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MUMBAI : He had one job—to help a company catch a fraud. He ended up pulling a fast one on his potential employers himself.

Three months ago, mFilterIt, an ad fraud detection firm, which uses its own tools to detect frauds in advertisement, digital and web-based value-added services, was hiring for the role of a software developer. The candidate was in his late 20s from Uttar Pradesh, with three years of work experience. The job description: help the company develop software to detect fraud. He fit the bill, sailed through all the tests and the video interview round. He was given the offer letter and asked to submit his documents for the usual verification drill. This is when the red flags came up.

“We did a facial recognition analysis on the documents he had submitted and compared it to the video interview. They did not match," said Dhiraj Gupta, chief technology officer at mFilterIt. The company uses an employee verification interface to assist in hiring employees for its clients as well as for itself. The software scans and matches images to check for authenticity.

Conclusion: The person who was interviewed and the one whose documents were submitted were not the same.

The hiring was stopped. Gupta’s team never got back to the candidate and the episode got docked as one of the many instances of attempted hiring frauds in India.

mFilterIt managed to catch the deceit in time, but India Inc is seeing a spurt in hiring con jobs—across different stages—especially in the tech sector, where thousands are recruited every quarter. Not all of them are about simply beefing up the resume with false claims of degrees and skill sets. Some use sophisticated tech to deceive recruiters.

Example 1: The video call that starts sputtering in the middle of the interview.

“We have found instances of candidates activating scripts which then lead to lags in calls. The candidate requests if he/she can switch off the video. The interviewer agrees, and the candidate then swaps places with someone better at taking interviews," said Saran Balasundaram, founder of tech recruitment firm, HanDigital. Some candidates get another person to code during video interviews or complete the online tests.

“One employee doing double shifts, or a candidate turning out to be different from the person interviewed, fake companies that provide work experience certificates —hiring frauds have increased exponentially," Rohit Madan, partner, forensics, financial advisory, Deloitte India told Mint.

Software sleuths

To catch a tech-savvy con requires tech-smart detectives. The spike in frauds during the two years of the pandemic has also forced consulting companies to recruit more forensic experts. Consulting firm EY, for example, has expanded its forensic team from 900 members in 2019-2020 to 1,500 today. The background verification team, which is part of EY’s forensic team, is now 400 member-strong compared to 170 in the pre-pandemic times.

The Mumbai-headquartered company IDfy uses AI-based verification solutions to identify frauds. Some of its clients include Amazon, HDFC Bank, and Dream11. IDfy’s face recognition APIs (application programming interface) use facial biometrics to compare photographs. This is used to confirm that the right person is indeed sitting for the interview. During a video interview, with the click of a button, a face compare can be triggered between a screenshot of the candidate’s video with the photograph or social media profile that has been submitted by the candidate. The software compares the person on the screenshot with the person in the picture to confirm that they are the same. It can also confirm that the picture is live and not a “picture-of-a-picture".

Some fraud detecting firms also use apps to scan interview footage and detect if the candidate is “lip syncing" answers, with the help of prompters. Most of the times, candidates are aware of a set pattern of questions they will be quizzed on. They mime the answers as someone else speaks. Balasundaram told Mint that the responses are prompt, well-rehearsed and the deception tough to spot.

IDfy said plagiarism checkers can help companies detect if any of the programming codes submitted during hiring tests for software engineers is copied from the internet. A plagiarism checker uses advanced database software to scan for matches between texts or code. Codeleaks, Moss (Measure of software similarity), Codequiry, and Unicheck are a few popular plagiarism checkers.

About seven months ago, Deloitte India came up with DashVerify, which is an employee background verification service that uses artificial intelligence, machine learning and bots, for faster and accurate results compared to the traditional way of screening—call the references, basic social media search or send someone home to check addresses.

Credentials, for a cost

During a hiring boom, such as the one tech companies saw early this year as offices opened up, background checks typically tend to become less rigorous. Who scents an opportunity? The thousands of companies willing to supply fake credentials to candidates.

For a fee of few lakhs of rupees, such a company provides candidates with 12 months’ salary slips, creates fake work documents, and offers letter and resignation letters that show their tenure. Fake bosses and colleagues, who will vouch for a candidate’s record, are a part of the deal. “There are at least 75,000 companies largely based out of Gujarat, Hyderabad and Bihar which provide false verification on education, salary, official letters, and peer contacts to companies," said Ashok Hariharan, co-founder and chief executive officer of IDfy.

