Job scams increased dramatically during the pandemic––and they’re expected to flourish as America gets back to work.

More than 16,000 people reported being victims of employment scams to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) last year, with losses totaling $62 million.

Listen to audio highlights of the story below:

“With millions of people looking for work and so many people wanting to work from home, the door is open to even more job scams,” said Steven Baker, the BBB’s international investigations specialist, who authored a new study on job scams.

A review of reports to the BBB Scam Tracker shows that the scammers appear to target those 25-54 years old, but older victims tend to lose more money. While the overall median loss is $1,000, the median loss for those 65 and older is $2,299.

Victims of job scams may lose more than money. They often give their personally identifiable information (PII), such as bank account information and Social Security numbers, to the identity thieves.

This PII can be used for “any number of nefarious purposes, including taking over the victims’ accounts, opening new financial accounts, or using the victims’ identity for another deception scam (such as obtaining fake driver’s licenses or passports,” the FBI warns.

New Twists to an Old Scam

Job scams have been an ongoing problem––in good economic times and bad––but by going digital, the fraudsters are able to snag more victims and do more damage.

“Con artists used to place classified ads looking for people to stuff envelopes at home and get charged a few bucks for jobs that didn’t really exist,” Baker told Checkbook. “Now, they advertise jobs on the web and social media, or reach out to those who have posted resumes on job boards.”

Marie, who shared her story with the BBB, put her resume on a job board for freelance work and was contacted by Adam, who said he was with a healthcare company in San Francisco. After a short Skype messenger interview, Adam hired Marie to do data entry from her home for $37 an hour.

But there was a catch: Marie would need a new iPhone with special programming that she could buy at a discount from a company vendor. The $400, which she sent via Zelle, would be reimbursed, Adam promised.

The next day, when Marie was told she also needed to buy a special monitor and laptop, she grew suspicious, did some digging, and found that Adam was an imposter who did not work for the healthcare company. The iPhone never arrived, and Marie is out the $400 she sent the scammers.

“Victims often report that they’ve applied for jobs online, so they believe the contact is a result of that effort,” Baker said. “They often get a cursory interview on Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet with an imposter pretending to be with human resources, a department manager, or recruiter.”

When you’re “hired”––as everyone is with these scams––the bogus employer will ask for a variety of personal information that enables them to commit identity theft. A common ruse is to ask for your bank account information to direct deposit your pay.

Job Scams Come in Various Flavors

Fraudsters pretend to hire people for all sorts of non-existent jobs. In many cases, the “new employee” is sent a check to buy office equipment from specific companies run by the scammers. The check is bogus, but the money shows up in the victim’s account in a day or two, as required by federal banking regulations, so it appears to be legitimate.

Assuming the money is in their account, the new employee buys the equipment as instructed, but it never arrives. Weeks later, once the bogus check makes its way through the banking system and is found to be counterfeit, the bank recovers that money from the victim’s account.

Many secret-shopper job scams involve fake checks. Newly hired mystery shoppers are sent checks and directed to deposit it in their bank account, and then use the money for their first outing.

One common assignment is to take most of the money and make a transfer via Western Union or MoneyGram, write a review of the process, and keep the remainder of the money for yourself. Another is to buy gift cards, supply the scammers with the numbers on the back of the cards, and file a report.

At the time, the victims don’t realize they’re using their own money for these mystery shopping assignments; something they discover when the fake checks bounce.

Some fraudsters use certified checks because people assume they must be real. In fact, certified checks are easy to counterfeit.

Red Flag: Legitimate companies do hire mystery shoppers, but they never send checks or money orders that need to be used for the assignment.

More Info: The FTC has tips on how to avoid Mystery Shopper Scams and Fake Check Scams.

The Most Common Job Scam: Reshipping Packages

Two-thirds of all job scams (65 percent) reported to the BBB Scam Tracker involve reshipping goods for criminals. The victims think they’ve landed a nice work-at-home job—until they don’t get paid.

Here’s what’s really going on: Fraudsters who use stolen credit and debit card numbers to buy expensive merchandise don’t want the packages sent to them. If they’re outside the country, as many are, U.S. retailers won’t ship to them. So, they hire people in the U.S. to receive the packages, repackage them, and resend them out of the country. By doing this, even unknowingly, the intermediary becomes part of their criminal enterprise, and there could be legal consequences.

Red Flag: Beware of jobs that involve sending or receiving packages. Ask yourself, what legitimate company would send packages to you in somebody else’s name, and ask you to ship them out of the country?

More Info: The U.S. Postal Inspection Service has a series of videos explaining work-from-home scams and reshipping schemes.

When You Need A Job, You Want to Believe

Elana, a retired Air Force nurse who lives in Illinois, lost $1,577 to a job scam. It started with a text message from Henry, who said he worked for an advertising company that would pay Elana $400 a week to drive around with an advertising wrap on her car. It sounded like easy money, so Elana said yes.

A few days later, Elana received a “starter check” for $1,957. She deposited the check in her personal bank account, as Henry instructed, and sent back $1,597 via CashApp to serve as a “refundable deposit” should there be any damage to the wrap.

The wrap never arrived, and once the bank spotted the counterfeit check Elana had unknowingly deposited, they withdrew the money from her account.

“I was furious,” Elana told Checkbook. “I felt vulnerable and violated; like someone came into my house and stole something.”

Looking back, Elana realizes there were various warning signs. She never really spoke to Henry; all communications were via text message. Henry would never tell her what the wrap was advertising. And, she recalled, he pressured her with dozens of text messages in one day to deposit the check.

More Info: The BBB has information on how to spot and avoid car wrap scams.

Protect Yourself

It’s not always easy to spot a job scam as it’s happening. These imposters know how to bait the trap to make you follow their instructions. Look for these warning signs:

  • A job posting appears on job boards, but not the company’s website. That rarely happens. For instance, Amazon, a favorite for imposters, posts all job opportunities at amazon.jobs. “Don't respond to employment opportunities from cold-callers, over email, or on websites claiming to be affiliated with Amazon,” the company warns.
  • You are contacted through non-company email domains. Remember, these can be spoofed. Imposters often use names and titles of real people at legitimate companies.
  • The job interview is done electronically, but you never see the person doing the interview. The crooks don’t want you to see their faces, so there’s always a reason why the video isn’t working on their end.
  • You are required to pay an application or processing fee. Legitimate employers never ask you to pay to get a job.
  • You must buy start-up equipment from the company.
  • You are asked to provide your credit card information.
  • You’re sent a check or money order and told to deposit it, then send some of that money back to the company or its representative; or buy gift cards and provide the numbers on the card.   

You need to do some due diligence before accepting a job offer, especially when you haven’t had an in-person interview at the company office. During the global COVID-19 pandemic, many interviews are being conducted via video teleconferencing. Scammers are wise to this and are exploiting it.

The Federal Trade Commission suggests doing an online search. Look up the name of the company or the person who’s hiring you, plus the words “scam,” “review,” or “complaint.” You might find out they’ve scammed other people.

If nothing turns up, talk to someone you trust. Describe the offer, and see how they respond. This slows down the process––crooks always try to rush their victims––and gives you time to think before you act.

Warning: The BBB found many online resumes with driver’s license numbers, birthdates, and even Social Security numbers. This sensitive personal information should never be on a resume.

If you’ve been the victim of a job scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, and the BBB Scam Tracker. Chances are you won’t get your money back, but this is how the authorities are able to track down the crooks.

Looking for a Job?

CareerOneStop, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, lists hundreds of thousands of jobs. It also links to employment and training programs in each state. USAJobs.gov is the federal government’s official site with job openings nationwide.

 




Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.