For years, Richard Pierre found job candidates on popular work-search websites with postings for positions like a $70,000-a-year gig to be a programmer analyst in Toronto. The problem: Pierre wasn't an employer but a huckster who wound up stealing personal information from dozens of job seekers, fraudulently opening 44 credit cards and racking up some $300,000 in charges.
The Ottawa police busted Pierre, but for anyone looking for a job, his existence is still haunting. It's bad enough that folks out of work have to deal with an unemployment rate that is pushing double digits, but now they also have to watch out for a growing wave of fraudsters who are looking to take advantage of their desperation. "The scammers have gotten so much more active since the recession," says Susan Joyce, who runs the work-search site Job-Hunt.org. "There are more of them and they're more sneaky."
The authorities are cracking down. Over the summer, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a wave of cases, including one against Job Safety USA, a front company that targeted people seeking maintenance and cleaning work. The ads claimed that for $98 Job Safety would send a credential called a "certificate registration number" and then help the registrant find a job. But the credential was bogus and there were no jobs. "When the economy is down, scammers take advantage of people who are anxious about their financial position," says FTC attorney Karen Hobbs. A growing area of concern: unemployment-insurance scams. (Make a note now that you should never have to pay anybody money to collect unemployment benefits.)
Certain frauds are easy to sniff out once you know to look for them. A lot seems wrong with an ad to make $500 in two days that explains "the world have gone to the extend on make money with every means you can get you hand on" and then asks for "Status Of Job You Into." Less blatant red flags include e-mail addresses with domains like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! and Rediffmail (an Indian outfit) most legitimate hirers have e-mail addresses from their companies. A company or recruiter that asks for your bank account or credit-card number is a huge warning sign. True, plenty of companies use bank information for direct-deposit paychecks but that comes after you're hired.
Plenty of scams, though, are more elaborate and harder to detect. During a search of Richard Pierre's house, police seized thousands of envelopes with a fake company's logo.
Even people who are careful can get snagged. Jay Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, is working with a man who took what he thought was a job as a mystery shopper for Western Union. After answering an ad on Craigslist, he received a $3,500 check, which he deposited into his bank account. He then went to Western Union to wire the money and observe the quality of customer service. The man was cautious he waited for the check to clear first. Only later did he find out that while the check was written on a real account, it wasn't authorized. The company eventually voided the transaction, leaving the man responsible for the $3,500 he'd wired.
At Job-Hunt.org, Joyce tries to actively weed out the fake jobs. First, she Googles the hiring firm. "If all you find are other jobs postings on other jobs boards, that's a red flag," she says. Next she searches for a corporate phone number on a site like Hoovers.com and calls to make sure the opening is legit. That simple process leads her to toss about a third of the postings she receives. On larger sites like Monster and CareerBuilder, there's no one doing that legwork for you. And the scammers are definitely out. The Canadian version of Monster was one of the sites Pierre used.
The thing to be most careful about is handing over personal information like your date of birth and above all else your Social Security number. Once scammers have gotten ahold of that piece of particularly sensitive information, they can do real damage, like opening credit cards in your name and running up thousands of dollars in charges that you'll later have a difficult time getting out of. There might be a real reason to ask for that information to do a background check, say but you should withhold it until after an in-person meeting. "What employer is going to hire a person without sitting down and interviewing them?" asks the Identity Theft Resource Center's Foley.
Legitimate companies and even the Federal Government make it a lot harder for job searchers to be cautious on this count by requesting Social Security numbers to screen applicants. Wary job hunters have been known to do battle with corporate recruiters on this point. But if you've been out of work for months and are starting to panic, you might be far from enthusiastic about the prospect of antagonizing a prospective employer. Still, it's at least worth a call to the human-resources department to make sure the policy is etched in stone.
Because at the end of the day, there are a lot of people out there looking to take advantage.