The Dark Side of Remote Work: Interview Scam Epidemic

15 January 2023 · 9,483 views · Updated 22 July 2023

Once the pandemic hit and employers started to embrace remote work more openly, a new phenomenon gained momentum — Interviews-as-a-service. I’m not talking about the ones where you get people to help you prepare for some challenging interviews at FAANG-size companies. Nope, I’m talking about the scammy kind, where qualified people turn up for the interview, be all charming, and then receive an offer in an unqualified person’s name. Sounds bizarre? It is.

There's this awesome Episode on Darknet Diaries, about Conner, a software engineer with a good looking github profile, who's identity was stolen and used to get high-paying development jobs. The scam worked like this:

  1. They took his good looking resume, changed the email, the phone number.
  2. Used that resume to schedule interviews at different companies for freelancing gigs.
  3. Organize a zoom meeting, where every time a different developer showed up — no camera, bad connection, but good knowledge of programming (or at least decent).
  4. The company hired them to build projects, thinking they were working with Conner, but in reality working with a team of developers who were ALL coordinating via Slack.
  5. A Hive-Mind of developers working as a single person for different companies. Crazy, right? I highly recommend to listen to it.

Of course, it’s not something completely new, this has been happening for a decade, but in the past year, there’s been a dramatic increase in applicants who have stellar LinkedIn profiles with great references who refuse to go on Video calls and whose voices change from interview to interview.

Best way to test hard skills.

I wouldn’t even be writing about this unless we at mindnow hadn’t wasted hours and hours on such candidates and hadn’t hired a software developer from Poland as a contractor who turned out to be a team of developers in china. Embarrassingly, it also took us a while to figure out something was wrong.

Having a secure remote job is now a luxury, and where there’s a luxury, there’s an opportunity for fraud. And this is a goldmine for fraudsters. There has been an emergence of as-a-service Businesses that “support” candidates by feeding them answers directly on the screen during the interview, making identifying fraud more difficult. And with the rise of ChatGPT, it’s easier than ever to cheat the system by just feeding the audio-to-text directly to the engine and getting real-time answers.

Hiring Tips & Tricks: Scammer 101

These are some ways that I have noticed the scammers use to trick and deceive interviewers during the hiring process.

They lie about their qualification and experience. I always expect people to embellish their achievements at past companies and claim to “know a technology” when they’ve written only a “hello, world” program. But scammers can go even further by using the “endorsement” functionality on LinkedIn to be seen as experts in that technology.

I’ve had funny interviews over the years when a candidate was spewing jargon left and right, shooting buzzwords in a combination that I never thought possible, only not to understand the underlying technologies at all. That’s why we try to always go deep into the technologies that the candidates list to find if there are any inconsistencies in their stories and ask for real-world examples of how they used them.

Just like in the business world, where people fraudulently claim to be who they are not to get some deals closed — so do interview scammers claim that they’re big-shot developers by faking their entire GitHub. They are basically copying other people’s work, stripping all the licenses, and making it look like it was written by them instead of the original author. They are filling up their GitHub history with fake commits, so it seems like they’re active in open-source communities. They present other people’s products/apps as their side projects during interviews. The list goes on

Employment certificate fraud rates have increased by nearly 30% throughout the ongoing coronavirus pandemic when compared to the same period of the previous year. This is according to TrueProfile.io, a leading provider of Primary Source Verification (PSV) services, which advises that this alarming figure confirms the need for more stringent recruitment processes.
Source: TrueProfile.io

The rabbit-hole goes even deeper with for-hire software developers turning up for a Zoom Call or a Phone Interview and then just handling the offer to the less-qualified developer.

There are stories of developers being hired as seniors because of their stellar interview performance and taking excessively long to do any task. And when presenting the work — the code ends up being at the junior level and copied/pasted from multiple StackOverflow threads. If you assume that it takes at least 2-3 weeks for a person to get onboarded onto a project, then 2-3 weeks to figure out there’s something wrong going on, and then another 2-3 weeks to bring this up to your manager to fire him, it’s like two months senior salary and then repeat this scam several times per year. Not bad, right?

One can argue if the company doesn’t notice that it hired a lousy developer, does it matter? StackOverflow is available 24/7, and ChatGPT or GitHub Autopilot can spew code faster than you can learn it. Why bother becoming a senior developer if you can fake it? /s

Being one step ahead

The fraud business is here to stay; there’s no way around it. Some people will always take shortcuts and try to “game” the system. It’s our responsibility to ensure the company doesn’t hire such people. Having them on the team, first of all, will hurt the morale and, second, be a massive burden on you. You’ll have to think about ways this person can trick the system constantly. Not worth it. So let’s try not to hire them.

Here are some signs you can look out for to not hire a scammer:

Scammers can use stuttering audio and video freezes as excuses to conceal the use of disallowed methods to provide answers during an interview. If the call quality is poor, it is appropriate to ask to reschedule the interview. A reasonable candidate should have no issue scheduling the interview for another day when the quality is better. It’s in their best interest to showcase their knowledge in the best light with proper audio/video.

The same goes for the unwillingness to turn on the camera during calls for whatever reason. If it’s not a suitable time, we can reschedule for a time when we can talk face-to-face. This is a long-term commitment, and not seeing someone before giving them an offer is a big red flag.

