An email landed on my desk the other day from an advocate requesting information pertaining to an investigation I’m currently involved in on behalf of government agency.

This kind of thing, in itself, is not unusual, but what caught my eye about this particular email was the sender’s long list of credentials, listed as part of his email signature. My initial thought was, “Impressive.”

But I’ve been in this game a long time, and I’m paid to be suspicious. I never take anything at face value, and I ALWAYS question EVERYTHING.

So, when I didn’t recognise some of the qualifications he listed, I decided to do a little digging.

Obviously, I’m not trying to say I know about every certification course available, because that would be impossible. New institutions of higher learning and adult education crop up almost daily, so it’s impossible to keep track of what’s being offered where.

And this is a huge part of the problem.

In “the old days,” you could study towards a limited number of qualifications, in an equally limited number of institutions. Today, people’s resumes are littered with training course certificates from a myriad of different places, and job titles are far more numerous and varied than they used to be. “Social Media Manager” and “Big Data Specialist” for example, are just two of the “newer” specialities that have only sprung up in the last decade or so.

I am aware that the discussion around fake qualifications isn’t new – in fact, I’ve covered it myself in a previous article – but “fudging” your credentials is less cut-and-dried. This is where

people claim to have certifications which turn out to not even be accredited  qualifications in the first place. They have absolutely no credibility, but they still manage to pull the wool over people’s eyes.

Yes, most people’s qualifications are one hundred percent legitimate and come from accredited institutions. But there is a worrying number, though, that aren’t and don’t – and it is these we must be increasingly wary of.

The email sender in question, for example, claimed to have several Bitcoin, Cryptocurrency and Blockchain certifications, which used words such as “professional,” “investigator” and “auditor.” When you actually look closer at the institutions that issue these “certifications” the websites claim all sorts of accreditations which may satisfy the casual visitor, but when you actually look closer you will see that the certifications themselves as not accredited.

These are terms you cannot simply throw into the conversation with gay abandon. The use of “auditor” for example, is strictly controlled by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants.  It’s a bit like the Champagne of the professional world – if you’re not vetted and duly authorised by the appropriate bodies, you can’t use the name.

It’s the same with the word “expert.” You would be amazed at the number of people who call themselves an expert in a certain field, without anything of any real substance to back that up.

The broadly accepted definition is someone with comprehensive or authoritative knowledge in a particular area of study.

But what does that actually mean?

Does paying R200, or reading a book, or answering 100 questions make you an expert? Or do you have to have a one-year certificate, two-year diploma or three-year degree? Perhaps you need 10 000 hours of experience – the common rule of thumb popularised by Malcom Gladwell in his bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success?

In my opinion, however loose the definition of expert might be, you still shouldn’t just be able to claim to be one – and cite non-accredited certifications to back up that claim.

Because how is that different from buying a degree from a “degree mill” university for $200? It’s not – and it should be reported and dealt with under the same umbrella as those who put fake qualifications and other credentials on their CVs – which is now a criminal offence.

In addition, simply labelling yourself as an expert significantly undermines the effort true experts have put in to be able to identify as such. More significantly, it could also have serious potential legal ramifications if you are ever called upon to give evidence during an investigation or trial (which, as forensic investigators, we often are).

Because when an investigator, or someone who is part of the investigative team, claims to be an expert, a court may hold them to a higher standard than someone who isn’t an expert – just as we wouldn’t, for example, hold a GP to the same standard as a board-certified neurologist.

If their expert status is then later called into question, it could undermine or completely negate the findings of the entire investigation.

But over and above all that, I have another serious problem with people who fudge their qualifications and overstate their expertise, and it is this:

It speaks of a complete lack of willingness on the part of an applicant to actually apply themselves. To put in the time, effort and work required to get properly qualified and accredited in their field. Formal accreditation is especially important in the forensic space, where credibility and ethics are so critical. Anything less than an accredited course with a reputable institution is simply not acceptable in the forensic industry.

And I am insulted by anyone who thinks they could get away with it with me.

We operate in a space that exists to root out corruption and fraud. This is why instances like this leave a particularly sour taste in my mouth – and why I’m highlighting it today in an attempt to warn others.

I do understand that the world operates at break-neck speed and many companies don’t have the time or resources to verify the credentials of every candidate whose CV lands on their desk. Vacancies must be filled quickly, so background checks fall victim to the relief of a fast hire.

But here’s the thing:

That relief will be very short lived if your shiny new employee turns out to be anything but what they purported to be.

If you’re in an industry where the right qualifications are one of the basic criteria for getting the job, you cannot NOT verify their education.

Certification, Competence and Accreditation

In the case of my suspicious email sender, his “qualifications” were listed in the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers & Studies (NICCS) catalogue. However, simply being listed in the catalogue is not an endorsement of the certification concerned. Getting listed on this catalogue is trivial – it is just a listing, no more and no less.

Which brings me to the importance of understanding the differences between a qualification, a course certificate, a Certificate of Competence, and a certification – as well the viability of “accredited courses” – because not all accreditations are equal, so whom they’re accredited by is critical.

And speaking of accreditation, it’s imperative that we must uphold a certain standard and quality of education. In South Africa, accreditation is awarded by SANAS – the South African National Accreditation System – and the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). In addition, all providers of education and training offering full qualifications, must be registered with the Department of Higher Education and Training to be considered as an accredited institution. When it comes to certification programs, the international benchmark is the ISO 17024 standard (which is also a South African Standard recognised in terms of the Standards Act).

Malcolm X famously said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

For employees, this means choosing an education that is recognised by business, employers, and other institutions of learning. And for employers, it means doing your homework, checking – and double-checking – to make sure you’re not misled.

Because sadly, as with so many things in life and business, it all comes down to money. The more impressive your qualifications sound, the more money you feel entitled to charge. The onus is on everyone to make sure someone is legitimate before either employing them or, as in my case, complying with a request for sensitive and confidential information.

Let’s all be careful out there.

JGL Forensic Services helps companies develop ethical, sustainable businesses so that together we can build a South Africa that we are proud of.

We assist you to create the right context for ethical and sustainable business practices to thrive by means of proactive training and ongoing awareness of risks and show you how this can result in profitable growth for the company.

Talk to us in confidence, and let’s work together to prevent corruption and fraud.