It was inevitable: Scammers are stealing job seekers’ identities using over-the-top interview protocols established by employers to gather sensitive personal data. Have employers gone too far demanding too much of job applicants before they even need the information?

Great news! A well-known employer in your area sends you an e-mail saying it wants to interview you by phone — they found your resume online or your profile on LinkedIn. You answer the phone at the appointed time and have a job interview. Perhaps the interviewer makes an offer on the spot — your lucky day! He helps you complete the job application right there on the phone. What’s not to like?

steal-ssnHighmark, a BlueCross BlueShield healthcare company, warns on its website that the interview you think the company just conducted with you was a fraud — and someone stole your private information in the process:

Important Notice
Recently, Highmark has received several reports of possible fraudulent online activity in which an individual posing as a Highmark human resources representative contacts job seekers by e-mail or phone/text, conducts interviews and makes employment offers on behalf of the company. In most instances, those contacted have never applied for a position with Highmark. These false job offers are likely made in an attempt to gain access to your private information, such as your social security number.

— Warning posted on Highmark’s Careers page, detailed further in this notice

While fake online job postings are common and used to get you to fill out forms with personal information that can be used to steal your identity, this fraud is bold. Someone posing as a well-known employer actually calls you up and interviews you — and by the time it’s over you’ve got a phony job offer and the scammers have your very real social security number and other private information.

How can this happen?

An alert job seeker might recognize a phony e-mail address behind the official-sounding name of the company and the recruiter. But some won’t. Job seekers are understandably excited to get an e-mail asking for an interview and will quickly follow the “script” we’re all accustomed to — an e-mail expressing interest, a phone interview with a recruiter, and an intimidating demand for highly detailed “job application” information that includes private personal data that no employer really needs — but demands anyway.

Of course, not all victims will believe they just got a job offer on the phone without an in-person interview — but some will. And even if the “recruiter” doesn’t make an offer on the phone, he makes it awfully easy to “complete the application” on the phone while he does all the writing for you. He’ll even write down your social security number and your home address and phone number. What’s not to like?

How employers help scammers steal your SS#

Employers have programmed job seekers to quickly disclose private, confidential information — when there’s no real benefit to doing so, but lots of risk. Long before the employer decides you’re even a serious contender for a job, it demands your home address, your social security number, names and contact information of your references and permission to contact them, your salary history (which you should never disclose) and loads of other information that’s none of their business at this juncture and which they don’t even need. (When you fork over your references, you’re putting them at risk, too — probably not a good idea if you want good references!)

Why do HR departments routinely demand all this information? Simply because they can. You’ve been trained to  deliver “the required information” just to apply — while the employer hasn’t even checked your qualifications or indicated the slightest interest in talking with you much less hiring you. (See Does HR Go Too Far When Screening Candidates? — especially comments by HR manager Earl Rice. As you’ll note from the 2003 date on this article, this is not a new employer protocol.)

That’s why you become an easy target for scammers. Scammers exploit the intimidating “script” employers have taught you to follow. That’s how unreasonable, over-the-top job application requirements put you at risk. But it’s even worse.

Where’s your data?

Even a real, live employer that collects your private information puts you at risk. Many employers use third-party applicant tracking systems (ATSes) to log your application information and personal data. It all goes into “the cloud” — and good luck protecting it. When you complete that application, you’re usually asked to sign a waiver that gives the employer and its “agents” (translation: any third parties it deals with but that you don’t know about) permission to do with your data as they please.

You have no idea where your data goes, who has access to it, or how well (if at all) it is secured. Personal job application data is stored in unregulated, central repositories that even employers have no control over. Who controls these enormous databases? Companies like Oracle Taleo, Bullhorn, HRIS, IBM’s Kenexa, iCIMS, JobVite, HireBridge, JobScore, and ADP VirtualEdge among others. (For more about the applicant tracking system racket, see Employment In America: WTF is going on?)

Of course, to apply for a job you must provide basic information. But it’s up to you to be judicious about what you share and at what point in the recruiting process. Do they really need your social security number — when they haven’t even met you or given you any clear indication that they’re going to make a job offer? Most people today have already been brainwashed by the employment system to hand over anything and everything an employer says it “needs” to “process you.”

BAM! It’s that misconception that turns you into a sucker when a phony recruiter calls you and asks for all your data.

