There are certain things that you see in a resume, CV or biography that immediately raise some warning signs.
Last week, while everyone was “surprised” to see that Alex Rodriguez has been accused of taking human growth hormones (again!), I was struck by the biography of the doctor who (allegedly) supplied him with the drugs:
The things that caught my eye were the terms recognized, world-class leader and pioneer. Who “recognized” him as an international educator? Himself?
World-class leaders or pioneers are people like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates — not a doctor from Florida who hands out steroids like lollipops.
I wanted to get some other warning signs and red flags of a fraud or fake resume or CV so I enlisted the help of some investigators. Collectively we have looked at tens of thousands of resumes, CVs and biographies and conducted background investigations on thousands of them.
Together we came up with a list of self-promoters, name-droppers, chest-thumpers and “reformed” criminals, all of whom have some extraordinary stories that you could never verify.
Here is what we came up with to spot a resume fraud, fake CV or biography lies.
Have you ever seen someone describe himself or herself as “the only person to …” or “recognized as a world-class leader …” or “the first person to be awarded …” or “the youngest person ever to …” or “a pioneer in …”?
That sound you hear? That is the sound of a blaring siren.
Who exactly recognized you as a “world-class leader” or a “pioneer”? Your business partner? Your family?
These are not titles that people usually bestow upon themselves. There are only so many “firsts” and “youngests” and “world-class” people in the world.
A perfect example of this is Mouli Cohen. Cohen, who is serving a thirty-year sentence for stealing more than $30 million from investors, claimed in multiple press releases that he “was awarded the first-ever ‘Millionaire Residency’ with full citizenship status by President George H. Bush.” [emphasis added]
George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush served as our 41st and 43rd President, but who exactly is George H. Bush? Unfortunately for Mr. Cohen, there is no such thing as “Millionaire Residency” status.
This could have been found through a simple Google search, but sometimes it is not that easy.
You know the type.
The ones who feel so insecure about themselves that they must resort to including names of important people — typically people with little or no relevance to the topic at hand — in conversation to impress others.
Some even take it a step further and drop names into their biographies or resumes.
For example: “Tiger Woods event committee leader,” or “… spearheaded Mario Cuomo’s charitable planning in upstate New York.”
If it’s true, it usually means that the person was a volunteer at some function or an employee of a corporation that was hired to do something.
[Tip: Ever notice that the people who are really connected aren’t the ones shouting it from the rooftops? They don’t need to.]
People are so fascinated by celebrities that some take it a step further and just pretend to be the famous person themselves, like the fake Rockefeller.
Ever see someone’s biography describe the last ten years as having been spent “in the financial industry,” without listing specific jobs?
In other words, they really don’t want you to know where they worked.
They could have had problems at these companies, or they were third-tier institutions, or they jumped around from company to company, or they didn’t have much success.
Or they could have spent ten years as a janitor at a local credit union.
Or how about the job at “an international nonprofit in Shanghai” with absolutely no details on which organization it was?
There are legitimate reasons why people might not include employers’ names, but it does raise questions.
Another one of my favorites is the person who “attended” Harvard University.
Also known as, “I took a class there,” or “I attended class but never graduated,” or “I visited the school … once … a long time ago.”
There are others who may have gone down a wrong path but have come back “reformed,” typically after finding some form of religion.
They love promoting how they have turned their lives around and fixed everything.
Making a blanket statement about all criminal offenders is a mistake, but a criminal past is certainly a reason to be more cautious. After all, a tiger can’t change its stripes.
Just ask another “reformed” fraudster, Barry Webne, who was convicted of embezzlement on two different occasions. Webne said, “If you put me in a position of trust again … chances are I’m going to violate that trust.”
Take the case of Barry Minkow. After being released from prison in 1995, Minkow reinvented himself by becoming a pastor and founding the Fraud Discovery Institute. He was profiled on 60 Minutes and was applauded for his work in a series of articles in The Wall Street Journal in 2008 that uncovered inflated credentials by corporate executives.
A few short years later, Minkow was charged in his role in disseminating false information about Lennar Corporation by making false and misleading statements about the company while profiting from Lennar’s falling stock with options contracts.
He’s currently serving a five-year sentence.
Designations and Awards
I was recently looking at the biography of a colleague in the investigations industry and asked him about a designation that he listed on his bio from the “World Association of Investigative Professionals” (name of the organization has been changed to protect the guilty).
