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For those needing employment, the tempting bait phrases job scammers use can be hard to ignore. Be your own boss. Make money from home on your schedule. Great pay for easy work. Start now: no experience necessary! Sadly, if it looks too good to be true, it almost always is.
Job scams are a form of advance-fee fraud where scammers posing as recruiters or employers offer attractive employment opportunities that require job seekers to pay a fee or provide personal information upfront. Job scammers cleverly pose as legitimate companies and employers through job sites and social media while attempting to coerce victims into sending money, cashing fake checks, reshipping stolen merchandise, and disclosing sensitive personal data.
Fake job scams spiked during and after the COVID-19 pandemic when many people lost jobs and wanted to work from home. Today, employment-related fraud is a serious problem, as the Better Business Bureau (BBB) estimates 14 million job seekers are exposed to employment fraud, with 2 billion in direct losses every year. Criminals scammed Americans out of 94 million dollars with fraudulent business and job opportunity fraud in the second quarter of 2022 alone.
For modern job seekers, avoiding the pitfalls of job scams starts by learning how to recognize the various types of employment-related fraud common today.
Red flags of a scam
Tips to avoid job scams
What to do if you're scammed
Job scams FAQ
8 most common job scams
Job scams exist in many forms, but most target your money and personal information. Some scams attempt to cast you as an unknowing actor in criminal activity like shipping stolen merchandise or money laundering. Below are some of today's most common scams to watch out for during your job search.
Most (65%) of job scams reported to the BBB involve reshipping stolen merchandise. Scammers will post job listings for personal assistants or quality-control managers to receive goods (usually high-priced stolen items) at their homes and reship them to end users with the promise of a paycheck after making a certain number of shipments.
The paycheck never arrives, but usually law enforcement does, ready to deliver criminal charges for the victim's unknowing involvement in a reshipping scam.
Even worse, if you disclose any sensitive information like your Social Security number or bank account information, criminals can use it to open credit cards in your name to purchase more merchandise.
Fraudsters offer enterprising individuals the opportunity to buy brand-name products at discounted prices that the individual can then resale for a quick profit. The unsuspecting victim sends the scammers money up front to pay for the goods and then sadly never receives the products.
3. Money mule
Anyone can become a "mule" target for fraudsters who run job postings for virtual personal assistants in this fake check scam.
Once hired, the victims are immediately sent a check with instructions to forward a large chunk of the money to a third party. Victims are told to keep a small amount from the same check for future job-related expenses or compensation.
The check usually bounces, and the victim is responsible for reimbursing the bank for the lost funds. Even if the check is good, the victim possibly helped criminals launder money and could face fines or jail time.
4. Career consulting or staffing agency
Scammers reach out via email or phone, posing as career advisors recommending purchasing a training course or certification class to boost chances of landing a job. The scammers demand payment up front and, after receiving the money, typically vanish along with the funds. The victim never receives the course or services they paid for.
Alternatively, crooks pose as a staffing agency promising to find the victim's dream gig for a nominal fee. The scammers receive the money, and the victim remains with nothing but the hope of landing a job that never existed.
5. Personal data mining
Scammers seeking your personal information may combine data mining with other employment scams to capture a victim's personal information for identity theft.
Usually, these info-mining scams use social engineering tactics or fraudulent job offers requiring no experience where the victim can start immediately. The scammer's objective is to get the victim "hired" fast and then obtain personal financial information under the guise of payment purposes.
Another twist on this employment scam is that fraudsters require job candidates to fill out extensive applications requesting personal and financial details that no potential employer should request before hiring.
6. Fake reimbursement
Fake reimbursement job scams usually offer employment in a service role such as a housekeeper, elderly caregiver, nanny, or tutor. Upon hiring, victims are required to immediately purchase equipment or tools necessary for the job with the promise of future reimbursement.
Some scammers keep the money and never send the equipment, while others send a fraudulent check for more than the cost of the equipment with instructions to send the extra money to a third party. If the victim obliges, they end up paying the third party with their own money and being responsible for covering any further losses when the bank discovers the bad check.
7. Secret shopper
The secret shopper hoax is the most common job scam involving the receipt of fake checks. Scammers run ads claiming to need secret shoppers and then send checks to the new hires to cover the cost of buying goods. The fraudsters instruct the new employees to send a large chunk of the check to a third party while keeping the rest as their payment. Of course, the check bounces, and the newly hired secret shopper takes a hit for the total amount when the bank demands reimbursement.
These scams are frequently for secret shopping at a Walmart MoneyGram counter, available in every U.S. Walmart location. However, Walmart states it never does business with companies that hire mystery shoppers, nor does it hire its own mystery shoppers.
8. Government or postal jobs
With this job scam, the fraudsters pose as a government agency and request a fee to submit an employment application or for study materials to help obtain a higher score on a job qualification aptitude test. Once again, the victim is defrauded and never receives an application or test prep materials as promised for their money.
Remember that no government or postal job requires a fee to apply, and any financial demand during this process should throw up red flags for a job seeker. Find and apply for a job with the federal government at USAJobs.gov, or visit usps.com/employment to find jobs with the U.S. Postal Service.
Red flags of a scam
Job scammers are creative and often go to great lengths to pose as a real company with legitimate job opportunities. They cleverly use inviting and reassuring phrases to spark interest and mitigate suspicion.
