrician?

Just saying “Show me your license” will not do. And when we finally go to the qualification verification agency, will we get to a point where they will also not be trusted because even they can be ‘bought’?

In the end the faked legal procedures and mail-order qualifications will be replaced by word-of-mouth recommendation from a trusted source when buying professional service. We will all be back to relying on our own trusted networks.

Verification of degrees and certificates will have to be done by checking with centralised databases and by doing what the financial service businesses do. They make sure that there are secure passwords and ask “a few questions” to ensure security before engaging in a phone conversation with a client.

We know from a piece of research recently published by Harris Interactive in the UK that 37% of employers check Facebook and the other social media entries before making offers to prospective candidates. Informal observation suggests that a smaller number of employers do proper vetting of qualifications. This would indicate that a substantial number still do not follow up properly and that a wide-open hole in the system still exists for those who would choose to take advantage by using fake qualifications.

Considering the cost and inconvenience of greater rigour, it’s a fair bet that minor CV inaccuracies will, in the end, simply be overlooked. It is the serious frauds that will inevitably result in a major overhaul of the systems. Look at what happened with airport security in the past two decades. Because passengers can no longer be trusted with the safety of fellow travellers, a vast security scanning procedure wastes time and creates inconvenience for millions. All who travel pay for it with increased fares and airport taxes.

CV security is heading in the same direction. DM

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