The list of such firms gets updated every few months. “We detect 200-400 fraud companies every month," Hariharan told Mint.

Most forensic departments keep databases of candidates and companies that are not above board. While employees can be laid off, it’s impossible, forensic analysts and recruiters say, to keep track of the companies, which are adept at shifting identities. “Some of the companies simply start operating under a new name. It’s as simple as removing a nameplate and replacing it with a new one," said a fraud analyst.

To pull off such a fraud sometimes needs help from within. “Hiring frauds are also taking place in collusion between the placement companies and the HR teams in firms. We are on the alert when we note a spike in offer letters rolled out to candidates who are from one particular recruitment company," said Arpinder Singh, global markets and India leader, forensic & integrity services, EY. Cases of unscrupulous HR executives helping out a recruitment firm for a cut are hardly unknown.

According to mFilterIt’s Gupta, another aspect of trickery involves training institutes. Several companies (mainly tech) head to training institutes to recruit industry-ready candidates. “Some of the centres have registered themselves as tech companies as well. And even though they are not supposed to issue any certificate besides the skilling ones, they give out work experience certificates," said Gupta. In effect, the tech company ends up being deceived by the very institute which it reached out to.

Upskilling institutes also end up becoming a source of inflated claims about qualifications. “During the pandemic, many graduates and young executives went for these online courses and it now becomes difficult for the company to distinguish whether it is a degree or training course that the candidate has done," added Gupta.

The one-man department

Last year, a mid-sized tech company asked verification firm IDfy to cross-check the documents and background details of a 26-year-old software developer who was getting roped in for a key role. It was expected to be a routine check.

But the quality assurance team was alerted when the date of exit from a former employer did not match. IDfy decided to probe and accessed his employee provident fund (EPF) account. They found that it was receiving contributions from nine companies in the preceding 12 months. He was on the bench at some of the smaller IT firms but received a salary, he was coding for some, which did not require him to remain connected with the team, and for all nine workplaces, he had opted for work from home.

The Zoom fatigue among employees in the last many years allowed work-life to continue without employees switching on their videos, or even speaking to their managers over regular phone calls for long stretches.

While it may have given some respite to most employees, it has been an opportunity for others to log into another firm.

Therefore, firms have now started asking for Universal Account Number (UAN), which then can be used to trace if the employee is receiving money from other sources every month. “Earlier, we would ask just for the salary slip but now UAN helps in tracing frauds," EY said.

Fraud detectors say once these candidates get caught, they are immediately asked to leave. But unlike in Europe or in the US where once blacklisted, a name pops up across many databases, in India most go scot-free.

Some frauds are caught months after the candidate has joined the firm—and that might involve nothing remotely tech-heavy.

In a south-east Asian IT services company, a manager was concerned about the dipping performance of one of the employees who worked in the afternoon shift. In a meeting, he decided to go through all the past records of the said employee and was discussing it with his peers. Red flags came up when someone in the team recalled that there was another employee on the morning shift who had an uncannily similar educational, personal and professional background. The profiles of both employees were compared and while the photographs and names were different, a physical check of the office shocked the managers. The same person was working double shifts in the same office building. The dip in the performance was because he could not sustain working two shifts for 5 days a week.

Most of the hiring frauds take place at the junior cadre levels. For the middle management and senior roles, those are tougher to pull off because there are more reference points in their careers to check from. Forensic and audit teams also verify if the employee was let go and why, if there were any harassment cases against the candidate, and also complaints of aggressive behaviour.

But there are exceptions to that too.

Take the case of a chief financial officer (CFO) of a large multinational, who was hired to join a mid-tier boutique company. A check showed that while his resume said he holds a chartered accountant degree, he never had one.

But going ahead, the frequency of frauds might get more complicated as the gig workforce in the white-collared space starts playing a prominent role. While gig workers are like freelancers, they will have to sign contracts specifying that they are not working for a rival firm in a similar project. “Typically gig workers have to sign on documents that say they won’t be employed in similar roles with a rival firm during the specific period. While some do break these contracts, most don’t because for a gig worker, clients are repeat customers," said Kamal Karanth, co-founder of specialist staffing firm Xpheno.

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