Watch out for scams aimed at job seekers

By Kathy Kristof, Tribune Media Services

The e-mail said it came from CareerBuilder and offered a job opportunity as a “trading assistant,” which it described as an easy part-time job with “considerable” compensation.

There’s just one hitch: It was not an e-mail from, the No. 1 online job website partly owned by Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, and it was not a job. It was part of a cynical scam that’s becoming widespread in the waning days of the recession. This scam is just part of an evolving cacophony of employment frauds that prey on the millions of Americans who are out of work.

In the early days of the recession, con artists capitalized on the rising unemployment rate by launching schemes that promised jobs but required consumers to pay for “equipment” or “training” before they could start work, said Alison Southwick, a spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau in Washington, D.C. You paid the fees and got the equipment or training, but the work never seemed to materialize.

A similar con offered work but told “potential employees” that they had to submit to a credit check first, Southwick added. The “employer” provided a link, where the consumers plugged in their information.

The victims didn’t find out until they got their credit card bill that the site didn’t just check their credit, it signed them up for a credit monitoring service that charged them every month.

But as the recession has dragged on, the long-term unemployed have run short of cash to feed the con artists.

“People are pretty strapped right now,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America. “If you were just doing the old ‘Send me money for a job’ con, even if people were convinced that it was a good idea, the scam wouldn’t work because they probably don’t have the money to send you.”

Consequently, the con of the hour is one that purports to send you money—lots of it. Now that you’re feeling flush, they ask you to send them some money back.

With the new “trading assistant” job, for instance, the applicant is told that the position will involve “receiving payment from customers and making further payments to our main office or one of our regional affiliate exchangers, depending on the customer’s location.”

The job pays by commission, according to the e-mail. If you get a check worth $1,500, for instance, you’re supposed to keep $150 and reimburse the company for the rest.

What the scheme really does, however, is clean out your bank account by sending you counterfeit checks. These checks, which are often skillfully faked, appear to clear because banking rules demand that financial institutions give consumers access to their deposited funds in less than five days.

That bank regulation is generally a good thing, says Grant, because most checks are good and consumers shouldn’t be left waiting for access to their money. But it provides con artists who know how to work the system with time to take you for a costly ride.

That’s because few consumers realize that a counterfeit check can be returned weeks after it supposedly cleared. At that point the bank has the right to deduct the money from your account. If you don’t have enough in your account, the bank can send debt collectors after you.

How can you be held responsible for the counterfeiter’s bad check? You’re not. You’re held responsible for the good check that you wrote on your own account to the criminal. The fact that your check was written to “reimburse” the criminal is your problem, not the bank’s.

One young victim, for instance, is now paying $250 a month to his bank after agreeing to clear checks for what he thought was a foreign finance company, Grant said. He got taken for $6,000.

“He had absolutely no inkling that this was a scam,” said Grant. “It was really tragic.”

A retiree looking for part-time work got conned by a company that claimed to be a British art gallery that had U.S. clients but no domestic bank account, she added.

“The permutations of this scam are endless,” Grant said. “It is definitely the hot thing in the market right now.”

The con artists often use the names of real companies, and even city agencies, on their checks to make them appear legitimate.

They also make up clever stories to support the con. The most common of these is that the hiring company is in the business of “mystery shopping.” They say they are hiring the consumer to check out a store or the services of a wire transfer company. The bogus employer will send a check to supposedly allow the victim to buy goods from the retailer, or have the funds available to wire.

Some companies do legitimately hire mystery shoppers, according to the Mystery Shoppers Providers Association, their national trade group. However, these companies rarely have you buy anything, they do not send payment in advance, and they pay only nominal amounts—between $8 and $20—for mystery shopping services.

If you get a check for $2,000 in advance of a mystery shopping job or are promised hundreds of dollars to evaluate a retailer, you’re being scammed, the trade group says. You can’t even trust the mystery shopper association’s logo that some cons brazenly use in their pitch. The association issued a warning in October after receiving a rash of complaints from consumers who were duped by crooks who claimed they were affiliated with the trade group.

Other twists on the same scam: An out-of-town renter wants to put a deposit on the apartment you have for rent, but sends a second-party check for many times the amount due and asks you to refund the difference “when the check clears.” Or someone offers to buy your car, boat or dog that’s advertised for sale, but also needs to pay with a check for more than the owed amount. The only common theme is the crook will pay more than what’s due and ask you to refund the rest.

“Nobody sends you money for nothing, except maybe your grandmother,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “If somebody sends you money and wants a refund for part of it, ask yourself if you’re sure this check is good. Do I want to take a chance and risk everything?”

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