Turns out he paid $50 for that certificate. It’s nothing more than that — a piece of paper. But it’s on his corporate biography, and the certificate hangs on his office wall.
Some people are serial certificate collectors; a wall full of worthless pieces of paper so they can add it to their resume.
There are lots of these professional associations and plenty of designations that sound official, but many of them are nothing more than a piece of paper, barely worth the ink they are printed with.
Others like to claim that they were some type of “award winner” or received a “special designation” from [insert name of something legitimate here].
Or a “Good Samaritan” award from the local chamber of commerce or a recognition for pro bono work.
Go ahead. Try finding some proof of that. We will wait …
Sometimes it’s not the things in the resume or biography that raise a red flag, but what is missing. Gaps in someone’s employment or education history or gaping holes in their personal background.
For example, for some inexplicable reason people have been known to include their master’s degree while leaving out their undergraduate degree.
Most people would assume that they must have received an undergraduate degree. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that.
Or perhaps years of job history have been left out.
Maybe the company failed or the person had a bad experience. But they also could have committed fraud.
Worse yet, they could have spent years in prison, like Nicholas Cosmo, who left out of his bio the several years that he spent in jail for a previous fraud conviction.
Or you may find that resumes and biographies of the same person don’t match.
Such profiles have different employment histories on them, so clearly they’re trying to drop certain past employers from their profiles and hoping nobody will notice.
Extraordinary Personal Stories
Some people have extraordinary personal stories that are impossible to verify without a ton of work. “After being raised on the streets by a homeless, drug-addicted mother, John went on to found …” Or “Mary survived stage-four stomach cancer, dreaming of …” Or anything else that makes the other accomplishments seem phenomenal.
Take, for example, Aleksey Vayner. In 2006 as a senior at Yale University, he submitted to various Wall Street banks an eleven-page resume and a video in which he identified himself as a multisport professional athlete, the CEO of two companies and an investment adviser.
The video depicts Vayner lifting nearly 500 pounds, serving a tennis ball at 140 miles an hour (he even claimed to have beaten tennis legend Pete Sampras), ballroom dancing with a scantily clad female and demonstrating his martial arts prowess.
On its face, he seemed like either the greatest candidate ever or a complete fraud. Numerous questions surrounded Vayner’s achievements as an investor as well as his book and charity. Despite the fact that much of it may be true, it raises big questions. (Sadly, Vayner died of an apparent overdose at the age of 29.)
Author James Frey published and promoted A Million Little Pieces, a memoir that was later determined to be a work of fiction.
Or consider the story of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, who claimed of being saved by a remote village in Afghanistan and promising to build a school for them. Among other things that he was abducted and held for eight days by the Taliban. It was all a lie.
Both stories were so incredibly over the top that you just had to question their authenticity.
Things That Can’t Be Verified
One common theme you will find with most of the examples above is that most people like to include things that either (1) can’t be verified at all, or (2) can be verified only with an extraordinary amount of effort (and under most circumstances, people won’t go to that effort).
Many resumes that cross your desk will make such claims as, “increased sales in my group from $10.3 million to $42.7 million in two years.” You may get enough information to think it’s believable. But practically no one can refute it without digging through the depths of hell.
Sometimes you will get people putting a bunch of these things together, making it all that much more difficult to verify.
For example, you may find that someone claims to be the author of a best-selling e-book, a ten-time triathlon winner, a champion speed-reader and a war veteran who shielded a newborn baby from bomb shrapnel with his body.
Take the case of our recent case study, in which the candidate had a stellar resume, including a short stint on Broadway and a degree from a top university.
He was a college football player who had contact with actors and actresses and was also a veteran, having served in a “top secret” intelligence division in the U.S. Army.
We couldn’t easily verify his contacts, his Broadway stint or his participation on the college football team, but it turned out he was lying about his military service — which gave us reason to believe he might have been lying about the rest of it as well.
There are, of course, many other examples of resume and biography fraud, lies or just plain old red flags. Like the resume of the person who wrote that he helped his mom do her housework for the summers when he was in between college sessions (true story).
Maybe that is a warning flag for plain stupidity.
You don’t need to be a genius to spot the warning signs yourself. It just takes some common sense to ask yourself what’s in there, what’s missing, and what can and can’t be verified.
Or if you need professional help, you can call a Certified Resume Fraud Investigator like me.
I just made that up.