Preying on the desperate

As posted on March 7, 2010 on www.SundayPaper.com

By Diane Loupe
 
“We’d love for you join our staff.”
 
When you’re unemployed—as a record 10.4 percent of Georgians are—those words allow you to hope that you may soon be able to get a haircut, buy new tires for the car or stop charging your groceries.
 
As an unemployed Georgian myself, I’ve been a regular visitor to Craigslist, looking for jobs to pay household bills. So I heaved a sigh of relief when I read a chatty e-mail from Jasmine Myrick of the Prodigy Daycare Center, saying “We’d love to set up an interview and a quick training session sometime this week.”
 
Since the job was in child care, I didn’t blink an eye when she said she’d have to run credit and background checks on all employees. But then she directed me to a Web site and requested that I obtain a credit report and “copy/paste it into a Word document and send it to us so we can schedule you for an interview.”
 
“That doesn’t smell right,” I thought, and my hopes plummeted. There was no telephone number, just a link to a Web site. A few clicks and telephone calls later and I realized I was once again up against low-life identity thieves who are now preying in droves upon the unemployed.
 
Scam artists are plying their trade among a new category of potential suckers—the already hurting jobless. Employment fraud complaints ballooned to nearly 5,500 in 2009, according to the Virginia-based National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C)—a nearly six-fold increase from 2008. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) documented nearly 23,000 employment fraud complaints in 2009, related to business opportunities, employment agencies and work-at-home offers. Employment fraud scams like the one asking for my credit background represent 13 percent of reported cases of identity theft, according to the FTC.

On Feb. 17, the FTC, working with the Department of Justice—as well as several Web sites, including Monster.com and Craigslist.org—unveiled “Operation Bottom Dollar,” a crackdown targeting those the FTC says are “preying on unemployed Americans with job-placement and work-at-home scams, promoting empty promises that they can help people get jobs in the federal government, as movie extras, or as mystery shoppers; or make money working from their homes stuffing envelopes or assembling ornaments.”

Diligent job seekers can’t afford to pass up any potential job lead. Ironically, sites like Craigslist, though it’s signed on to Operation Bottom Dollar, offer just the right widely available and relatively anonymous venue for shysters. Jason Boone, an NW3C researcher, says the bad economy has fueled the increase in fraudulent employment advertisements and schemes.
 
“We’ve seen a significant increase in this type of scam, job-related, over the past 14 to 16 months,” says Boone. “This type of scam has been around for quite a while. Like any scam, if it provides a modicum of success for the scammer, it doesn’t go away.”
 
Posing as a potential employer gives the flim-flammers a veil of legitimacy. “They tie into current job market and the number of people desperate for employment,” he says. “The odds do seem to work in their favor more often than not.”
 
In my quest for a paycheck over the past year, I’ve bumped into many variations on what Boone and other Internet crime experts refer to as the "Nigerian scam." It works like this: The job advertisement sounds promising and the pay is generous, but not out of the realm of possibility. Say, somebody wants to pay $30 per hour to hire a tutor, $15 per hour for part-time administrative assistants, or $500 for painting a room. You respond to the advertisement, and the "employers" contact you and seem to want to hire you.
 
But there’s a catch. They want to send you a check for more than they owe you, and then you’ll send them a check for the difference. This is a variation of what experts call the Nigerian Advance Fee Scheme, also referred to internationally as “4-1-9 fraud” after the section of the Nigerian penal code that addresses fraud schemes. When it originated, victims would get a letter or e-mail purporting to be from a Nigerian civil servant who wants to smuggle money out of the country by using your bank account to deposit large sums.
 
Now other people are modeling their schemes on the Nigerians’. The cashier’s check they send you may actually look like it’s going to clear your account, experts say, but by the time you’ve sent money to the scammer, that check will bounce.

There are also shady types who claim they want to hire you as a “secret shopper,” Boone says. They send you a check, tell you to spend a portion of the amount at a store and keep the rest for yourself, but the check is bogus. In another ruse, an “employer” asks a potential employee for a small fee—$14.95 or $19.95—to conduct a background check.
 
“It’s a scam, plain and simple,” says Boone, since any legitimate employer would pay the cost of conducting a background check.
 
“Thieves are going to cultivate a myriad of approaches, especially where it’s proven successful in the past,” he adds. “The idea is to enhance the probability or possibility of separating the target or victim from his or her wallet.”

