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Home / Success & Failure  /
The Credential Thief
Credential thief

How much of what you tell other people about yourself is fake?


It's nothing new that people embellish their curriculum vitaes, humbly known as resumes the last time I drafted one. This avenue of fabrication has been paved for centuries, possibly millennia, as long as employment-for-remuneration has existed. Wherever and whenever somebody requires another somebody to do something, there will always be an applicant reinterpreting his or her past accomplishments to be on par with discovering the cure for cancer.   

Go to LinkedIn and read over random peoples' profiles. Everybody is a "problem solver", a "team leader," an "entrepreneurially-minded visionary." Past experience as a line cook becomes "food science maverick innovator." Household cleaning is rewritten as "domestic service engineering."

Let's not ignore outright fibbing. Have a five month gap somewhere between jobs? Suddenly, the job that lasted for three-quarters of 2013 now takes up the whole year and then some.  

Personally, if I were an interviewer, I'd be more curious what people did during their gaps.  Was there some kind of intimate project they spent time on? Did they travel somewhere exotic?  Were any dramatic realizations about life and direction achieved? The gaps may say more about a person's true character.  Most interviewers don't care about these unusual things. 

Back in the 1980's, before the internet, before the mainstream faxing that enveloped the 1990's, there was a lot less risk in making things up, too.  This was an analog era.  A potential employer had to go to more effort to verify that you really did everything you listed. 

When you're starting out in the working world, young and green, you have limited experience.  There isn't so much you can lie about.  A college degree is a common embellishment for those who don't possess one, so common that there are degree mills and associated accreditation mills standing by to bestow the buyer questionable credentials for a fee.   These hucksters can award you credit hours in exchange for life experiences.   

I heard in Japan during the 80's you could just show up without a degree and lie that you had one to snag a respected English-language teaching gig.  No need to go through a mill, and if you did, there wasn't the same due diligence done to discredit them.  Unless you oozed snake oil salesman from every pore, you were taken on your word, and the rewards were far better paying jobs than what one would get today documenting a real degree. 

Outright lying along these lines is a lot harder to pull off than in decades past.   Anyone who cares to be is wise to the mill racket. A diploma certificate can be Photoshopped convincingly with scant effort, and everyone knows it.  A Polish colleague of a teacher friend of mine here in Bangkok went a more clever route. He "earned" an undergraduate degree from a degree mill, then used that fake degree to get into a legitimate masters program. He was eventually outed, nonetheless, when this particular degree mill's web site was hacked and all the "degree" recipients' names were leaked.

Hence, depending on the position, today it is not overboard for an employer to demand the applicant provide an official transcript. At a price, anything can be faked of course, and if someone were to go to the trouble to seek out an expert forger, delivering a transcript looking nearly identical to the original, you might be able to summon up some tiny amount of admiration.  As they say, if you want something so badly, you'll get it.  If the embellisher hasn't the cash to get into Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford the typical ways, he's going to "get" that credential some other way. 

Why not?   Earning a real degree from an elite school takes four years and costs over $160k in tuition alone.  Add another $10-15k annually for room, board, and books.  If one can steal the credential, he reaps the benefits instantaneously at no cost.

The thief can rationalize the move by convincing himself he's not really stealing anything.  Pilfering a credential isn't the same as stealing a TV set or a computer. When I steal a physical good, I deprive someone else of it without giving them due compensation.  A credential thief doesn't steal something tangible, and his theft doesn't deprive genuine credential holders of their own credentials. 

The credential thief can possibly tell himself he's not necessarily stealing an official license documenting abilities he doesn't actually possess.   Some credentials don't matter all that much. They're just, literally, pieces of paper. A Microsoft certification, an open-water SCUBA license, a cooking diploma.  You may already have taught yourself or picked up through real experience how to do everything for which those certifications are granted.  Employers would do themselves a favor to value an employee who's taken the initiative to learn on his own, but we all know in our standardized globalized world that employers prefer to see some familiar piece of paper that leaves the vetting to the certificate issuers.   If a potential credential thief already knows the concepts better than the average certificate recipient, faking a certificate to make this knowledge official doesn't smack of the outlandish.

But some credentials do mean something, based on their relative scarcity or toil demanded to obtain them, such as a degree from an elite university.  Not everyone admitted into Harvard or its equivalents is brilliant. Students get in for reasons besides academic excellence.   They could be legacies.  One of their relatives could have donated a large sum of money for a new library wing.  They could be the only person applying from an obscure nation. Whether one genuinely possesses the merits to be granted admission to an elite university remains another debate.  The constant thing: whichever way an admittee is allowed through a university's doors, the only way he'll be leaving with a degree is if he sits enough course hours and obtains enough passing grades.

So whore your way in or score your way in, either way you're going to have to execute some level of effort to exit with the credential.

You're also going to have to spend so many years there. That translates into getting to know the local area rather well, learning about the culture, unique restaurants and foods, sports teams, malls, landmarks, customs.  Even someone who attended Harvard for four years but failed to earn a credential would still absorb this aspect of the university experience.

Getting a credential which is more than a cheap piece of paper involves sharing a certain experience. Everyone who has spent a number of years at Harvard, at Cornell, at Princeton, at Brown, at MIT, anywhere for that matter, has been through something unique related to that institution, that location, and whatever else goes along with it.

When a credential thief steals this credential - the piece of paper, that is - he steals only the outer coating. He can't possibly steal what lies beneath the spray paint because he hasn't done the time to be able to internalize the experience. As a rapper, I can say I've done time in prison to build up my street cred, but if I haven't really been in prison, I can't genuinely own that experience, can I?  What's being ripped off here is the collective value of genuine recipients' experiences. 