It’s time for employers to behave

It’s time for employers to stop demanding information they don’t need to recruit you. Today, HR departments ask for the kitchen sink simply because they have a database for kitchen sinks. “We’ll just get all the person’s data up front, so we don’t have to do it later.” More cynically, “We’ll get all their data before we even decide they’re viable candidates because then we can use a keyword scan to quickly reject people we haven’t even talked to yet.” (Less politely: Presumptuous Employers: Is this HR, or Proctology?)

When employers put some of their own skin in the game, then they can ask applicants to do the same. For example, what’s the salary range on the job? How much did you pay the last guy in that job and the one before that? What’s your Employer Identification Number? May I see some references from your customers, vendors and former employees? How about your credit rating? You’re privately held? I still need that information — I’m privately held, too. Are some of those questions over the top? Hmmm…

It’s also time for job seekers to stop being suckers. You are always free to politely but firmly decline to disclose any information you think is too private to share — until you think it’s warranted to process your job offer. Don’t be a sucker for either a legitimate employer who asks for too much — or for a scammer. See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers for tips about how to stay in control when you’re talking with an employer.

(For more on this story, see the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which interviewed me about the scam: Insurer says swindler posing as Highmark job recruiter.)

Where do you draw the line when disclosing private information to apply for a job? Do employers ask for too much, too soon? How do you apply for jobs while protecting your private information?

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  1. Nick,

    I unearthed a great comment about asking too much info from the 2011 ATH article you linked:

    “By L.T.
    March 29, 2011 at 2:33 am
    I have shown up for interviews at far too many companies, only to be greeted by the perky receptionist with “Sally says you will want to (need to) fill out a few forms first.” She then presents me with War and Peace to fill out.

    My stock response (as I hand the blank forms back) is “Sally doesn’t know me very well then.”

    @L.T. This is genius…flat-out gangstah, even!

    I hope you don’t mind if I steal this. I did this with a temp agency a while back, but not with such swagger. God Bless

    @Nick, the job market is turning around and we are mad as hell about being treated like garbage by HR departments.

    ….maybe forward-thinking people like you should to start a #takebacktheinterview hashtag on Twitter

  2. @Some Guy:

    It warms my heart to see other people pick up the gauntlet against robots on the front desk, and interviewers who put zero effort into prepping for the interview.

    I was going to relate that I pretty much quit applying to the medical community for the longest time. Their “one-size-fits-all” approach to online applications had gone well beyond asinine.

    The applications all seem to come from the same place, and all lead off with “We need your SSN in order to comply with …” some laundry list of laws, ordinances, gentlemen’s agreements, and other nonsense for every position on staff. And while it may be a Good Thing(TM) to say “if you’ve committed Medicare Fraud, you don’t get to work in the accounting department”. Maybe you should keep the guy who spent time in the state penitentiary because when he was 18 his 17½ year old girlfriend’s parents took exception to their dating away from the at-risk teens (subsequent PhD in Psychology from Northwestern notwithstanding).

    However, at the time I was looking for break/fix IT and would have taken a janitorial job, and didn’t see the need to give them the keys to what was left of my credit for either.

    Glad to hear the job market is picking up.

  3. Nick,
    In your linked articles, you mention a job seeker’s confidentially agreement, but I can’t find the text. Can you add a link to it here, or is it in the book?

  4. @Nick,

    While it’s all quite possible to refuse to fill out PAPER forms handed to you, or else to cross out (im)pertinent information, where you would be able to tell someone face to face “after a job offer is in play I will provide this information” the reality is in most large companies, you never even get to SEE the receptionist before you fill out a comprehensive Taleo-based online application, with of course all the personal and financial information filled out. They’ve gotten wise and filling in all 9’s or “Confidential” causes the software to refuse to proceed, or else if you truly fill out random numbers, they may even hit you for fraud.

    It’s all fine and dandy to recommend networking, doing the job in the interview, and refusing to disclose salary, and then dismissing the company who refuses to cooperate as “someone I don’t want to work for.” If you are a much sought-after C level executive you can get away with this routinely. But the reality is that many excellent companies in all other ways have the HR and application process as their only serious flaw, and you MUST jump through these hoops first even if you have a hiring manager eager to interview you.

