En español | Forty-eight-year-old Stephen Somers, a freelance artist in Wisconsin, got an unsolicited email in May asking if he was interested in a job designing characters for an online game company. It was like a lucrative project he had completed for a California video game company, and he thought the new opportunity was good karma. “I was trying to find something similar,” says Somers, who lives outside Milwaukee. He thought his prospective new employer might have gotten his email from LinkedIn, a popular networking site, or ArtStation, where artists post portfolios online.
Somers searched his new gig online and found nothing amiss.
Little did he suspect that the pandemic has meant boom times for crooks dangling fake job offers in front of idled workers, some desperate to make ends meet.
Pounding the keyboard for work
Even before COVID-19, fewer people were pounding the pavement for work — they were more apt to be pounding keyboards — since so much of applying for employment has migrated online. Job scams are a global nightmare, with victim losses in the U.S. and Canada estimated at more than $2 billion annually.
Company logos, identities stolen
Many legitimate businesses have had their identities and logos hijacked by criminals masquerading as employers. It was reported this year that bad actors used a process called “scraping” to obtain the publicly viewable data of more than half a billion LinkedIn users. While the “scrape” did not disgorge sensitive data like Social Security numbers, the haul included user IDs, names, job titles, emails and phone numbers, and some of that information is being sold to hackers to create more convincing phishing attacks, Fortune magazine said. LinkedIn did not respond to a request for comment for this story but features prevention tips online. (See sidebar.)
Somers, the artist, says when he “interviewed” by email with the scammers, they seemed to know a lot about his work. After he accepted the “job,” he was told that his employer would buy him a new computer, and he received a digital image of a $2,400 check, which he deposited into his bank account. He was told to buy Apple gift cards and send the redemption codes to a computer sales company. A sharp-eyed clerk at Walgreens clerk refused to sell him more than one $500 card, saying it seemed like a scam, but he didn't believe her.
Second thoughts sink in
Soon he had second thoughts. The first email to him about the opportunity came from Elizbeth, an odd spelling. And when he told his new “boss” that he had purchased only one $500 card, he was instructed to go to other stores to get enough cards to cover the cost of the computer. He refused. The check proved to be fake, and fortunately he never gave away the redemption codes for the $500 card he purchased. Next he complained to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Better Business Bureau.
Estimate: $2 billion a year lost to job scams
A Better Business Bureau study found employment scams were the most likely type of fraud to bilk victims out of money in 2018 and 2019, with an estimated 14 million people exposed to such frauds and more than $2 billion a year lost, the BBB said. People 25 to 54 years old most often were the victims, with individual losses of between $1,000 and $1,600. People 65 and older on average lost $1,550.
In October, Andy Thompson, a columnist for the Appleton Post Crescent in Wisconsin, told readers that he was recruited to manage a steel company's accounts receivable for $85,000 a year plus commission. “Never mind that I know as much about accounts receivable as I do about quantum physics. Or that I wasn't looking for a job,” wrote Thompson, who died in March at age 63.
AARP Helpline fields complaints
Since early 2020, AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, has heard about a dozen complaints of LinkedIn scams. Some were job scams that mentioned LinkedIn; others were romance or investment scams originating on the platform.
One man called to report being contacted through LinkedIn last June about a cryptocurrency deal. He put in $25,000 and urged friends to give it a go. All lost their money. “I’m seeing a therapist — this has ruined my life,” he said.
Another caller was a woman entangled in a “secret shopper” job scam that cost her big bucks. She was sent checks totaling $4,856 and purchased gift cards for a scammer who purportedly knew her from LinkedIn. The checks, of course, were worthless.
At the urging of the FTC, colleges have been warning students about job scams. A student at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California, who was out of work due to the pandemic, fell prey after receiving an email that appeared to be from the student employment office. She didn't land a job, and lost $2,850.
Outside the U.S., news accounts detail job scams in places including the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and Thailand. A survey in the U.K. in April found nearly 3 in 4 job seekers applied for phony jobs during the pandemic.
The FTC urges job hunters to search a prospective employer online with the words “scam,” “review” or “complaint.” Never pay for the promise of a job; and if you're sent a check by a potential employer, know it may not be real, even if your bank accepts it for deposit. Talk to a trusted person about an opportunity, since you'll get advice and time to think things over.
9 Ways to Avoid Job Scams
Here are excerpts from LinkedIn on how to avoid employment scams.
1. Be wary of personal email addresses
Company names and logos can be stolen. A legitimate recruiter will contact you using a business email, not a Gmail or Yahoo account. Search the person's name on LinkedIn and view first-degree connections to see if they are connected to other company employees.
2. Never pay to land a job
Legitimate employers will never ask you to pay starting costs, fees, inventory or anything else.
3. Never agree to transfer money
In almost all cases, the money is stolen.
4. Use trusted sites
Sites such as LinkedIn, Indeed and Glassdoor have screening processes, but these aren't foolproof — so keep your guard up.
5. Do not give away bank account, PayPal account or credit card information
Bank-routing information is for direct deposits after you've met an employer in person. If applying for remote work, wait for a signed offer.
6. Scrutinize job postings
Look for typos, errors and terms like “wire transfer."
7. Before applying, research a company
Check the company's website and social media; search Google for news articles.
8. Avoid job postings for “previously undisclosed” federal jobs
Federal jobs are on usajobs.gov. There's no cost to have a look.
9. Take extra precautions when applying for remote jobs
Because you will not be meeting a company official in person, verify the company's online presence for legitimacy.
Marie Rohde is a writer who formerly worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Her byline also has appeared in Bloomberg News, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and Milwaukee magazine.