Virtual background + “distractedness as if listening/reading something” + taking too long to answer questions. This is not a sure thing, but a combination of hints that you can use to investigate the person further. Don’t dismiss the candidate just for this. There are millions of reasons the person can be distracted, or a virtual background is being used, but if the overall feeling is fake, trust your gut and verify.

No Online Footprint. This happens before the interview but is still worth mentioning. Whether we like it or not, Google has information on most of us. I’m not talking about the LinkedIn profile or GitHub repositories. I’m talking about some obscene hobby forum where you were mentioned a few years ago or a cooking class that posted a photo with you tagged in it. There needs to be some online presence. Again it’s not a sure thing, but it increases the probability that you’re dealing with a genuine person.

Ignore the certificates. This is very subjective and biased, but the more genuine the person is, the more they can talk about real-world examples and less about the courses they finished or certificates they got. There’s a vast difference between “I’m a Certified Azure cloud expert” and “I’ve managed Azure Cloud for a high-load high-availability project the past year.” Fake university diplomas are a billion-dollar industry, so I always assume the other certificates also have some % of fraud, so it’s better to ignore them overall.

In-Person interviews are still the king. As much as you can verify the references, ask follow-up questions, conduct background checks, and check their browsing history — as long as it’s happening over the Internet, there’s a chance this can be a fraud. The best case, even if you’re a remote-first company, is to fly the person into some city where he can meet his future team members and talk technology with them.

A non-hire is better than bad-hire

As a result of the above discussion, In my opinion, a bad hire is way worse than a non-hire. I know some companies, prevalently in the US, are fans of “hire fast & fire fast.” I disagree with this sentiment. This whole mentality is based on fear. Fear of missing the best candidates, not growing fast enough, and not having enough “rockstars” in their team.

A bad hire will cost you so much more than just the money that you wasted on them. The time wasted on their onboarding, the nerves to deal with their BS, the team that questions your adequacy for hiring such a person, and the overall net productivity of the company will suffer. It’s so not worth hiring the wrong person.

Also, if you’re in Europe, hiring the wrong person will cost you even more money because of the employee protection laws. So it’s even more crucial to spend extra hours verifying the candidate before making the decision.

The other side

Before we wrap this up, I’d like to mention that it’s not just the applicants who are scamming the interview process. There’s a much, much bigger industry of scamming applicants. It’s a lot more sophisticated and predatory, as people who have lost their jobs are vulnerable and fail to see the red flags behind the blindness of promises of high salaries.

When a company loses money on a bad hire — it’s business, but when a person loses money because of a fake job ad — it’s personal.

After getting "hired," the fake employer asks the new employee to purchase equipment such as phones or iPads that they'll use for work, promising that they'll be reimbursed for the steep costs. The employee is then asked to send the devices to a subcontractor in Queens, New York who will outfit them with necessary software and provide other hardware needed for the job. Kunz said he was told he'd also get a laptop and Sony camera.

Source: mashable.com

There are many more stories like these, where the applicants are being scammed out of thousands and thousands of dollars — here’s an FBI source that describes these Fake Job ads.

So stay vigilant and trust your gut regardless of which side you are on — the applicant or the interviewer.

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  • Hugo

    I always ask candidates to describe a project they’re proud of and the challenges they faced. This gets beyond tech skills to show how they think and collaborate, really highlighting their fit with our team vibe.

  • Oscar López

    I’ve noticed the surge in interview scams lately and decided to tweak our hiring process a bit. We started mixing in practical tasks and directly engaging with tech communities online. It made a world of difference. Now, we’re not just relying on what’s on paper but actually seeing how candidates handle real-world problems. Plus, tapping into these communities helped us find passionate folks who are genuinely into coding, not just playing the part. It’s been a game changer.

  • Warren

    Spot on – it’s getting harder and harder to identify and control fraud. Interviewers must be aware of all of the different ways that candidates can cheat. For example, regarding lipsyncing, ask the candidate to remove their headphones. And now with ChatGPT, it will be even more tempting for tech candidates to run questions through ChatGPT before answering coding questions.

  • Sebastian

    Your article is very to the point – I go through hundreds of profiles and interviews and can confirm there are a lot of people out there out to scam you. I’ve seen a prevalence for this behavior in many Asian countries but I’m sure that you can find them everywhere

  • Silvio

    Michael, your comment is all fluff and opinion. Be honest, you’re a scammer and don’t like it when people talk about scammers. I’ve been in software dev for nearly 60 years and see no value in your comment. “I have a valuable opinion to share on this blog post, or maybe not” sums up your comment.
    It would be helpful if you could back up and get real instead of posting comically bad comments.

  • Michael

    This is all fluff and opinion. Be honest, you are way out of your lane here. I’ve been in software dev for nearly 30 year and see no value in any of this. “It could be, or maybe not,” sums up this post.

    It would be helpful if you could back up your opinions with real stats and facts instead of comics.

    1. Vadim Kravcenko

      Hey Michael, most of the stuff in the article I faced personally and some of the stuff was found during research on the topics, none of this is made up 🙂