Over this past Christmas Eve, my wife and I invited a number of people over for a potluck poolside party. A few members of a Korean hotelier meetup group my wife is a part of showed up.  My wife informed me that one of the Korean hoteliers was married to a Singaporean. This Singaporean, in actuality, turned out to be a Thai-American who's lived in Singapore and he tagged along with his wife to this party.

This Thai-American, whom we'll refer to as Tony from here on, steered the conversation towards credentials early in. Where had I attended university? When I responded that I'd gone to Cornell, he added that he'd done graduate school in hotel administration there. In fact, that's where he met his Korean wife. He elaborated that he'd attended several Cornell alumni events in Asia since relocating here.

After the party ended, my wife explained that the Cornell program was in partnership with a Singaporean university. That sounded peculiar to me.  As far as I knew, neither Cornell nor any other Ivy League institution awards graduate degrees through partnership schools abroad. I did a quick search on the internet. Only one school in Singapore offers a partnership program with Cornell, Nanyang Technical University.  In this advanced management program, enrollees spend only two weeks at Cornell and another two weeks at Nanyang - for a hefty price tag of US$25,000 if paid to Cornell and about 15% cheaper if the funds are in Singapore dollars sent to Nanyang.  There is no degree awarded, just two certificates from each participating institution.

The credential thief husband painted an entirely different picture, starting with the alumni events he said he's attended. His Facebook profile prominently displays that he's studied at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. Though technically he had, his intention was to purely mislead one into believing he'd earned a degree from Cornell, exactly as if I highlighted to any and all that I've studied at Harvard. Technically, I have - for a summer screenwriting program, which says that I've spent more time at Harvard than Tony has at Cornell.   Doing a few web searches on Tony, I came across more than one article which stated he had an MA from Cornell. His two-week certificate had morphed into a masters degree. 

I understand why Tony might lie to potential employers. An MA from Cornell will buy him more credibility than a bachelors degree from a nothing school in Minnesota and a two-week management certificate anyone willing to spend $25,000 can get.  The credential thief always takes a risk for a potentially higher value reward. In this case, Tony probably lied complicity with his employer rather than to his employer.  His employer was happy to let this Cornell factoid slip on press releases and on third party interviews because they were sure the information would not be vetted by the online mags printing verbatim whatever they're handed. The company has wider prestige to gain by basking in the illusion of what the credential thief has stolen.

But to lie directly to a person who earned that credential legitimately?  I remembered my years at Cornell, and they were not remotely the best years of my life. During my tour of duty, Cornell was famous for its high suicide rates.  The school did an excellent job minimizing the coverage on these, so no one knows exactly how many students jump into a gorge every year. There must be some degree of truth to the claim that Cornell is a pressure cooker for this story to ever make the rounds. A person who has actually spent the time at Cornell earning a real degree would know all about that pressure.  Plus the brutal weather in the winter. Plus the sheer long-term isolation.   It was an insult to me for Tony to imply (or outright lie) that he's undergone these same shared experiences when he hadn't experienced any of them.

We could be talking about any shared experience here which is, in itself, a type of credential.  An elite or enviable credential need not be a part of the story. Survivors of the Titanic shared an experience together. If the governments of 1912 were to have handed out bountiful compensation to survivors who'd lost a loved one aboard, I can readily envision fakers coming forth to fabricate connections to the deceased.  It'd be the government's job to test the validity of anyone's claims. What is more unforgivable is the faker lying to gain sympathy or profit from genuine survivors. 

We all know the difference between lying to an official that you did military service to keep yourself out of jail vs telling veterans you did military service in their elite regiment just to curry favor and score a business deal.  When the entire connection is based upon a shared experience, and the shared experience doesn't exist, what are you left with?

I get that we all lie from time to time, by omission, by exaggeration, by deception, by careful consideration. We want to guarantee we've presented ourselves flawlessly to others. We're constantly being told we can create our own realities.  It's human nature to reveal an edited version of our past to others.  The actor Jonathan Harris, who played the crafty Dr. Smith in the campy 1960's sci-fi series Lost In Space, slaved to erase his impoverished Bronx background for a posher identity. The nutritionist Paul Bragg behind the Bragg range of health products constantly lied.  Most of us will convey to others we're younger than we really are. Bragg added 14 years to his age so that everyone would think he looked surprisingly robust.  [I added 12 years to my age on a bogus British driving license - you really do get a lot more compliments!]  His Bragg products still proclaim they've been around since 1912, the year Bragg turned 17.  Tony has one more legitimate degree than Bragg ever earned.  In one of Bragg's more famous books, The Shocking Truth About Water, he is credited with both an ND and a Ph.D.  The reality is that Bragg had just one year of high school education. 

Theoretically, I find no problem whatsoever in the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach.  Bragg and Harris practiced that, and it worked wonders for their careers. The caveat is that if you're going to fake your credentials, insure you can't so easily be outed.  Being revealed as a liar completely destroys any further credibility you have.  Bragg and Harris doctored up their credentials and reached their zeniths in eras where few could or would go to the lengths to verify their stories. Times have changed.

Before I revealed Tony's and his wife's deceptions to my own wife, she had some hopes that the mister and missus might be future couples companions for us.   I have other reasons to veto that idea besides Tony's made-up degree, like the fact Tony had less personality than some of the couches I sit on. Then my wife began to question if any of the degrees and certifications Tony's wife had claimed she earned - an MA, a CPA - were legitimate. They're probably not. 

I haven't spun a wild yarn in years. It would be amusing to get together with that couple one more time and invent a few credentials of my own, some involving famous scholars. You can be absolutely sure my made-up credentials would be more interesting than an MA from Cornell.   And I'd be careful enough to not get caught!


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