At a time when employers receive hundreds of applications for a single job opening, a glowing reference could be the difference between standing out and sitting at home.
Enter CareerExcuse.com, a website that promises to "act as your past employer" and provide you with a positive reference. "You provide us with your name, employment dates, ending salary and job titles, we do the rest!!" the site pledges.
Of course it's never okay to lie, and doing so can backfire. But some workers are desperate in what is the worst job market in more than a generation. "It's a mistake to think that you can lie about something to get in the door and prove yourself," warned John Challenger, chief executive of the outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. "It's certainly a sign of desperation."
Employment advisers say there are steps you can take to make yourself attractive to an employer — even if you've been out of work for long time. Lying isn't one of them.
Still, websites have popped up and tapped into job seekers' anxiety. Some offer advice on embellishing resumes and getting references from friends and family pretending to be your old boss. CareerExcuse provides references for a price.
CareerExcuse did not return phone calls or e-mail. (An attempt to sign up for the service also seems to have been rebuffed.) But the founder, William Schmidt, told ABCNews.com last year that he got the idea for the site after seeing so many people on Twitter asking strangers to be a reference.
The site says it won't be a reference for police, fire, medical and government jobs —or for loans — but everything else is game. The cost runs $65 to $195, plus a monthly service charge. (For $35, the site will provide a funeral excuse for those who want time off for a vacation.)
CareerExcuse says it can't guarantee you won't be caught or fired. And it disavows any liability.
But employers' lawyers aren't willing to let such sites, or those who use them, off the hook. "It's concerning that there are websites that would purposely sell incorrect information that they know that people will be relying on, perhaps to their detriment," said Pamela Devata, a labor and employment lawyer in Chicago who represents employers.
It can be difficult for employers to conduct thorough reference checks because former supervisors won't say much for fear of being sued by an ex-employee, said Richard Hafets, a Baltimore County labor and employment lawyer representing employers. References tend to only verify a worker's position, pay and dates of employment.
Workers know this, he said, and falsifying resumes and references has become more common. "They feel they have more liberty to embellish and that it will be more difficult for a new employer to find out if they are embellishing," Hafets said.
More employers are resorting to credit checks on candidates. The reports reveal the job seeker's past employers and any financial difficulties, a key piece of information if a worker will be handling customers' money, employers say.
The practice, however, has come under scrutiny. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently held a hearing on the use of credit checks in hiring and whether it's fair, particularly today when those who have been laid off a long time likely have credit problems.
Employers also hire firms to do reference and background checks, which can use sophisticated means to root out deception.
SkillSurvey Inc. in Pennsylvania offers an online program and recently added a feature that detects if the candidate's references come from the same computer or network. This could mean the references all work at the same company where the job candidate once worked. But it also could signal that the references are phony.