Last week, the BBC released a new documentary about a con they labelled “Jobfishing” (a riff on “Catfishing”, in case you don’t know the reference).
It’s well worth a watch. You can’t help but feel for the people who were conned and be stunned by the audacity of the con artist. And if you can’t watch the programme, then the related news article gives a good overview (the BBC running plugs for its own programmes as “news” is a rant for another day)
But one point in particular stood out to me – that is, how effectively a combination of Instagram, a nicely constructed website and LinkedIn were used to utterly convince people of their authenticity.
And this got us thinking on a topic close to our hearts – the risks of false assurance and (in this case in particular) the false assurance around people’s qualifications and achievements.
Technology as an enabler
Con artists and confidence tricks aren’t new, but in some ways technology has made the problem far worse by lowering the bar for fooling people.
The effortless quality of the online tools available today can easily lure any of us into a sense of false assurance about people or organisations you have never met.
It used to be that to be able fake this kind of material, at least to a standard where you could fool people, you’d need to be a real expert – or pay a considerable amount to someone who was. And that impression is still lodged deep in our minds – for something to look that good, to be that impressive, it must be the product of a legitimate, serious setup. Someone couldn’t just fake that, right?
Wrong. This is no longer the case; technology means that scarily realistic fakes are easily accessible and virtually free.
The second issue is that some of these networks (Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter) are now a mental shortcut to legitimacy. Because most people with thousands of connections or followers actually are legitimately who they say they are, we mentally flip it round the other way – if they have that many followers then they must be legitimate. We stop challenging that assumption, and the effort to check every time wouldn’t be worth it – you’d need to dig deep for every new connection, and after you’d done this a load of people who end up being legitimate… you would wonder why you bother, and give up.
But this hides the fact that it is shockingly easy to build up that level of followers, even if you aren’t at all who you say you are. You can do that through a range of techniques, ranging from legitimate and free all the way through to downright shady and purchased (and we won’t link to those).
This barely scratches the surface as to how easily we can be fooled, but for further reading on how your mind is easily led astray, the go to book has to be Thinking Fast and Slow – and for fans of the book, we are very much talking System 1 thinking here.
This can still happen in healthcare
Thankfully in healthcare there are at least some checks and balances, not least professional registration with a regulated professional body (e.g. the NMC, GMC, HCPC). Although it surprised me to learn that I can still legally call myself a nurse, despite having absolutely no qualifications – we’ll see if this particular gap (rightfully) gets closed.
And these hard checks will typically be done as part of employment onboarding – checks with the NMC, DBS and often previous NHS employment history. That makes it unlikely, but not impossible, that someone is passing themselves off as a registered healthcare professional when they are actually not.
But this gets harder to assure, and the risk a little more real, with an increasingly international workforce – as (potentially) was the case with Victorino Chua. No matter how small the likelihood of this is, the impact it could have would be huge.
And it also gets harder as the workforce gets more mobile, and the traditional full-time-employee role stops being the default.
But even if you take that faking whole qualifications is less likely, there are plenty of grey areas around the edges:
- The specific skills and experience that people have
- The teams they’ve worked in, and their role within those teams
- How long they were employed in particular positions
- The feedback from managers and colleagues
- Any disciplinary or performance issues raised
All of this is easy to fake, and hard to validate. And all may lead to someone ultimately not being able to provide the level of care, professionalism or leadership that you trusted and believed that they would.
So what can you do about it?
There are a range of techniques you can employ, both as an individual and as an organisation, to be just that bit more cautious, that bit more careful, and hopefully that bit more safe. Which approaches are the most appropriate will depend on your own setup and the existing safeguards you have in place – but all will help increase your resilience to fakery and fraud.
Be aware of how easily we can be fooled
It sounds basic, but you’re already at the first step – to be aware that everything may not be as it seems, bring a little more awareness and perhaps a little more caution. You don’t need to be an expert in this field, and many of the confidence tricks will be surprisingly easy to spot once you’re aware of them – but a little knowledge here can go a long way
Checking people are who they say they are
The first simple step is that you are genuinely talking to a legitimate person, who is who they say they are and that you are clear on their specific qualifications.
- If there are legitimate background checks to be done, then do them. Professional registrations are obvious, but you can also check higher education degrees relatively cheaply and easily now: https://hedd.ac.uk
- You can confirm previous employment in greater detail; this takes time, but can also be outsourced: https://www.personnelchecks.co.uk/background-checks/
- On top of this, personally take references – see below on how to do this most effectively
… particularly if you aren’t meeting them in person
All the above can help establish that the named person is legitimate, but what if the person you are talking to isn’t actually this named person? What if they are using the cover of pretending to be an actual person to get in the door?
A very simple step is to request a video call rather than a phone call. This alone may be enough to scare off the disingenuous, but for those who take the call it should be easy to see that they match their digital profile in real life. And if you’re still not sure, request copies of photo ID.
