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 OK to lie, and doing so can backfire. But some workers are desperate in what is the worst job market in more than a generation. In particular, the long-term unemployed worry that the more time they spend out of the work force, the harder it will be to land a job. Some fear their skills will atrophy or that employers will think that's the case.
The national unemployment rate has continued to climb to 9.8 percent. Last month, more than 48,000 Marylanders received federal emergency unemployment benefits because they had been out of work for more than six months. And nearly a quarter of them had been without a job for more than a year.
And so more job-seekers have turned to falsifying their resumes and references, according to some workplace experts. In turn, employers are beefing up screening of new candidates with credit checks and high-tech tools that can root out deceit.
"It's a mistake to think that you can lie about something to get in the door and prove yourself," warns John Challenger, chief executive of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "It's certainly a sign of desperation."
Besides, 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 old bosses. CareerExcuse provides references for a price.
CareerExcuse did not return phone calls or e-mail. (My 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 cannot guarantee that 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," says 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, says Richard Hafets, a Baltimore County labor and employment lawyer representing employers. References tend to verify only a worker's position, pay and dates of employment.
Maryland offers legal protection for employers giving references, Hafets says. Even so, Hafets advises his clients to stick to basic facts rather than risk a dispute with a former employee.
Workers know this, he says, 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 says.
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.
However, the practice 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 for 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 whether 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.