  5. @Mike: The job seeker’s confidentiality agreement was submitted by reader Peter Kraatz, who gave me permission to reprint it in the PDF book, “Fearless Job Hunting, Book 4: Overcome Human Resources Obstacles.” The text is posted below. Peter has used this himself, but he and I both caution that this isn’t for everyone or for every situation. Use your judgment. Many thanks once again to Peter for sharing his agreement. (Peter produces an excellent blog, The Practical Polymath, at
    To Whom it May Concern,

    I have received your request for more detailed information. Thank you for your reply. I note [Company Name] is requesting my salary history and [list of other information]. Due to the personal nature of this information and owing to the fact that some of these details are restricted by Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) with my current and former employers, I request that [Company Name] agree to certain limits as to the use and dissemination of this information. Specifically:

    That only you and those directly responsible for the hiring decision have access to these records;

    That I will be given the name of every individual who will have access to this information;

    That at no time will this information be shared with any other individuals or organizations now or in the future;

    That no copies of this information will be made without my express, written consent; And,
    That if an offer of employment is not made, this information will be destroyed immediately.

    If [Company Name] will agree to these restrictions in writing, I will forward the completed application and required background documentation the same day. Please note that the details of my compensation with [former and current employers] are company confidential and restricted by NDA, therefore some information may be “blacked out” to maintain the sanctity of these agreements.

    Yours truly,
    [beginning of commercial] Book 4 includes discussions about giving permission for background checks, doing “dispute resolution agreements,” how to deal with “behavioral” interviews, handling online application forms, how to bypass HR and talk to the hiring manager, why you should ignore HR when it rejects you, my duel with an irate HR manager, more advice from Peter Kraatz, and an “accountability checklist” to apply to all employers. And more :-) Check the book links in the right-hand sidebar of this blog if you want to buy a copy. [end of commercial]

  6. @Some guy & @L.T.: Which just goes to show (1) the genius of smart folks in this community, and (2) that people on this blog have a great memory and still read old posts and comments!

  7. @Hank: “and you MUST jump through these hoops first”

    No, you don’t. It’s a choice. A company is not “excellent” when a hiring manager is hobbled and countermanded by a personnel jockey. Consider: If a manager decides you’re the best person to hire, that judgment translates into action, and the manager must make a choice, too. Will he or she act to ensure you get hired? If not, then you really don’t have the edge you think you do, or the job.

    If an INTERVIEW is on the line, then you’re wasting your time. The same online app that renders you undesirable for an interview for all the wrong reasons isn’t going to magically get you interviewed for the right reasons.

    A manager who is eager to interview you will interview you, no matter what HR says. Just ask others who’ve had that experience. I’ve billed HR for tens of thousands of dollars in fees when managers hired my candidates, while HR’s policy was “no headhunters.” HR does not run a company. Go around.

    I understand your frustration. But once you get on the hamster wheel, you’re guaranteed that no matter how fast you show you can run, you will go in circles and get nowhere until the experimenter plucks you out.

    P.S. I’d love to see a company hit a job applicant with fraud for filling out a salary field with all 9s and then explaining in the next free-text field that she doesn’t give out her salary history. (I’ve never suggested using random numbers. Use all 1s, 8s, 9s – something that clearly indicates a protest, not misinformation. And if the form won’t accept that, contact the hiring manager and the HR manager and ask them to disclose their salary to you.)

  8. @Nick, @Hank

    As someone who spent a good six – eight months jumping through interview hoops (multiple interviews, group interviews,work samples, writing samples, references, forms, presentations, etc), only to find that no one was hired in 80% of the job openings I was up for, I made a real shift in my perspective on the job search.

    — I spent more time each week talking to people, finding small bits of work, reading and writing, tweeting/sharing things I was reading or writing, attending events and webinars, etc.. basically, doing my own thing.

    While it is not easy or fun, it’s pretty much re-finding your spine and not being a pushover. I do small projects and network with professionals. I’m my own man.

    I’ve done this in my romantic relationships (stood up for myself, been aloof, or walked away)and that has worked.

    Besides, HR is basically jerking “active” candidates around, looking for reasons to disqualify. They get paid, even if no one is hired.

    They are just like all women – What they want is someone who is ‘attached’ (employed) and ’emotionally unavailable’ (not eager about the job). Attractive (qualified based on resume) may get them to answer the door (if you get past the ATS- the alligator-filled moat surrounding the castle walls), but, trust me, from look one, they are focusing on how you look, act, talk, etc. One mistake and you are thrown in the garbage.

