Cheaters: Inside IT Certification Fraud

For the first time ever, companies that develop and administer IT certification exams are working together to combat a problem that has largely been swept under the rug for years: certification fraud.

A group of IT hardware and software vendors, independent certifying agencies, test centers and others have formed the IT Certification Council (ITCC). The goal is to share knowledge and resources to combat and prevent fraud, which is threatening to undermine the value of IT certification. (See Musthaler's opinion on how cert cheating can ruin your career.)

ITCC chairman Bill Horzempa, who is also director of Global Certification and Partner Education Development for HP, says, "Most of the members of this council have talked privately with one another about the cheating problem. We realized that this isn't just an HP problem, or a Cisco or Microsoft problem. Certification cheating affects the vendors, yes, but it also hurts individual IT professionals and the companies that employ or contract them. In effect, cheating creates a loss of confidence in the ability of the IT profession to solve business problems."

Chuck Cooper, ITCC vice chairman and program director, IBM Certification Programs Skills Enablement, Systems and Technology Group, calls certification fraud "an annoying pain that always seems to be there. It's a cloud hanging over us. It doesn't go away on its own."

Indeed, fraud in the IT certification industry is nothing new; the problem has been around for years. However, new techniques for analyzing test scores are making it easier to evaluate the scope of the problem. For example, test security company Caveon estimates that 15% to 25% of IT certification exams show some aberration, which can be an indication of cheating.

Ignoring the problem has only allowed it to get worse. All one has to do is Google the search term "MCSE study aids" and thousands of sites pop up where a student can purchase so-called test preparation materials – most of which are not authorized or recommended by Microsoft, the owner of the MCSE certification.

Though the documents are marketed as "study materials," the information often consists of stolen test questions and answers. Of course, Microsoft isn't the only company whose materials have been compromised. Content for virtually any IT certification exam can be found online.

The Impact of Certification Fraud

Certification cheating has ramifications for everyone, including the individuals who pursue certification; the employers who hire them; the companies that contract for IT solutions and services; the IT vendors who manufacture and sell IT products and solutions; the certifying companies and agencies; and more broadly, the general public.

The individual who cheats is taking a risk with his career. If students are found to be cheating, they can face a range of consequences, such as negation of their test results; loss or denial of certifications; banishment from a certification program; or notification to his employer. Each certifying agency sets its own security policy which should be understood before a candidate undergoes the certification process.

Employers also suffer when individuals cheat on certification and are not truly qualified for a job. "If employers aren't getting quality work out of their employees, they are being defrauded," according to Taylor Ripley, chief security officer, CertGuard. "Employers need to know they are getting what they ask for."

Ripley says the companies that are most likely to suffer damage from certification fraud are the smaller size companies that don't have a Human Resources department to help weed out people who can't do a job. "These companies are forced to rely on certifications to judge a person's qualifications. A small company could lose money or business if an unqualified person screws up," Ripley says.

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