As unemployment continues to hover just below 10 percent, some people have found steady work peddling phony job opportunities. Paycheck-promising schemes have consistently rated among the top scams for the past two years, and many experts predict the trend will continue.
"A lot of people are desperate for work and may be grasping for any job, which creates a great opportunity for scammers," says Stephen A. Cox of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB).
David Vladeck of the Federal Trade Commission warns that "scammers advertise jobs exactly where legitimate employers do — on popular websites, in the classifieds, and even on TV." His agency launched a crackdown on employment cons this year.
How to spot the bogus opportunities?
Here are six red flags that signal trouble ahead:
- Requests for money upfront. The most common scheme, according to the BBB, is a demand that applicants pay for a "background check." Legitimate companies do their own screening of applicants, at their own expense. Another ruse is asking for an upfront fee for a job-placement headhunter.
- Demands for your credit report. Legitimate employers often seek credit histories but don't ask applicants to do the legwork. If you're told to get your report through a particular website, the real purpose may be to glean personal information for identity theft. Also, beware of any requests for bank account or credit card information. As for your Social Security number, be prepared to disclose it on a real job application — one you personally turn in at a legitimate place of business — but you should never reveal it in response to an online or telephone request.
- Language designed to lure. "Easy" money working from home? "No experience needed?" So why are they advertising, and not already flooded with applicants? The same goes for too-good-to-be-true pay offers. Check actual pay ranges for various occupations at Salary.com or Paywizard.org. Although a realistic salary quote is no guarantee a job is real, the smart money is that industry-topping promises are bogus.
- Scammer grammar. Employment e-mails that contain grammatical and spelling errors are likely the work of overseas fraudsters who are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement. Real employers use college-educated personnel reps, or at least a dictionary.
- Forwarding follies. You receive a check, along with an explanation that you can keep some of the money if you forward the rest to someone else. Beware: The check you deposit is fraudulent, and ultimately won't be credited to your account. Meanwhile, the funds you forward are gone forever.
Similar is the notorious "reshipping scam," in which you're promised payment for forwarding merchandise. But the goods you receive to send on have been stolen or purchased with stolen credit cards, and the thief is using you to screen his location. You could face criminal charges if you take part.
- Fake or appropriated names. Scammers often steal the names and logos of legitimate companies for phony postings on job boards. To be safe, check the company's own website; in most cases, bona fide vacancies will also be listed there. Do your own typing to reach the company's site — don't click on links in e-mails or websites, as they may take you to counterfeit sites or infect your computer with a virus.
Fraudsters also use made-up company names, so confirm the names with an Internet search, at bbb.org, or at business directories such as Dun & Bradstreet and Hoovers.com. Avoid any firm that uses a post office box as its corporate address or can be reached only by leaving a message on an answering machine or with a call center operator.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).