Pirates, cheats and IT certs

Some ne'er-do-wells steal test questions and answers, and cheaters buy that information, share answers in chat rooms, pay other people to take tests for them and bring a range of technologies and techniques into test centers to gain an edge.

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It didn't take long for the test center proctor to realize something was amiss. One group of people clearly stood out from the rest of the candidates taking a popular IT certification exam. They sat rigidly in their chairs, hardly moving at all, and they proceeded through the questions at a pace of six items per minute, well above the norm of one to two questions per minute. All scored well above the minimum needed to pass the test.

After the testing concluded, the test center called in Caveon LLC, a consultancy that specializes in test security, including data forensics, to review the situation. "At first blush it looks like by using a Bluetooth speaker and a video camera they were collaborating with a subject-matter expert offsite," says Caveon's vice president Steve Addicott.

Such equipment is readily available online at sites like the aptly named spycheatstuff.com. Aspiring cheaters can buy wireless speakers that fit deep inside the ear canal, where they can't easily be seen, as well as tiny cameras that are simple to hide. The suspected cheaters in this case were most likely sitting still to give their hidden cameras a clear video image of the screen, Addicott says. The review of that particular case is still ongoing.

Cheating is trending

IT certifications have become a primary route to both salary premiums and career advancement, according to a recent Foote Partners report. So it's no surprise that, as the popularity of certifications has grown, so has cheating. "Jobs and careers are at stake here, so people will attempt all sorts of things," says Matthew Poyiadgi, vice president of Pearson Education Inc.'s Pearson VUE business unit, which manages 5,100 test centers worldwide and counts the IT certification program manager CompTIA among its clients.

And while CompTIA estimates that the level of cheating on IT certification exams is less than 5%, industry insiders say the problem is growing and that keeping up with the cheats requires constant vigilance.

So far, cheating doesn't appear to have devalued most IT certifications in the eyes of hiring managers. For the 309 IT certifications that Foote Partners tracks, the average pay premium across 2,600 surveyed companies has gone up for the last four consecutive quarters, says CEO David Foote.

While there's no way to definitively know if a prospective hire has cheated to obtain an IT certification, employers can and should check with the certification body to make sure the person actually attained it. "Trust, but verify," says Addicott.

For the most part, he adds, hiring managers can trust that verified IT certifications were legitimately earned."Just a few rotten apples have cast doubt on the qualifications of individuals in the IT profession," he says. But, he adds, it is possible that a few individuals have benefitted from the live exam content available online and used that to gain a higher score on an exam. So an IT certification should only be one part of the hiring decision.

Other steps include checking references, reviewing employment history and asking a few carefully crafted questions designed to gauge whether the candidate really knows his or her stuff.

Where the cert developers fit in

Developers of IT certification programs, such as Microsoft and CompTIA, contract with Prometric, Pearson VUE and other independent test centers that administer and proctor tests worldwide on their behalf. These businesses also provide training services, and so must have a secure firewall between the testing and training sides of the business.

IT certification bodies and test center operators are engaged in an arms race with pirates who steal test questions and answers, and with cheaters who buy that information, share answers in chat rooms, pay "proxies" (people who will to take tests for them) and bring a range of technologies and techniques into test centers to gain an edge. IT certification organizations, worried about degradation of their credentials, are striking back by turning to more sophisticated methods to catch cheaters and mitigate piracy. And cheaters who get caught increasingly face more than just a slap on the wrist.

Even people who cheat and don't get caught during the exam still have reason to worry. Pearson VUE records every session to digital video and reviews it after the fact. Recently, scrutiny of unusual head movements tipped off the team that one test taker had an embedded camera in his glasses. "The way people are cheating is changing. They're using technology more," Poyiadgi says.

But the most common ways people try to cheat aren't always the most high-tech, says Shelby Grieve, Microsoft's director of professional certifications including the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert and Microsoft Technology Associate. "The trend has moved from taking exam answers into a testing center to more passive methods of cheating, such as using 'brain-dump' sites and proxy testing services," she says.

Grieve says Microsoft has caught candidates who colluded online through question and answer sharing, as well as people who used low-tech approaches such as copying off other peoples' exams, texting answers and even modifying someone else's printed score report.

Brain-dump sites don't just provide a place where users can share answers, says Caveon's Addicott. "These websites aggressively sell pirated test content and package it as test prep materials -- and they guarantee that you'll pass. It's a real problem with IT certifications," he says. Most of these sites are based in Asia, where it's more difficult to shut down the sites and prosecute the offenders. Overseas test center franchises with lax controls have been a source for test theft and cheating because tests and answer keys are typically always downloaded and stored at each location, giving cheaters easier access, he adds.

"The single biggest factor in how much cheating you have is if you test internationally, and IT certification programs are virtually all international programs," says John Fremer, president of Caveon's Consulting Services group.

Next section: Rise of the hired gun

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