    This is why Nick’s ‘talk to the manager’advice is spot on. Talk shop and show that you know what you’re talking about. Ignore the noise (HR hoops).

  9. @Some guy, if you are that free to share your opinions about ‘all women’ in this discussion, I suspect that there are other reasons you are not getting the job you want. Something other than HR jerking you around. Are you that disrespectful to women who are managers and interviewers?

  10. @Erica Klein

    I did go overboard in my language- sweeping generalizations are bad (“All anything” are …) I apologize for the generalization.

    What I am trying to get at is that attractiveness for HR departments is based more on human nature than anything else.

    HR gets in the way, and provides no real value.

    The hiring manager (male or female!) should have a network /pipeline of people cultivated, and HR should should be a personnel office that processes payroll.

  11. P.S. If no one is being hired 80% of the time, almost everyone is being jerked around…including the company itself.


    Some of you have no doubt noticed that spam comments occasionally appear then disappear on this blog. I use a sophisticated anti-spam WordPress plugin that catches and stops literally thousands of such “comments” every day. The spam is generated by software and auto-posted. You wouldn’t believe the number of attempts made to log into this blog by intruders!

    But something new has cropped up — it seems that human spammers are now being paid to post spam. These are virtually impossible to stop. When they post, I delete them manually as fast as I can.

    I apologize if you subscribe to comments and receive notices of spam comments — and I hope you’ll bear with me. As this blog becomes more popular and traffic grows, it attracts the bad guys. If you find a spam comment that seems to have been “up” too long, that I might have missed, please e-mail and let me know.

    Again, thanks for your patience with this pain in the A. And if you’re a WordPress expert and have advice about this, I’d love to hear it!

  13. @Some Guy

    Other legitimate uses for HR:
    Keep the vacation days straight.
    Escort to the door the bullies and incompetents hired by the last set of HR guys.
    Anniversary plaques etc.

  14. L.T. I agree.

    If HR wasn’t just the Department of NO (to everyone) and knew as much about the job/discipline as the hiring managers …or even just treated people- (and our personal information SSN, etc) with respect,I would have as much respect for the former as much as I do for the latter.

    I am beginning to think that “Human Resources” refers to the Soylent Green that is fed into HR and their robotic pets (ATS systems)!

    “Soylent Green is people!” – Charlton Heston

  15. Nick,

    I think you’re a bit misguided here. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the point. While I agree with most of your points here, I take issue with asking about salary.

    You wrote: ….. your salary history (which you should never disclose) ……

    As a corporate recruiter managing 15-20 openings at a time, I need the person to talk salary with me on the 1st call. If they won’t then there’s a good chance we could be wasting each other’s time. If they want 150k and the role pays 100k, I want to be transparent with them that this might not work. Im not in the business of having people take a bath to come work here, so I’d rather build that trust and have that rapport to call them back when I have a role that fits their $$ expectations.

    I think that it’s just not the greatest advice.

  16. @Pete Radloff: Thanks for commenting — I’m glad we’ve got some HR folks chiming in. But I think you misread what I wrote. I said that an applicant should never disclose salary history. I include current salary in that. I didn’t say applicants should not discuss salary. In fact, I strongly advocate that salary be discussed by both the candidate and the employer very early in the process for exactly the reason you mentioned — everyone should be on the same page, or don’t waste time. An applicant should be ready to express a desired salary range, and the employer should disclose the salary range of the job — up front. Of course, the final deal is always subject to negotiation and to what both parties learn in the interviews. Are we in agreement, or am I misunderstanding you?

  17. Nick,

    We’re in agreement. Apologies for misunderstanding you.


  18. Seems that another reason HR requires a ton of info is that it offers more options/excuses to decline someone w/o even putting forth an effort. “Lazy” seems to be driving force.

    Also, Nick, any stats on increases in small business creation while these shenanigans have been employed? Seems this would drive productive folks to circumvent these knucklehead employers and create their own businesses.

  19. @Nick: Re the spam, I was wondering why an illiterate was getting thru lately. Posts make no sense.

    Thx for the heads up :)

  20. Pete…why don’t you just put the salary range in the job description and save everyone’s time?

  21. @Nick
    Glad to see the confidentiality letter business is still getting some air time. I found in one case that simply having the letter stopped the insanity in its tracks. In one other case, one of the Big-4 consulting companies was privileged to receive a copy and immediately withdrew their request until negotiations proved beneficial to both of us.

