Judging by its website, Altman Research wouldn't be such a bad company to have on a résumé.
With offices in a handsome skyscraper overlooking Chicago's Millennium Park, the financial research firm says its executives have degrees from an impressive array of Ivy League universities. It boasts of a strong reputation that's helped land big name subscribers in the nearly 20 years the company's been in business.
"Our seasoned pool of equity analysts have extensive market research experience and are highly qualified and credentialed," the company says.
In reality, though, it's probably not a great place to look for a job, or even a stock tip, for one simple reason: Altman Research doesn't actually exist.
Its website was created by Career Excuse, a service which, for a fee, provides job-seeking customers with verifiable references from nonexistent companies. While the companies have phone numbers, websites and mailboxes manned by Career Excuse, they don't conduct any actual business, besides verifying the great work done by employees they've never really had.
"I believe our services can land people jobs, including people who are really up against the system," Career Excuse founder William Schmidt told me. "The job market isn't what it was 10 years ago, or even 30 years ago."
Schmidt, who said he also still works a more traditional day job at a Columbus, Ohio-area auto parts supplier, is unapologetic about his business. Most of his customers are applying for jobs for which they're quite qualified, he said—they just can't quite manage to get hired in today's tight labor market.
"I really wish I recorded some of the conversations I've had with customers and prospects," he said. "Sometimes they make me cry. Sometimes I'm just horrified."
His company advertises an entry level plan—limited to customers willing to let employers hear that they make $35,000 or less at their fake jobs—that comes with a five-page company website and one fake boss willing to provide a telephone reference. The next plan up offers up to three nonexistent coworkers and a more elaborate website, and customers can pay extra for services like letters of recommendation from their made-up supervisors.
For enough money, Career Excuse can essentially turn the hiring process into an alternate reality game, with prospective employers as the unwitting players.
"It all depends on how much they want to invest in making this company look real," said Schmidt.
Schmidt and his small staff will verify fake work histories and describe their customers' strengths in the workplace, routing calls through cloud-based phone tree systems that let Career Excuse customers even listen in on voice mails from their potential employers.
Since the virtual phone providers are the same ones used by genuine companies, they usually sound real enough to be believed, he said.
"A lot of companies will use outsourced HR departments," said Schmidt, who describes himself as, effectively, the HR manager for about 200 nonexistent companies. "They'll use the work number for employment verification. I am basically creating one of those."
And for customers willing to pay the price, Schmidt offers a premium service called Career Excuse Pro, which offers references from actual do-nothing corporations he's legally formed to further blur the line between real and fake.
"The highest technology we use is the phone"
Schmidt said he learned some advanced techniques from working with a well-heeled client who had sold an internet company in the mid-2000s, then taken some time off that he wanted to retroactively erase from his résumé. The client was willing to hire investigative firms to check his references, then work with Career Excuse to fill in the holes, Schmidt said.
"Through the course of building this foolproof company, I really learned a lot," he said.
Now, he offers clients looking for higher-end jobs references with verifiably real corporate names and even Yellow Pages listings and mailing addresses, often registered with virtual office providers, that show up on search engines.
"If you look at any company on Google, it will come up with a big huge header on the right side," he said. "It'll have a picture of the company. It'll have a big box. That really helps."
He'll make sure the company and its fictitious executives are listed on LinkedIn and other social media sites, and can even offer internet domain names registered years in the past, since background check firms sometimes flag new addresses as suspicious, he said.
"Fortunately, because I've been in business for so long, I literally have hundreds of domains that are over three years old," he said. "I at least have 20 or 30 that are over five years old."
And once those elaborate custom fake company websites are built for high-end clients, they can often be reused for other customers applying for jobs where they don't need to be as picky, he said.
"We keep it, and we can assign it to other members," he said. "Once they finish using our services and land our job, then we have an awesome website we can use, so it trickles down."
Of course, Schmidt says there are some limits to the kinds of references he's willing to give, no matter the price. His company won't impersonate a government agency, a doctor or a lawyer, he said. Career Excuse won't pretend to be any actual person or company, or, for security's sake, provide references to anyone trying to get work in an airport.
Schmidt's company is one of several vendors offering fake reference services, ranging from small operations posting ads on local Craigslist pages to other national players like Fake Your Job and Minnesota-based Paladin Deception Services.
Paladin markets itself as "the trusted name in disinformation" and, in addition to bogus references for employers and landlords, offers to provide "white lies" and "alibis" to its customers for a variety of purposes.
"We have all suffered the need of securing a believable alibi, of finding someone to give us the little white lie we need for a personal reason," says the company's website. "A complete stranger will not be able to help you, and it's often too embarrassing or humiliating to ask a friend or relative to testify for you."
