Claudia Buck

Personal Finance: Scams masquerade as online help-wanted ads

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:23 pm

Sitting at her laptop hunting for a part-time job, UC Davis student Isra Sebiaa spotted an "office help" ad that sounded incredibly appealing.

Posted by an "international business consultant" in Davis, the would-be employer was frequently overseas and needed help running errands, paying bills, mailing packages and doing shopping. The pay: $150 a week for 10 hours of work, plus mileage and expenses.

"It sounded perfect," recalls Sebiaa, a senior majoring in political science. She immediately applied online, sending her résumé, a crisp cover letter and a request for a face-to-face interview.

To Sebiaa's delight, she was "hired" instantly. And that's when the job description suddenly became something very different.

Her unseen boss, supposedly in Sweden meeting clients, emailed Sebiaa's first assignment: She'd receive a $1,100 check, to be deposited into her own account. After deducting $150 as the first week's "pay," she was to wire the remainder to an address in the Philippines.

"As soon as she told me that, I knew it was like things I've read about Craigslist scams," said the 21-year-old. "It smelled really fishy."

Officially known as a "payment-transfer" or Nigerian check scheme, it's a familiar scam that's seduced many adult job seekers for years. Now it's trickling down to college kids.

"We've had about 10 this fall alone," said Marci Kirk Holland, manager of the UC Davis Internship and Career Center.

At California State University, Sacramento, a "handful" of phony ads have popped up in recent years, said CSUS Career Center Director Beth Merritt Miller.

The ruses vary. In some cases, students are told they're hired, then informed that the "boss" has taken ill on vacation and needs funds wired to his account. The students are assured that they'll be reimbursed, plus expenses.

In most cases, students get suspicious and refuse to participate. But not always.

Just this week, another student reported to UC Davis authorities that she'd lost $2,000, after her "employer" – supposedly stricken with a heart attack – asked her to deposit two money orders and send the proceeds to a Philippines address. The money orders proved fraudulent, and now she's on the hook to pay back the bank.

The student, a Southern California transfer in her first month in Davis, answered an online ad, supposedly from a Davis real estate company, Holland said. The student could not be reached for comment.

At a time when college costs are accelerating and part-time hiring is stuck, this type of online scam is particularly troubling.

"Students are having a hard enough time finding a job and are among the last who should be victimized. It's a tragedy when anyone trying to find a job becomes a victim," said Sylvia Kundig, an attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's San Francisco office.

Last year, foreign money and counterfeit check scams were among the FTC's top 12 consumer complaints. "It's a perennial scam," said FTC spokeswoman Monica Vaca.

The phony job ads come as college graduate hiring by genuine companies appears healthier. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, job offers for U.S. college graduates this June are expected to be up 13 percent from a year ago.

That's why these job scams are doubly harmful, said Holland. "The crime is it reduces students' confidence in applying for jobs. And it hurts legitimate companies trying to hire students for legitimate jobs."

Even more deceptive, the ads appear on the universities' own job-recruiting websites, lending them a credibility that makes many students feel it's safe to apply.

Campus career officials at UC Davis and CSUS say they work hard to vet the hundreds of ads that appear daily on their websites. The bad ones, they note, represent a very small slice of the daily postings; fewer than a dozen among 3,000 current listings at UC Davis, for instance.

Most of the ads that slip through, they say, are those sent via NACElink, an online job-posting service that provides access to national companies that want to reach students on multiple college campuses. Efforts to reach a NACElink representative were unsuccessful.

After a few phony ads first appeared on the CSUS online job board, Miller said, her staff ramped up its vetting process of the site's 500 to 1,000 daily postings. If something doesn't add up, they check business licenses or ask the employer to provide verification.

In addition, she said, CSU career centers statewide alert each other to suspicious posts.

On the UC Davis Aggie Links job site, the phony ads are left up – with a warning notice. "We want students to see these ads are fraudulent," said Holland.

That may not be the case everywhere. A week ago, Casey Long of Sacramento, a sophomore at the University of California, Santa Barbara, encountered a phony job listing on his university's website.

Long, the son of Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar, answered an ad seeking a "front desk assistant" by a company that billed itself as a "virtual online tradeshow" of buyers and sellers. He checked out the company's website, which seemed legitimate, and filled out an online application. Within a day, a FedEx package arrived with a $1,640 check. The emailed instructions were to deposit the check, keep 10 percent as his fee, then wire the rest to the Philippines.

In the words of the 19-year-old, the whole scenario was "sketch."

"The premise was a bit odd … and anything to do with putting checks in one's own bank account screams 'scam,' " he said in an email.

Like Sebiaa, he turned the check over to UC Santa Barbara campus authorities, who said they alerted police.

The FTC and others say the online perpetrators are hard to trace and shut down.

How to avoid getting scammed? When an unseen, online employer makes a tantalizing job offer, use common sense and do some Internet digging.

It's easy for a con artist's company to have a website, or even be incorporated. "That's not a badge of legitimacy," said the FTC's Kundig. "You have to dig below that. … Google (the company and person's name) and look for complaints. Do some research."

Anyone who's encountered an online job scam, even if no money was lost, should file an online complaint with the FTC (www.ftc.gov). "Filling out that form is our first step in trying to put somebody out of business," said Kundig.

For college-age job seekers like Sebiaa, it's been an eye-opener. Although "really bummed" when her too-good-to-be-true job offer turned out to be fake, Sebiaa said she's learned to trust her instincts.

As for a job, the college senior recently got hired at the Gap clothing store in Davis. She landed her $11-an-hour job by applying directly on the store's website, followed by a face-to-face interview. From now on, she says, unless they first meet in person, "I'm going to avoid communicating through email with employers."

ONLINE JOB SCAMS: TYPICAL RED FLAGS

Work-from-home or virtual job offers often sound tempting, but they could be so-called "payment forwarding" or "payment transfer" scams. That's when a seemingly legitimate company lures job seekers into depositing a check into a personal account, then forwarding the funds to a third party. The checks then bounce, leaving the victim on the financial hook.

Be wary if a job ad:

• Requests your bank account, Social Security, PayPal or credit card number.

• Asks to "verify your identity" by scanning your driver's license or other ID.

• Uses an email address that is not a primary domain (i.e., calls itself "Omega Inc." but has a Yahoo or AOL address).

• Includes certain phrases or words, such as "package-forwarding," "money transfers," "wiring funds," "eBay," "PayPal" or "Foreign Agent Agreement."

• Contains misspellings and grammatical mistakes.

Job seekers should NEVER:

• Give out personal account information to a prospective employer, especially if they've never met in person.

• Agree to direct deposit of paychecks until they know their employer.

• Forward, transfer or wire money to an employer, no matter how compelling the request may sound.

Source: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, www.privacyrights.org

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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