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In the world of HR, the more tech-savvy are likely to conduct a few Google or LinkedIn searches of shortlisted candidates, in an attempt to get more insight into their experience, skillset and even their character.

What many might not be aware of is that this constitutes OSINT investigation methodology that can be taught and honed further, as well as automated and fine-tuned using specialised tools – to return an even bigger wealth of information to inform hiring-related decision-making.

There are many more tools than just these two as well, and learning about them can give an HR professional the edge over the competition when it comes to background checks and evaluating the potential of a candidate. 

What is OSINT?

The acronym OSINT stands for Open Source Intelligence. This refers to open, overt sources rather than open-source software. Essentially, OSINT tools allow HR professionals to source valuable information about someone’s prior employment, academic background, status in the industry, interests, etc. from public databases. 

In its simplest form, this can mean googling a candidate’s full name or email, or searching for them on Google Scholar if they claim to be published in academic journals. This is something many already do intuitively as part of background checks when shortlisting candidates, but once the methodology is augmented using techniques such as reverse email lookup, it can deliver a wealth of information sourced from social media and public databases. Such a strategy allows us to expand data sources to more than a mere handful, utilise additional tools, as well as, for more advanced users, automate the process.

Google hacking for background searches

Hubspot estimates an average of 5.6 billion Google searches conducted every day. Skilled Googlers of all descriptions use search operators to fine-tune and greatly improve results. From quotation marks for exact-match searches to site: searches to search within a website, there are dozens of different ways to search smarter using search syntax, as well as the options on Google Advanced Search. These techniques are sometimes called “Google hacking” or “googleDorking” and can return much richer results. 

Then, there are alternative web search engines, including the privacy-focused DuckDuckGo, Yahoo search, the oldest still popular search engine first introduced in 1995, and Microsoft’s Bing – which comes in second in popularity, with approximately 5.50% of the market share.

In-depth searches on search engines can also help catch candidates who lie about their past experience. According to research by OfficeTeam, 46% of workers admit they know someone who has lied on their resume, with past employment being by far the most common lie, at 76%. Younger age groups scored higher in knowing professionals who lied. 

Using email addresses and social media

In addition to platforms based around employment and skills, such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor and portfolio and freelancer websites, social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can provide additional information about a candidate’s achievements, reputation, interests or even the way they conduct themselves. There are also data enrichment automation platforms, which aggregate the social media profiles associated with a candidate, for purposes of verification through email addresses to confirm a candidate is who they say they are or for in-depth background screening. They will return a detailed breakdown of someone’s online activity and everything that can be gleaned from it – and have the potential to help avoid those candidates whose publicly expressed opinions are unsavoury and can get their employer into legal or reputational trouble

Then come those tools that tell us very specific things, which can be combined with known information to reach conclusions. One example that’s useful to HR officers in more ways than one is Glassdoor. In addition to a clearer, more objective evaluation of the candidate’s previous workplace environment (and potentially even their own contribution from what existing reviews reveal), one can even find information about a candidate’s previous or current salary. 

Many such tools are readily available, while some brands provide free versions of their social media-focused intelligence gathering platforms. Depending on each HR Manager’s workload and circumstances, there might arise a need for faster, automated methods to source information about candidates available online. These include subscription services such as InfoTracer, Snovio, the US-specific BeenVerified, and SEON. 

Interpreting the findings

Interpretation of the results varies by sector, team and individual HR professional. A 2018 survey by CareerBuilder gives some indication of what the findings tend to mean for others. 

Employers and hiring managers use OSINT methods to find out:

  • Whether candidates have an online presence (47% won’t hire them without one)
  • Additional proof of their employment and education 
  • If candidates conduct themselves professionally online (50% are looking for this)
  • What others, including colleagues, say about the candidate 
  • Whether the candidate posts insightful and authoritative content related to their sector
  • If the candidate posts inappropriate and discriminatory content in public

Manual, automated, passive or active, OSINT methods are used across a multitude of sectors for better decision-making and for the prevention of fraud and security risks. Offering a wealth of information, they can provide secondary verification of a candidate’s suitability – or red flags. This can confirm their background or give a general feel for whether they would fit in with the company’s culture or, alternatively, be a liability. 

Employee retention is labelled as the biggest challenge faced by HR teams according to a 2019 report by Work Institute, at 47% of respondents. Finding the right match is key, and OSINT can help.

About the Author

Gergo Varga has been fighting online fraud since 2009 at various companies – even co-founding his own one, enbrite.ly. He’s the author of the Fraud Prevention Guide for Dummies – SEON Special edition. He currently works as the Senior Content Manager / Evangelist at SEON, using his industry knowledge to keep marketing sharp, communicating between the different departments to understand what’s happening on the frontlines of fraud detection. He lives in Budapest, Hungary, and is an avid reader of philosophy and history.