    They were, and I worked in that role for 5 years. Great company, too. Anyone wanting more snarky (but effective) or firm (but effective) responses to stupid HR requests, come and get ’em.

  22. @Peter Kraatz: Thanks for returning to the scene of the crime :-) and for your comments! (NOTE: For more from Peter, check his blog at

  23. @Nick: thanks so much for this q & a! There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how low some employers can go re being casual with candidates’ personal, financial, and other information. This just reinforces your point to go around HR and stick with hiring managers. And if you come across spineless, gutless hiring managers who defer to HR’s insane and inane demands for too much information too soon, then walk away. You don’t know with whom your information will end, and based on last week’s q & a, you don’t know that employers will respect your references either.

    I’m currently working part time at a local community college, so I work for the (state) government. Government is a different animal, and often requires a great deal of information when you apply for a job. I got my current job through a personal connection; my connection works here, knew that there was an opening, which had no been posted yet. She talked me up to the manager, and secured an interview. I interviewed, and the manager decided to hire me. The job was never officially posted. AFTER I had the offer and accepted, I was sent to HR to fill out the paperwork, and there was a lot of it, but I worked for the state before, so I wasn’t shocked or dismayed, and knew what to expect.

    Governments at all levels can be daunting places if you’re applying for jobs, but if you know someone who can speak for you so you don’t have to go through the online application process first, then you can get around HR, even in the government. When I went to fill out all of the paperwork, no one in HR pitched a fit; they offered me the chance to fill out the application and forms online or to do in on paper, and the HR employee who met with me was very knowledgeable, kind, and helpful. My soon-to-be boss called HR to let them know that they were hiring me, that I was here and I would be coming over to their office to fill out the paperwork so I could start working. And that was the end of the matter. No pushback from HR, no complaints about the library or me not following procedures. The HR employee commented that often times the hiring manager knows who s/he wants to hire, hires them, then sends them to HR (and that often those jobs don’t get posted because they already have someone in mind for them, be it an internal candidate or someone else). She did tell me that when the job is posted and if the candidate ultimately hired doesn’t have that connection, then the whole process takes much longer because HR does the initial screening, but said that the hiring manager makes the final decision re who to hire.

    This doesn’t mean that if I wanted to apply for a different job with the state, in a different dept./entity, or even within the same entity that I could get hired the same way. A different hiring manager might cede more authority to HR and thus require candidates to jump through more hoops.

    But I agree that HR requires far too much information from candidates far too soon in the process. I don’t put my SS# on my résumé, nor do I list my salary history, nor do I list my references. They need my name and contact information, but all of the other information? Really? They “require” it because they can, because it is just as easy to check the box indicating required as it is to leave it blank.

    @marilyn: I agree, and I think laziness is driving this, or they’re simply letting the computer software do their thinking for them, and computer software does not think.

    @Pete: An honest discussion about salary and benefits early in the process is critical. I also think much time and energy would be saved on all fronts if employers posted the salary ranges with the job descriptions and job requirements. This way, candidates can decide early whether they can afford to work for you based on the salary ranges posted. If the ranges are too low, they’ll do what I do and opt not to apply. You’ll get candidates who can afford to work for you. What the final salary and benefits will be determined by the final negotiations, if you negotiate at all. And if you don’t negotiate at all, then it would be helpful for candidates to have that information early in the process too. Many employers will engage in salary negotiations, but some will not. It is frustrating for candidates to go through the process, get an offer, then begin salary negotiations, only to have the job offer immediately rescinded because the employer doesn’t negotiate. If you won’t negotiate, provide the salary and/or salary ranges and benefits with the job posting/description and indicate that there are no negotiations. You’ll save time and energy too, from not interviewing candidates who want more than you have budgeted for the job.

    I wonder how employers would like it if I got their personal, financial and other information, including the names and contact information for their references, and randomly posted it online and on cloud without taking any security measures, or worse, gave it to third parties without restrictions, who then sold that information….I’m sure that employers wouldn’t like it at all, so why they think it is okay to play fast and loose with candidates’ information (and their references’ information) baffles me.

    The hiring process has truly entered the Twilight Zone, and it seems to be run by zombies.