However, there are warning signs to keep in mind when identifying and avoiding common employment scams. Always be wary if:
- The employer asks for upfront money to pay for applications, training, or equipment.
- The job offer sounds too good to be true, with lavish promises including lots of money for easy work, being your own boss, and working from the comfort of your couch.
- The employer doesn't request your resume or require experience, and you can start right away.
- The employer requests detailed personal and financial information before you're hired.
- The employer mentions a check to purchase anything for the job, to reimburse for expenditures, or to forward to a third party.
- The position involves receiving and reshipping anything to a third party.
- The job ad or any correspondence from the employer is sloppy, with frequent misspellings and grammatical errors or an abundance of exclamation points.
- The employer eagerly contacts you from a non-company email address or phone number, and they don't have existing profiles on company websites or job boards.
- The employer's online job ads stand alone on job boards or internet forums without a mention on the company's website.
- The job interviews (if they exist at all) aren't in person or on a secure video call but rather on a messaging service app using an email address instead of a phone number.
Tips to avoid job scams
Above, we provided a list of common job scam red flags to help identify many of today's more common employment scams. Here's a list of gold-standard tips to avoid becoming the next victim of unscrupulous fraudsters preying on those seeking employment. Be sure to always:
- Avoid job offers asking for upfront money or too much personal information early in the hiring process.
- Steer clear of jobs that involve receiving merchandise or checks and forwarding either to third parties.
- Thoroughly research the employer to be sure they are hiring for the advertised position, and don't connect to any known employment scams.
- Meet the employer in person when possible or insist on connecting via a secure online video conferencing service like Zoom.
- Examine employer email addresses to make sure they match all standard email protocols used by legitimate companies.
- Consider setting up a separate bank account to accept payments from employers you've never met personally.
- Stay current on all types of job scams, trust your instincts if something about a job offer appears unusual, and take time to dig deep on any potential employer before accepting a job.
- Use extreme caution when providing personal information to all new employers.
What to do if you're scammed
Nobody likes to admit to being a victim, but if you suspect you've fallen prey to a job scam, it's critical to swallow your pride and quickly take action.
Start damage control by contacting the financial transaction company and report the fraud. Regardless of how you paid, whether by credit card, wire transfer, or cash card, request a stop payment or transaction reversal immediately.
Next, report the employment scam to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov, local law enforcement, and your home state's attorney general at naag.org. Also, alert the source (e.g., social media forum, job board) where the scam job ad appeared.
If you suspect any of your sensitive personal information is compromised, immediately go to IdentityTheft.gov and follow the instructions to report identity theft.
Consider getting a password manager and changing all account passwords, especially for accounts with links to your personal financial information. Check all your financial accounts and monitor your credit score, looking for possible fraudulent activity.
Job scams FAQ
How do employment scams work?
Employment scams involve fraudsters attempting to trick job seekers by impersonating legitimate companies or organizations offering employment. These fraudsters run ads or reach out directly to job seekers with job-related offers, trying to coerce the victims into sending money, disclosing personal information, cashing fraudulent checks, or reshipping stolen goods.
These scams typically attempt to trick younger job seekers, and the BBB Scam Tracker reports that nearly 50% of employment scam victims fall between the ages of 25 and 44.
Employment scams are growing more common and can result in severe consequences ranging from significant financial losses to criminal fines and prosecution for unfortunate victims.
What happens if I deposit a check from a scammer?
The financial institution will most likely cash the check and temporarily credit your account for the amount of the check. Most scammer checks are fraudulent, and when the financial institution discovers this fraud, they have the right to demand full payment of the defrauded amount from the account holder. If you deposit a scammer's fraudulent check, you will be held responsible for repaying the full amount of the check.
Another possible scenario is if the scammer's check is good. Here the scammer will almost always direct you to forward most of the amount to a third party while keeping a small percentage for your trouble. In this case, you unknowingly helped launder money by processing it through your account and now most likely need to answer law enforcement regarding possible criminal involvement.
How do I verify a payroll check?
The best way to verify a payroll check is to directly contact the institution issuing the check in person or by calling the phone number on the institution's website. Avoid using phone numbers listed on the check as they may be fraudulent and part of the scam.
Inform customer service that you want to verify a check issued by its institution. Be prepared to provide the issuance date, the amount of the check, and the customer's bank account and routing numbers, which you should find on the bottom front of the check.
With this information, the issuing institution should be able to check the customer's account and verify if sufficient funds are available to cover the amount of the check.
Today, many job scams exist, but regardless of presentation, this growing form of fraud is a serious issue affecting more and more unsuspecting victims. These insidious scams often target the most desperate, those usually least able to recover from the debilitating financial hit and possible legal problems that can result from becoming an employment fraud victim.
Now for some good news: Despite the many clever job scammer tactics, numerous red flags can help job seekers identify and avoid potential employment scams. If a job offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is — and under no circumstances should anyone send money, accept checks, or divulge personal information to an unfamiliar potential employer.
The threat and potential consequences of job scams are real for today's job seekers — and unemployment fraud is another threat that can affect you while you're in need of a new job. However, with awareness, education, and a healthy dose of caution, the odds can shift back in favor of honest job seekers looking for legitimate employment opportunities.