Alarming numbers of resumes contain outright lies or misleading, weasel words. JULIE MIDDLETON reports.

True story: Once upon a time, not that long ago and in a certain New Zealand city of about one million people, two people were shortlisted for a top-flight, juicily paid general manager's job.

It was neck-and-neck between the two contenders. They both claimed the required degrees and qualifications. The truth was, however, that only one had them.

But the other had a talent for lying, and a certain aggression overlaid by abundant charm. And despite performing puzzlingly poorly on psychometric tests, Charming Man got the job. His salary tripled overnight. Former colleagues were surprised.

How did he get away with it? Because an executive search agency respected Charming Man's request that his current employer not be contacted.

And it did not check to see whether he really had a Massey degree and a Canterbury business diploma. Minor effort would have revealed that he had spent just one year, part-time, at a university.

How was the ruse uncovered? Word got back to CM's colleagues that he had exaggerated his qualifications, his role and the size of his current employer.

CM's former boss takes up the story: "The agency was specifically told not to check with the current employer - me - for a reference, so they did not.

"I would have spilled the beans on the false claims. It's fraud. I knew his CV. He did one year at university, and I helped him with the fees.

"The whole thing was based on cheating. He didn't get the job with integrity. The honest applicant was cheated out of what would have been rightfully and honestly his appointment."

The agency and the company, which is big enough to be mortified, did eventually discover the truth. But it did nothing, and Charming Man is still an employee.

But what makes this story more alarming is that it is not unique.

Candidates know that agencies do not always check their details, says consultant Anna Sage, and that some take shortcuts to maximise their return on a "sale".

There is no research specific to New Zealand, but a survey of 7000 resumes by American search company Christian and Timbers last September found that 23 per cent of executives misrepresented accomplishments to gain an edge.

A month earlier, a British Mori opinion poll of 1045 people revealed that more than one in five of the country's workers admitted supplying misleading information when applying for a job.

A survey of 1500 companies by British credit reference agency Experian found that 37 per cent of employers had discovered people lying about previous experience, 21 per cent about university qualifications and 19 per cent about previous salary.

History might have written differently had some high-profile CV cheats been busted earlier: perjuring peer Jeffrey Archer's CV intimated attendance at Wellington College in Berkshire and Oxford University.

That should have been the less distinguished Wellington School in Somerset, and his attendance at Oxford was part of a postgraduate education diploma for which he was not eligible, never having obtained his first degree.

Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who killed Barings Bank, lied about his qualifications on his CV.

Psychologist Iain McCormick likens the risk-taking in CV cheating to random police breath tests. The penalties are high for drink-driving - but only if you are caught.

"You'll take the risk even if the punishment is high - and that's what happens with CVs," he says.

Carry out a straw poll of New Zealand recruiters, and lies about qualifications are followed frequently by inflated salaries, stretched dates to cover employment gaps, enhanced job titles, invented employers and exaggerated job responsibilities and achievements.

"It's tempting to exaggerate the truth or lie as the recruitment manager ... usually makes a determination whether or not you are qualified for the job in about 60 seconds," says New Plymouth PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultant Lisa Hermann.

Auckland headhunter John Peebles says people are audacious enough to claim degrees when they have never been to university.

And the cheats often try it on by using a sentence which, while technically correct (for example, Massey BA, 1995), obscures the fact that they attended for one year, or even just enrolled for a year.

Peebles says he views every CV with cynicism. Too many recruiters, he says, see them as some sort of official oracle, as pure and pristine in content as in presentation.

But there are few excuses for not checking details, says Peebles. Universities confirm details in the public domain - full name, course and year of graduation, as published in convocation booklets - if requested. Most do not charge.

And there are more reasons than ever to scrutinise solidly as the internet-based fake-degree industry burgeons.

Peebles says he gets fake certificates across his desk, mainly international degrees from mainstream universities.

Following the lead of British counterparts, who pursued one British fake-degree site into extinction, Otago, Canterbury, Massey and Auckland universities are considering legal advice over others.

Massey vice-chancellor James McWha says some of the fake certificates cost $620 - or $990 with an "academic transcript" - and says it is hard to believe people are paying that sort of cash for the "fun" promoters promise.

If a candidate who becomes a staff member is found to have lied, companies can, in the main, dismiss them. Most companies view CV cheating as serious misconduct, and employment tribunals tend to support this.

They have said in several cases that although job-hunters do not need to tell employers every last thing about themselves, what is reported must be truthful.

Law professor Bill Hodge says: "If you put it on your CV, it's fair game to check."

Employers cannot continue to trust a staffer who has lied.

In past cases, two politically active university graduates who swapped university study for unskilled work on their CVs were dismissed, a move a tribunal supported.

So where does the Privacy Act fit in? It allows exceptions, and one of them is when permission has been given for checks, says Bob Stevens, a North Shore barrister specialising in privacy law.

"You can certainly put on application forms something that might apparently offer a blanket authority ... to make inquiries into any aspect of your CV."

But that would not include things that were not related to the job, such as ringing up relatives for warts-and-all commentary.

Employers need to make it clear what they wish to check and gain permission. If an applicant refuses, alarm bells should ring.

"The act doesn't stop an agent making proper inquiries, but it requires them to be straightforward and open about the inquiries they are going to make," says Stevens.

The last word goes to someone who inherited Charming Man as a boss and later joined an exodus of disillusioned staff.

"The impact on staff of this fellow's management style was exceptionally high staff turnover, low morale, poor performance and contempt from his far better-qualified staff - all others in the firm were graduates.

"The HR manager left the firm in disgust. You know a company by the people it keeps."

* Next week: Interview fibbers - how to read body language so you can catch them out.