Anne-Marie worked for years in public health, but when she found herself between jobs recently, she logged on to sites like Indeed and ZipRecruiter to look for something short-term, flexible and online, like data entry.
“I submitted a bunch of really quick applications for jobs like that,” says Anne-Marie (whose name has been changed at her request and lives in Atlanta).
This wasn’t the first time she had worked remotely, and she knew that “sometimes these companies operate a little differently. It’s not quite the same as the traditional in-person interview with HR. It’s a lot less formal.”
So, Anne-Marie didn’t blink when she received an email from a Belgium-based company saying that they liked her resume and wanted to schedule a virtual interview. Yes, it struck her as odd that the interview was for the following day, a Sunday morning, but that didn’t matter, because the job sounded so good: a signing bonus, full benefits, paid time off, a 401(k)… the whole package.
The interview was held on a messaging app called Wire that Anne-Marie hadn’t used before, but otherwise it went as expected. They discussed her work history and skills and what the data entry job would require. The recruiter was impressed and got right to it — could she start Monday? Anne-Marie said, “Sure!”
But that’s when things got weird. The recruiter explained that Anne-Marie would need to buy some home office equipment in order to do the job: a new laptop, a printer, a scanner, even a laminator. And there was software to buy, too, all of it pretty expensive. When Anne-Marie balked, the recruiter said that they would reimburse her for everything, of course, but it was just easier this way.
“I’ve done work from home,” says Anne-Marie. “They usually send you whatever you need to do the job. I did find that a bit odd.” But she was still willing to give it a chance.
The next day, she received a link to chat with the recruiter about orientation. But as they exchanged texts, doubts crept in. Anne-Marie noticed a lot of grammar and spelling mistakes. The day before, the recruiter spoke fluent English, but this person was all over the place.
Anne-Marie came out and asked the question that most concerned her: how she was going to be reimbursed for buying all of the office equipment.
“There was a long pause,” says Anne-Marie. “We were texting back and forth and then 15 minutes went by without an answer.”
At this point, the Atlanta branch of the Belgian company had opened for the workday, and she called its HR department. A rep told her that they had not posted the job and if they had, they would never have had an employee buy their own equipment. She sat in stunned silence.
“I can’t even figure out what their scam was,” says Anne-Marie. “I don’t know if they were planning to somehow steal my money or my identity. I still don’t know.”
Since the Pandemic, Job Scams Are Everywhere
When COVID hit, offices shut down, kids were sent home from school, and millions of people were laid off from service-sector jobs like restaurants and retail. As companies figured out how to get work done remotely, there was a surge in demand for jobs that could be done from home on a flexible schedule. For scammers, it was a goldmine.
“Job and employment scams have been around for generations, but with COVID and what we’ve experienced over the past 36 months, we’ve seen an enormous uptick,” says Josh Planos, VP of communications and public relations at the Better Business Bureau (BBB), which published a 2020 study on job scams.
According to the BBB, as of 2022, job scams are the third most common type of online scam behind phishing and online shopping fraud. The BBB has received more than 2,500 reports of job scams through its Scam Tracker tool in 2022 alone resulting in losses of more than $3.5 million, but Planos says that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s rampant,” says Planos. “There’s never been more remote work opportunities and it’s never been easier to get in touch with someone half a world away. The door is open for a scammer to wedge their way into the growing market of job-seekers looking for flexibility.”
Interestingly, young people are the most likely to fall victim to a job scam. Unlike other online schemes that prey on older people with less technology experience, the BBB found that the group most susceptible to job scams in 2021 were people between 18 and 24.
“A lot of college students and young people are looking for remote work opportunities with flexibility and don’t think twice about conducting job interviews via a messaging app,” says Planos. “For the right opportunity, they’re willing to look past a lot of red flags.”
Job Scam Warning Signs
The crooks that targeted Anne-Marie were following the classic playbook of an online employment scam. Here are some red flags to look for and how you can protect yourself:
- Verify that the sender’s email address is real. In many cases, including Anne-Marie’s, the scammers will pretend they work for a real company like Amazon or Apple. Double-check the recruiter’s email address. “If it’s a Gmail address, that’s a red flag,” says Planos. In Anne-Marie’s case, she noticed that the email address used the name of the company but ended in .work instead of .com, which she definitely thought was strange.
- Check the employer’s website to see if there’s a job posting. Anne-Marie is not alone in applying to dozens of jobs at a time, so it’s not always possible to remember every job opening. If a company reaches out about a position, go to their official website and see if there’s a job opening that matches that description.
- Question unsolicited emails, calls or texts. If someone calls you with a job offer for a position that you didn’t apply to, that should raise your suspicions. Ask clarifying questions about where they got your resume and contact information.
- If they ask you to pay for something up front, that’s a red flag. A legitimate business doesn’t ask new hires to buy a bunch of equipment for themselves. Planos says that some of these scams direct you to a specific website to buy the equipment, which is also a front. In the end, the victim spends his own money, receives nothing, the reimbursement check bounces, and now the scammers have his credit card info, too.
The High Cost of Job Scams
Anne-Marie was lucky. The scammers asked for her bank name, but not (yet) any account numbers, and she dropped out before they could get her address, Social Security number or other costly personal information. “They’re going to try to get as much out of you as they possibly can,” says Planos, “and once they have that composite picture — Social Security number, credit card number, bank account info — it’s really hard to turn off the proverbial spigot.”
It can take years for victims of identity theft to regain full control of their credit and finances. Planos says that there’s an assumption that if you get scammed, maybe you’re out some money, but then you move on with your life. In reality, it’s more like recovering from a natural disaster.
“You’re talking about rebuilding your credit, canceling all of your cards. You have to replace everything,” says Planos.
What to Do If You’ve Been Job-Scammed
Anne-Marie did the right thing. When the recruiter started to make strange requests, she asked why. Why am I being asked to pay money up front for equipment? How will I get paid back?
“There’s a very specific script that a scammer likes to stick to,” says Planos. “They have their talking points. If you ask questions, it will unravel the operation.”
And if you’re the victim of a job scam (even if you got away unscathed), report it. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a great fraud reporting website, or you can post your story on the BBB’s Scam Tracker. If a fraudulent company is posting jobs on Indeed or ZipRecruiter, flag the posts or email customer service. The more information you put out there, the fewer people are going to be victimized by this popular racket.
“Speak up and speak loudly,” says Planos. “The most important thing is to not go quiet. You only help the perpetrator. The scammer is relying on the stigma to swallow you. It allows them to continue to perpetrate the crime. You can actually make something good out of something so overwhelmingly negative, but only if you speak up.”