Fake programmers, catfishing scams, and how to avoid them

3 min. read

We’ve all heard of the MTV reality series, Catfish: the TV show, where one lovestruck individual falls victim to an online dating predator who uses a fake identity to compromise the victim in some way; either for monetary gain or some other deceitful reasoning (1).

Catfishing is a deceptive activity where a person creates a fictional persona or fake identity on a social networking service, usually targeting a specific victim.”

Recently, we discovered this predatory scheme as we were recruiting software developers to staff one of our consulting projects.

What is catfishing in the programming world?

When a fake job applicant applies to a legitimate job opening using a fake resume, interviews for the position, and then 'ghosts' the job with an insufficient developer who is grossly underqualified.  

You're probably thinking this could never happen to you. While you may thoroughly vet the identity of your job applicants, check references, verify employment dates, or perform robust skills-testing techniques; it can happen to anyone.

Taking the Bait

We recently uncovered a Catfishing scheme when my team nearly fell victim. It began as we posted our typical job description for a Senior Front-end Software Engineer opening and the resumes started to trickle in. Our human resources team sprung into action by contacting and prescreening the candidates. Prescreened candidates were passed on to a series of technical interviews conducted by the project manager and then a final interview with the hiring manager before we would make an offer to the candidate.

This so-called Catfish made it to the final interview stage where they were ultimately hired. Weeks passed until we realized the scam. The candidate who reported for work, and who was now our newest employee, was NOT the candidate we originally interviewed, selected, and hired. After some fact-checking and further discovery, we realized we had been duped.

The Catfish was part of a group of scammers using a bait and switch method to con unknowing employers. By using a false identity, the Catfish would apply for the job, score high on the technical interview, and then send in a less qualified candidate to report to work once hired. It wouldn’t be discovered until weeks later the employee on the job had none of the original skills we believed them to have when we initially interviewed the candidate.  

We hope this never happens to your team, so here are some tips to help you avoid falling victim to a Catfishing scheme.

Tip #1: Require Interviewees to Use Their Camera

The number one rule when interviewing candidates virtually is to require the use of a camera and have the candidate turn ON their camera so you can see their face. Catfish who use a false identity will often be too afraid to come on camera and will use any excuse to keep from showing their face to protect their secret. We recommend taking a picture or screenshot to ensure the same candidate shows up for subsequent interviews.

Tip #2: Verify Social Media Accounts Are Legit

All job applicants should have their accounts on Twitter, Linkedin, and GitHub repositories inspected and verified for legitimacy. The same goes for any relative social media platform. Our recruitment process now requires any job applicants to show us their candidate profiles on Linkedin. Not having a Linkedin account in our opinion is highly suspicious. The LinkedIn profile must match the name on their resume and every employment experience included in their resume should link to any employers listed in their work history.  

Tip #3: Be Cautious of Candidates in Different Time Zones

This tip may not apply to every company, but we have found candidates in other time zones can more easily ghost projects due to a lack of timely communication. It's more difficult to ghost projects when you require participation in daily standups and have instant communication with them on Slack or Teams where applicable. We are cautious of offshore resources in general, but this is another reason to remain vigilant.

Tip #4: Verify Credentials and Certifications

This step is critical when hiring a certified developer. Luckily, vendor websites like Salesforce Trailhead, AWS certification, and countless others offer public databases to verify certified developers. Some offer a number or certification ID that can be checked for validity. Additionally, there are aggregate reference checking tools and software that can be purchased for a nominal fee.  

Final Thoughts

Catfishing schemes in the developing world can cost your project time and money. It can also be detrimental to your company's reputation, especially if you are subcontracting work through other firms. If you discover you’ve fallen victim to this deceitful practice, immediately remove the perpetrator and reconcile your losses. It's a lesson some learn the hard way. The only way to stop Catfishing in the programming world is to expose this deceitful practice and shame them into extinction. We hope these tips will help you stay aware and informed.

Have you been a victim of the catfishing scheme or know someone who has? Share your experience and feedback anytime on Linkedin and Twitter.