And at the even more extreme end, what if the claimed persona doesn’t exist at all? Well, hopefully from all the above you have a good chance of having flushed this out already, but there is one extra step – reverse checking the legitimacy of their profile picture. In the programme, profile pictures have been stolen from other public websites to create fake personas. This is at the real extreme end of fakery and unlikely for full employment, but can still happen at the edges, as the programme illustrated.
If you want to check then the website they use in the programme is https://pimeyes.com/en. You can also try using Google reverse image search https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/1325808. As this show demonstrated, it isn’t that hard to find the legitimate source of most stolen profile pictures.
What they say they have done
Ok, so the person you’re talking to is real and you’re comfortable that they have the major qualifications and employment history they say they do.
But there is a huge gap between genuinely working at an organisation and exaggerating or even completely fabricating what you actually did there. Again, it’s worth stressing – I can write absolutely anything I like on my CV or LinkedIn, there is no validation or checks on this.
- Ask for evidence – can you bring with you (or share on the screen) examples of the work you talk about. Think in advance what evidence can be independently verified and is hard to fake
- Reverse search for plagiarised claims – pick a few selections of the text they’ve used and enter that into Google. To search for the exact phrase include it in “”, or enter it in the advanced search settings under “this exact phrase”
- If the person puts out their online persona as supporting evidence, then do check the depth of any social proof – who are those LinkedIn connections, and are they in the legitimate fields? How long has that social media account been running? When was that website registered? Can you also find this impressive looking paper online?
- Probe in breadth and in depth with the individual
- In breadth – cover a wide range of topics (of your choosing) and make sure they can talk convincingly on them all
- In depth – pick one or two topics and keep pushing for specifics
- Take references – and this is worth doing properly anyway, as covered here by the Harvard Business Review
- Make sure you are not being led to limited people, or if you are really challenge on why
- Quickly validate the people who are providing the reference, before, during and after:
- Before – do some quick due diligence, google them and look on social networks
- During – ask them to quickly describe their role, and how that relates to this person
- After – send a thank you note to their work email. If you were not speaking to the real person, you’ll find out pretty quickly
- Largely disregard social media claims; whilst there are healthcare influencers doing brilliant work in sharing experiences and education, there should be very little posted on there that cannot also be backed up in real life. It’s almost comically easy to fool people on social media too – people are even having fun with how far you can go, like this YouTuber who faked a trip to Bali in Ikea
- Listen to your gut – you might get the occasional “I’ve never met this person” clear warning sign, but it will most often be more subtle signals like the hesitation to confirm, the inability to name specific examples or a reluctance to put you in touch with former colleagues.
What about an absence of any evidence?
In trying to research all the above, you may draw a blank – have someone who has left almost no digital footprint. This isn’t necessarily a problem; some people prefer not to engage with any form of social media or online presence. This can be read as both positive (they’re not trying to present any fake online assurance) or negative (they’re trying to leave no footprint to be validated) – I tend to assume neither, and treat it neutrally.
You also need to be careful when asking to review previous work; some employers and careers will leave a clear footprint (e.g. publicly published work), but some will quite fairly not allow staff to publish anything confidential outside of the organisation.
In general this becomes more of a red flag the more senior people are and the longer they have been in their career. The chance of a senior healthcare leader never being featured in public comms from their organisation, as part of news coverage, a recruitment posting or mentioned in social media starts to get slimmer and slimmer.
Don’t become paranoid
If you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering if you can ever trust anyone again. Some points to be clear on then.
- This kind of confidence con is not solely related to the digital world, it’s as old as time. Criminals have been using day-glow tabards and confidently held clipboards to bluff their way into places they shouldn’t be for decades. It’s just the digital techniques and networks have made it more accessible to all.
- Some of the tricks involved in the programme, like photoshopping your way into a magazine spread, are another level of sophistication – you are very unlikely to come across someone operating at that level of con. That’s why it was worthy of a documentary special.
- We are easily conned in part because we, and the vast, vast majority of people we meet, are honest. It’s easily to look at these scams and become very cynical about the world, but these are very much the exception – it’s just that their impact can be huge.
- In healthcare in particular, professionals sign up to professional standards and codes of conduct. The standards that people adhere to will be higher than in your average job – but then again, the stakes are much higher too.
- In part this particular scam was successful because of the unique situation of Covid – people were desperate for work and it was impossible to verify anyone in person or to try to visit their (non-existent) office. But remote working is here to stay, so it’s not totally unique
So whilst it’s important to do thorough due diligence and go in with a healthy dose of scepticism, you should equally not treat everyone coming in the door as guilty – particularly given this will be one of the first interactions you’ll have with them. Treat them with respect, explain why everything that you’re asking is important and reserve any judgements until you have the full picture. Hopefully they will in turn understand and even respect your diligence in doing so.
Our mission with Compassly
The reason this is so close to our hearts is because we are playing our part in helping to solve the problem. Even when you take the steps above, you still can’t really be sure that everything is true. You still can’t feasibly check every fact and trace through all history.
With Compassly we want to ensure that the concerns above can never apply to clinical skills and professional histories. By building a digitally assured portfolio of work and skills, healthcare professionals can demonstrate their legitimately held competence and experience – and managers can have full confidence in both them and their abilities.