Guest Column | May 23, 2023

Remote Candidate Fraud In Clinical Research: A Cautionary Tale For Interviewers

By Anne Bush, independent biometrics consultant, Bush Consulting Services

Anonymous woman covering face GettyImages-1054899222

I have heard the following story from hiring managers in several CROs.

You interviewed a remote candidate for a technical role who nailed it. The interview panel unanimously agreed to move forward, and the candidate skated through the new hire screening. You set them up on a project that fits their skillset perfectly, and you were excited for their first day. But when the candidate started, things seemed… off.

I’ve been interviewing and hiring remote biometrics candidates for over 15 years, and the sophistication of candidate fraud has only deepened with every passing year, with schemes adapting as quickly as companies discover them.

A few years ago, I was working with a pharmaceutical company that needed to scale from 40 to 80 remote statistical programmers in three months to meet regulatory deadlines, meaning that we were performing multiple panel interviews every single day and engaging several outside contracting agencies to get qualified candidates in the queue. We were aware that fraud was a challenge, so we only conducted video interviews and added steps to our background checks in anticipation of it.

In the middle of one interview, someone on the panel messaged the other interviewers, “That’s weird, the video is lagging the audio. It’s usually the other way around, right?”

It was almost imperceptible, but she was right.

So, with her hunch that something was amiss, I pivoted away from our usual line of questioning and asked if she could get a pen and paper and write down the next answer for us.

We asked if she had a pen and paper.

She said yes.

We gave her the question and asked that she show us her answer when she had completed the question.

She verbally confirmed that she had written her answer down and was holding up her paper to show us.

However, the interviewee on camera never moved, never had a pen and paper, and never wrote anything down.

And then, she abruptly dropped out of the interview.

Just a few hours later we had an interview with a new candidate and wouldn’t you know it, they just happened to show up with nothing but a pen and paper sitting right there on the desk in front of them.

This is the day we learned that a video interview doesn’t guarantee much when it comes to fraud. What we eventually came to discover was that the applicant was the person we were looking at on camera, and any post-hire visual comparison to the interviewee would have passed the test. She wasn’t, however, the one (expertly) answering the questions. A second person had called in on the audio, and the interviewee was mimicking the words as they were said. Immediately after we adjusted the format of the interview and threw off the ruse, the next candidate came prepared for that scenario. Like I said, sophisticated.

Human resources and recruiting are doing some heavy lifting to reduce the incidents of fraud. Even still, I have seen how fraudulent candidates have passed formal background checks, ID checks, and reference checks. I have seen fake company websites with active phone numbers and candidate LinkedIn pages with hundreds of connections.

It seems like fraudulent candidates are always in the ether, but the organizations I have worked for or with have become particularly vulnerable when:

  • The department is undergoing large-scale hiring.
  • They are fully remote.
  • They are engaging contracting agencies.
  • The candidate is not going to be in a client-facing or lead role.

And nothing opens the floodgates quite as much as one fraudulent candidate making it through the hiring gauntlet.

Technical interviewers are already adept at identifying candidate competency. And in my experience, simply creating awareness that not every candidate is accurately representing themself goes a long way to reducing the number of fraudulent candidates that get hired. Providing guidance on what to look for has reduced, if not immediately eliminated, the incidence of fraudulent candidates applying to an organization.

Consider some examples of what I’ve seen to be effective measures in reducing fraud:

  • Be skeptical of a sudden influx of spectacular candidates. 
  • Don’t repeat the same questions or follow the same format from one interview to the next.
  • Look for patterns in interview responses, work history, and even the decor of the office spaces.
  • Look for notable mismatches. For example, one red flag is when the name displayed during the video conference is generic or different from the candidate's name.
  • Proactively ask your contracting agencies what measures they are taking to avoid candidate fraud.

And most importantly, pay attention to your intuition. If something seems off, pressure test it.  Each situation is unique, and how one might approach the suspicion of fraud will look different in every interview. Absent an egregious presentation of fraud, I would suggest that interviewers continue with the interview and give the interviewee the benefit of the doubt (maybe they are truly a stellar candidate!) with a few tweaks to your approach during and after:

  • As noted above, deviate from the script. Fraudulent candidates are often part of larger schemes that share information. Unpredictable interview formats make targeted preparation more difficult.
  • Ask your internal recruiting/HR teams to layer on additional checks that might not be part of the standard background screening process.
    • Run unique identifiers through internal candidate tracking systems (e.g., social security number rather than first and last name) to ensure consistency with any previous CVs that the candidate has submitted.
    • Manually review the background check. In my experience, background checks may not include a detailed comparison of the CV to the candidate's work history.
  • Look for overlaps in work history or mutual connections on LinkedIn to your existing workforce. Verify that your employee remembers the candidate from their time there, and if so, inquire about their performance at that organization.

Awareness on the part of the interviewers can ultimately save you, your team, and your organization quite a bit of effort and headaches in the future.

About The Author:

Anne Bush, MSc, is an executive consultant who has spent nearly two decades supporting the clinical development industry. For the last 10 years, she has been focused on operational excellence in biometrics, optimizing partnerships, and guiding the strategic direction of engagements as an operations leader, account manager, and client liaison. Anne’s career trajectory bridges technical leadership, operational leadership, and business development.