In a video produced by the St. Paul Pioneer Press to accompany a profile of the service, founder Tim Green is shown demonstrating his trade, telling a Pioneer Press reporter about a made-up vehicle that looks "like a Prius" and runs on human feces. He asks the skeptical reporter for an interview to help promote the car and for a stool donation to keep the engine running.
Paladin, unlike Career Excuse, takes a purely verbal approach to deceit: It doesn't build websites, send emails or produce any kind of written documentation.
"The highest technology we use is the phone," Green told me.
Its staff will impersonate fictitious reference providers on the telephone or, if needed, in person to back up bogus résumé entries or employer websites its clients create.
"There's times when a lie may need to be backed up with some form of verification," he said. "We do not provide any written verification, but we do provide a fictitious person."
He's taken on a variety of roles—"playing a long-forgotten father, grandfather, playing the president of a company"—to help clients get jobs and verify excuses. Like Schmidt, Green does have some limits: He won't impersonate certain figures like doctors, lawyers and government officials, though he said he has masqueraded as a priest from time to time.
"My demeanor's quite gentle anyway, so I think I fit the persona when I have to use it," he said.
And like Schmidt, Green seems to takes pride in helping clients get hired, despite the dubious means involved. "The most enjoyable ones are when we hear from clients saying, 'Wow, I landed the job, thanks for the great reference you provided,' which they pretty much put together, we just verified," he said. "We get stories like that—they're great. The ones that aren't giving you the warm fuzzies are when, for instance, one of the agents have been on the phone [saying why a customer] won't be there on Christmas Day because his boss has called him off to work for that evening, things like that."
Green told me he'd previously worked as a private investigator, even claiming to have done some clandestine work for the Chinese government keeping an eye on fellow expats—a position which, he cheerfully acknowledged, he has no documentation to verify, though he did send me copies of Chinese work visas for his apparent cover job.
"It wasn't like I was a spy or anything," he said. "I basically just held a legitimate position that was set up for me over there. I was just the eyes and ears of the expat communities, making sure there wasn't drug deals going down or any other unlawful activity."
When he returned to the United States in 2009, he first sought investigative work but soon realized he didn't have the necessary license, he said.
"What I ran up against eventually was that I'm not licensed in the state of Minnesota where I'm at, and that sort of put a damper on being able to do what I do," he said.
After being asked to provide references for friends and former colleagues, he switched gears and began focusing on what he describes as a kind of counter-surveillance work.
"I've worked so many years trying to expose it," he said. "Why not work to provide the smoke and mirrors for clients?"
"This is why we tell HR people that they really shouldn't be doing verifications themselves"
Providing fake job references has become a cat and mouse game, of sorts, as more employers have gotten wise to the practice. More and more, hiring managers are outsourcing reference checks to specialized firms who are more savvy about weeding out dubious references.
"This is why we tell HR people that they really shouldn't be doing verifications themselves," said Christine Cunneen, who is the CEO of the background check firm Hire Image and the chair of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners.
Her company verifies job histories and other credentials and reports back to employers, helping companies weed out applicants with dubious references or their academic equivalent: made-up degrees bought from online diploma mills.
That means taking steps beyond simply calling individual listed references, making sure to Google companies and directly call HR numbers listed on their websites, and verifying listed companies are real and registered with state authorities, said Cunneen.
"We're typically checking the Secretary of State website if it's not a common employer to make sure they're registered to do business, that it's not a made up company," she said.
Career Excuse and Paladin Deception say only making up bogus companies and never impersonating clients' real former employers helps them stay on the right side of the law. Green said that for all the various types of references and alibis he's provided, his service has never run into any legal problems.
"Part of it might just be good fortune, but I think a lot of it, too, is we just don't do anything illegal," he said.
Determining exactly when that's true for fake reference services and their customers probably depends on the exact details of the services they offer, and the nuances of individual states' fraud laws, said John Winn, an associate professor of business law at Shenandoah University's Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business.
"It might be some states it is, some states it might not be," said Winn, who alluded to fake reference services in an article on employee screening in The Homeland Security Review. "It certainly would be a reason to not grant you a [professional] license, or disbar you or revoke your nursing license or whatever."
And if someone with a dishonestly padded résumé proved incompetent or malicious, it could lead to a civil suit against his or her employer, arguing negligence in failing to notice the deceit, he said.
After all, with enough scrutiny, even the most elaborately constructed fake companies can still be caught, as Career Excuse's Schmidt readily acknowledges.
"All it would take is one person to drive to that address and go to that office, and find out," he said. "But we all know not every person doing an interview is going to do that. Not every private investigator is going to do that."