The 2-Hour Fake Internship

University of Delaware is changing its policies after a student was able to fool career-services platform Handshake and the institution with a blatantly fraudulent job posting.

October 11, 2018
 

It took Jennifer West less than two hours to create a fake company on Handshake, the fast-growing career-services platform, and then advertise a bogus social media internship at the University of Delaware, which she attends.

West, a senior at Delaware, wanted to test the system after earlier this fall she said she was duped into a sham internship that was posted on Handshake, which has spread to at least 700 campuses.

The incident illustrates that despite the convenience of Handshake, institutions, particularly large ones such as Delaware, have trouble tracking what opportunities are real. West’s experiment has prompted the institution to make stricter the vetting process for employers.

West was browsing Handshake over the summer when she stumbled on iConcept Media, which purported to be offering an unpaid internship in fashion journalism where she would work remotely.

She searched the company online and found a few lukewarm reviews on Glassdoor but decided to apply regardless. West went through a Skype interview (the interviewer told her that his camera was broken, but she was able to hear his voice) and later she was “hired.” As West understood the position, she would be writing about fashion brands, pieces that iConcept representatives implied would ultimately appear in high-profile publications with which they claimed to have relationships, West said.

In August, after submitting a few trial clips, West was granted access to a Google Doc, which she said looked sloppy and unprofessional, laden with typos. In that Google Doc were links where the pieces were published -- but they were a far cry from Vogue. The URLs looked similar to major fashion outlets, but were a “bit off.” For instance, instead of fashionme.com (a popular website), the iConcept Media version was “fashionmr.”

When West scrolled through the webpages, hardly any of the write-ups had bylines attached. She said that iConcept told her that if she did not fulfill a quota of stories and post daily to social media that her name would also be removed. West said she figured out the scammers were trying to generate clickbait, nothing more. She was also later told that iConcept Media had been flagged by the university as a fraudulent company.

West remained curious about how thoroughly the institution was evaluating the companies that used Handshake, which allows employers both big and small to advertise at colleges and universities across the country. Last year she set up a parody music review website called PorkSpork, where she and her friends would write for a laugh (one article is titled “John McCain dies before mixtape drop”).

When West interviewed Delaware’s Career Services Center for an article for the student newspaper about her fake internship experience, she was told that staffers there check for a legitimate email and phone number and a career-services page on a company website.

West already had an email and phone number associated with the PorkSpork website, and she was able to quickly add a webpage on the site advertising for interns, she said. She signed up with Handshake, seemingly without the company checking that PorkSpork was real, and then asked to advertise with Delaware.

The institution approved her and a “social media internship” ad with a vague description within two hours, West said. She discovered she could request students’ résumés, cover letters and university transcripts, which would reveal to her students’ personal information, including grades. Shocked at the level of information she could access, West nixed the post. (Handshake has come under fire for privacy issues before, with some students unaware they had even shared their information, such as a grade point average.)

“I think there needs to be any sort of service by the university to check if anything is legitimate. I didn’t get a call or an email -- I didn’t even get a phone call to check if it was a real phone number,” West said.

The university will now check the businesses licenses for every employer that wants to use Handshake, said Nathan Elton, the Career Services Center director. This may slow down the process of approving them, but Elton said the trust of students is “ultimately No. 1.”

The university has used Handshake for about three years, and since then, the number of employers and postings on the platform has skyrocketed, Elton said. About 16,500 employers have signed up to use Delaware’s Handshake service and posted a little fewer than 40,000 positions within the last year. Two academic years ago, the university handled only about 18,500 postings, Elton said.

Only one staff member on the center’s employment relations and engagement team is charged with reviewing Handshake posts, with others assigned as necessary during the periods where more postings roll in -- such as during the late summer or early fall, Elton said. Delaware enrolls more than 24,000 students.

In the case of West’s false company, Elton said that the university fields many requests from small start-ups, and a social media intern is a common position. With the completeness of having a webpage, email and more, PorkSpork slipped through the university’s screening. Per Handshake’s policies, it also would not have flagged West’s company because she had created a unique email, website and branding to go with it -- instead, it would be up to individual institutions to remove it.

Despite the new requirement of checking business licenses, Elton said that the center will maintain its disclaimer on fraudulent jobs and internships.

Posted to the Career Services Center website, it reads:

The university does not endorse or recommend employers, and a posting does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation. The university explicitly makes no representations or guarantees about job listings or the accuracy of the information provided by the employer. The university is not responsible for safety, wages, working conditions, or any other aspect of off-campus employment without limitation. It is the responsibility of students to perform due diligence in researching employers when applying for or accepting private, off-campus employment and to thoroughly research the facts and reputation of each organization to which they are applying. Students should be prudent and use common sense and caution when applying for or accepting any position.

West said she was unaware of the disclaimer until this week, though university officials said it is prominently promoted.

Many institutions publish this type of warning about fake positions, including Boston University; the University of California, Berkeley; Rutgers University and Rider University. George Mason University in May published a statement about a job scam on its career platform, HireMason.

Handshake has developed its own metric for judging the legitimacy of employers, called a “trust score,” which is visible on the platform. It takes into account whether employers have been deemed fraudulent by another institution, how long they’ve been using Handshake, their level of activity on Handshake and whether they have a valid web address and matching email, among other factors.

Last year, about 200,000 employers advertised with institutions on Handshake, and about 0.4 percent of them were flagged as fraudulent.

Handshake provided a statement to Inside Higher Ed:

“More than 300,000 employers are engaging with the Handshake community each year, from the Fortune 500 to local small businesses and nonprofits. Our fraud rates are far below industry norms, because we have built a strong set of security protections and work closely with our university partners. But we are always working to make the network more secure, and we continue to take steps with our university partners to ensure every student can find a job or internship that will help them launch a meaningful career.”

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