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How to detect and deal with fake references

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Whether you’re hiring remotely or in person, for Government, Not-For-Profit, the private or public sector, a reference check can help offer confidence in your hiring decisions. Reference checks are extremely valuable, but only when the information comes from reliable sources, such as previous employers, ex-colleagues, educational institutions, mentors and more.

In addition, the pandemic has changed the face of employment for many industries. With remote hiring commonplace, employers must be especially vigilant that the references received are genuine. 

Why conduct reference checks? ‍

Whether an employee is working from home or in an office, trusting that candidates are both diligent and capable of doing the job is hugely important. 

Recruiters and organisations must do their due diligence during the hiring process by checking references and performing other pre-employment checks as necessary. If they don’t, recruiters risk damaging both their own reputation and that of the organisation they represent if the candidate turns out to be a bad hire.

The cost of a bad hire isn’t limited to reputation. Work culture and morale can be negatively affected by a bad hire. Offboarding a problem hire can also cost an organisation a significant amount of money, including wasted salary, offboarding expenses, time, and having to start the hiring process again.  

The risk of a fake reference 

A survey of 1700 American citizens by StandOut CV indicated that around one in six respondents had faked references. All employment levels run the risk of employees falsifying references. As the following examples show, high-level appointments can cause the most reputation and financial damage to an organisation.

A Top Adelaide bureaucrat faked her references to secure a lucrative SA Government position. 

A former manager at a state government department was found guilty of fraudulent behaviour concerning her job application. Veronica Hilda Theriault, 45, was chief information officer within the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) when she was charged with deception, dishonestly dealing with documents and abuse of public office in September 2017. 

Sentenced to a non-parole period of 12 months in jail, the court heard that the high-paid officer fabricated her education, referees and work background.‍

Myer Group executive faked references to secure position.

Myer executives and Quest Personnel were fooled into hiring Andrew Flanagan in 2014. Quest conducted two overseas interviews with referees, supposedly senior executives in well-known retail organisations, and checked the documentation before putting Flanagan forward.  

Top executives at Myer interviewed him extensively before appointing him, paying him a six-figure salary. But, Andrew left on his first day when it was discovered he had falsified his resume.

While employers should perform pre-employment screening on candidates for most positions, some sectors, in particular, need to be extremely careful with hiring decisions. Childcare, aged care, healthcare, and other professions associated with positions of trust need to be especially diligent. 

Following proper processes can ssist in identifying fake references

Identifying unusual activity in reference checks ‍

It pays to know who is answering a reference survey because fake or fraudulent responses can occur. When conducting manual checks, errors can occur. 

Following proper processes can assist in identifying fake references, and there are several ways organisations reduce the chance of receiving fake references or eliminate them, including‍:

  1. Ask questions: If you notice discrepancies in a response or suspect something is suspicious, you should ask the applicant directly.‍
  2. Complete employment checks before offering employment: Offers of employment should only be made after receiving satisfactory recommendations and performing other required background checks.‍
  3. Set clear expectations in job ads: Create clear guidelines outlining the checks needed for the job and the consequences of misrepresentation. ‍
  4. Use Xref automated reference checks: The Xref unusual activity algorithm analyses completed reference surveys for factors that may indicate a reference is fake. In 12 months, Xref identified nearly 16,000 instances of unusual activity in reference checks for users. 

The unusual activity algorithm combined with the ease of use and efficiency of Xref reference checks has made Xref the #1 reference checking platform in the market. Customers love Xref. That’s why we have scores of 4.7 out of 5 on both Google and G2.  

“Many “red flags” and doctored certifications were slipping through the cracks due to YMCA NSW’s previously ineffective system. We’ve actually been able to catch many cases of reference check fraud which for us is really important.” Agnes Isaias, Recruitment Manager YMCA NSW

Xref automatically analyses references for unusual activity 

All industries can benefit from verifying the integrity of reference checks because not all candidates and referees are honest.

The team at Xref has used their expertise in the hiring process to pinpoint the key risks and pain points in reference checks. Using this knowledge, we have developed a reference checking platform focused on simplicity, convenience and compliance. Xref reference checks offer employers the peace of mind that they are hiring the right person every time. 

Xref makes verifying the legitimacy of responses easy. Here’s how it works:

  1. Smart algorithms in the Xref platform compare the candidate's and referee's digital body language, identifying any suspicious similarities in location, domain names or operating system. The algorithm also flags other anomalies, such as a referee’s location if it shows them being overseas if they are meant to be local.
  2. If unusual activity is detected, the individual conducting the reference is informed, leaving them to decide if and how they would like to take action.
  3. After assessing the nature of the suspicious activity, organisations can then choose to remove the candidate from the hiring funnel, contact the candidate directly for an explanation or proceed with the hiring process.
  4. If a reference is rejected for unusual activity, the organisation can request an additional reference for the candidate.
"Xref has formalised the reference check process, which has enabled us to get higher quality references faster than before. We are able to ensure that references are coming from legitimate sources and see how the reference quality compares to other references." G2 user in education management
Steps to take if you are alerted to suspicious activity in references

How to deal with unusual activity during the pre-employment stage ‍

Employers and hiring managers should have a straightforward process in place to follow when a fake reference is discovered.

Our Customer Success team can advise what steps to take if you are alerted to suspicious activity. Shristi Vinayagan, our New Zealand Customer Success Manager, suggests:

  • Contact the referee and/or the candidate for more insight.
  • Check if the candidate and referee still work together.
  • Review the reference and consider if it is overly positive. False references may over-exaggerate the talents of the candidate to help them land the job.

There are several steps they can take if Xref flags a reference as unusual or if you have suspicions that something may be wrong:

  1. Speak with the candidate. Avoid making accusations so the candidate doesn’t get defensive. 
  2. Check the time that the reference was accessed or created. If the references were created at similar times, it might indicate that the same person created them. A reference sent at an unusual time, like 2am, when a referee is likely asleep, may mean it was created by someone other than the intended referee. 
  3. Check to see if the candidate and referee are still working together. Sometimes this may not be obvious if people are working as contractors. A formal working relationship can help verify the validity of a professional or character reference but could be flagged as unusual if they share the same office location and network. 
  4. Review the reference contents. You may feel something is off, such as suspiciously poor grammar or excessive praise.
  5. Talk to the referee about their reference. Check if the content matches what the referee describes.
  6. Seek legal counsel if required. 
"We’ve had a few experiences where Xref has flagged some suspicious activity, and we really like that it gives us a chance to talk to the candidate and clear up any misunderstandings. It adds value to our process, knowing that an extra level of security is in place, even if we don’t need to use it too often.” Lion‍‍
“The Alert of Suspicious Activity email is an additional feature of their [Xref’s] service that detects potentially fraudulent activity. They will discuss what has been detected and advise how to approach the situation.” Angela F, Recruitment Consultant


People want to avoid dealing with the cost, hassle, and potential reputational damage that a bad hire may bring. 

Performing due diligence by requesting reference checks and performing other pre-employment checks is the best way to hire with confidence. Organisations need to take extra care to identify possible fake references. 

Discovering something unusual in a reference doesn’t necessarily mean that it is fake, but it indicates that further follow-up with the candidate or referee may be required. Depending on the follow-up, hiring managers may remove the candidate from the hiring funnel or choose to continue to the next stage.

Xref can help organisations ensure that the references they receive are genuine.

Note: Information provided in this blog is not legal advice.

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