THE DAY CARE THAT WASN’T

In the case of the Prodigy Daycare Center job scam, the added wrinkle was a Web site, www.atldaycarecenter.com, with pictures of smiling children, an address in Atlanta, and copy that said the center was “established in 2009 by two single moms who know the difficulties, firsthand, that come with parenthood.” They also bore a name similar to a legitimate child-care center.
 
But when I called Bright from the Start, the state agency responsible for licensing child-care centers, I was told it had no record of any such center. After my call and other complaints about the advertisement, the agency investigated and discovered that there was no building at the address Prodigy listed on the site: 428 Georgia Ave. in Atlanta. The agency issued a press release on Jan. 14 “warning potential employees in early childhood education about phony child care advertisements.”

   

“We have never received a licensing application from this company,” said Kay Hellwig, Division Director of Child Care Services, in the release. “We have notified the proper Georgia authorities regarding this matter.”
 
And yet, a week after the press release, the advertisement was still running. So I applied again, and got the same e-mail solicitation from “Jasmine Myrick.” The brazen huckster didn’t recognize me as the person who’d sent a scathing e-mail calling her “a scam artist” and telling her I’d reported her to the state.
 
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, preying upon people who want a job,” I wrote.
 
Craigslist job advertisements all warn applicants about frauds. But although I’d flagged the advertisement, filed a complaint about it, and requested an interview as a member of the media, nobody from Craigslist ever returned my messages.
 
So I called up Stacy Moore, the public relations director for Bright from the Start, who’d written the press release, and told her that the advertisement was still running. Soon after my call to her, the advertisement disappeared from Craig’s List.
 
In investigating Prodigy, I found an identical Web site apparently operating in the Queens, New York area. The site, www.queensnycdaycare.com, carries exactly the same text and photos as the Atlanta site, and lists addresses in Bayside and Long Island City.
 
The Web site to which Prodigy’s shill directed me for a credit report was a site known to be operated by scam artists, Boone says.
 
Cons like these seem to be operating below the radar. The Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs has heard of a variety of employment scams. Spokesman Shawn Conroy warns against paying any money up front to someone who promises to find a job for you. 
 
Job seekers should make sure potential employers are on the up-and-up by making a few telephone calls and checking out Web sites. It’s important that an employer have a virtual and real presence.
 
“If they don’t have a Web site, that should be a red flag,” says Boone. It’s also of “paramount importance to ascertain if a company has a brick-and-mortar presence,” he notes. “If they don’t have one, that should raise a red flag.”

Bright from the Start urges early child care providers to use extreme caution when responding to job advertisements.  “Be sure to thoroughly research organizations you are seeking employment with,” says Hellwig. “Bright from the Start has all of the licensed child care facilities and registered family day care homes in the state listed on our Web site.”
 
Most legitimate employers will expect a face-to-face interview, Boone advises.

“Never, never should you have to accept funds as a condition of your employment, or to have to transfer funds and keep a balance,” he says. “That just doesn’t happen.”

 

“We’ve seen a significant increase in this type of scam, job-related, over the past 14 to 16 months.”—Jason Boone, National White Collar Crime Center

  • Employment fraud complaints ballooned to nearly 5,500 in 2009, according to the National White Collar Crime Center—a nearly six-fold increase from 2008.
  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) documented nearly 23,000 fraud complaints in 2009 related to business opportunities, employment agencies and work-at-home plans.
  • Employment fraud scams represented 13 percent of reported cases of identity theft, according to information released by the FTC in February.


Questions to Ask an Employment Recruiter or Placement Agency

The Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs urges that job seekers take the time to ask lots of questions of potential employers, recruiters or Web sites that promise to find jobs. Vague answers are a red flag that should arouse your suspicion. Good questions to ask include:

  • What did you learn about me from the person who referred you?
  • Do you work on retainer or on contingency?
  • How many years have you been in business?
  • How many people in my line of work have you placed in the last few years, and with this employer? Can you supply references? (Realize, of course, that these names will probably represent satisfactory experiences.)
  • What are the details and location of the job, and why would it appeal to me?
  • What is the compensation being offered? (Asking directly keeps both parties from needlessly wasting their time.)
  • Is the position salaried or is it paid hourly, with the possibility of overtime?
  • Is this a contract job? If so, what is the contract length, and who handles payment and the contract authorizing payment?
  • How strongly do I compare to other candidates for this position?
  • How quickly will you follow up with me?
  • Is there any financial obligation on my part?