When the offer is fake: How scammers target job seekers

Job hunters, beware: Scammers are out impersonating would-be employers to get at your sensitive data and even your checking account.

Here’s how it works:

A fake job ad is posted, either on social media or on a job-hunting site. The scammer might use a known organization’s name and logo to lure the would-be marks. In some cases, they might even hack into an organization’s email system, so that any email with the job info looks legitimate and trustworthy.

An interview follows for those who respond, either by phone or online via something like Google Hangouts. Sensitive personal information (e.g. Social Security number, bank account numbers) is sought.

Some take the scheme even further with an elaborately fake check, which is sent to cover office supplies, training or other supposedly legitimate expenses. The “new hire” is instructed to send some amount of that check back to the “employer.”

The check, of course, is fake. And as if losing money in the scam isn’t bad enough: The mark could face a criminal charge of check fraud, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Although it’s not as prevalent as, say, the IRS scam, officials in D.C., Maryland and Virginia say they’re familiar with it.

“Scammers are constantly evolving, thinking of new ways to get sensitive information from people, to steal money from people. This is just sort of the new way that people are preying on people who are underemployed or unemployed,” said Ben Wiseman, director of the D.C. attorney general’s Office of Consumer Protection.

At least one victim in Virginia found the scam so convincing that they actually quit their job after a fake employment offer, said Attorney General Mark Herring.

And a national nonprofit based in D.C., Share Our Strength, has been spending a fair amount of time lately telling people that they’re not hired. As of late May, 40 would-be “hires” had contacted them in 2019 — either to ask whether their “job offer” was legitimate or to ask about the “check” that they cashed, said Tracee Sanders, human resources director.

“What we have seen is that they will receive a check, and they’re told that check is to be used to cover the supplies that they need to purchase to send — in our case the items to the orphanages and places that they are supposed to be supporting,” she said.

How to avoid it

Officials from area attorney general offices have some advice on how job hunters can steer clear of this scam.

Do your due diligence and make sure a potential employer is legitimate. One way, Herring suggests, is to cross-reference any emails with the company’s website to see if they’ve posted it online.

Be wary of requests for financial or other sensitive information, especially if they’re from an unsolicited call or letter. “You shouldn’t be providing it — especially over the phone — to anyone,” Wiseman said. This includes your Social Security number and even your birthday.

Same goes for a request for an upfront payment. “If you are being asked as part of an employment process to wire money, to use gift cards of any kind, to send money somewhere, to use iTunes cards, to use MoneyPak, any of those things — those are generally signs that this is a scam and not a valid employment contract,” said Karen S. Straughn, Maryland assistant attorney general and director of the Consumer Protection Division’s mediation unit.

And of course, that so-called check might as well be a red flag. “If somebody sends you a check and tells you to cash it and forward money on to someone else, or to cash it and forward money back to the person who sent you the check, that is a big sign,” Straughn said.

Freeze your credit if you don’t need a report anytime soon. “It is really a good way to make sure that you’re protecting yourself from identity thieves,” Wiseman suggested.

Finally, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is: “such things like really high rates of pay for very simple tasks, or receiving a job offer without even an interview,” Herring said.

If you think you’ve been a victim of the scam

Start by contacting the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Then …

In Virginia: Contact the attorney general office’s Consumer Protection Section, either online or by calling 804-786-2042.

“Many times, scams like this are actually criminal in nature, so if something like this has happened to you, also reach out to your local law enforcement,” Herring added.

In D.C.: Call the attorney general’s Office of Consumer Protection 202-442-9828 or file a complaint online. Wiseman, too, encourages contacting police.

In Maryland: Call the attorney general’s office at 410-528-8662 (Monday — Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.). You can also report it online. Hover over the “Consumer Complaint” button and click “General Complaint.”

Also, Straughn recommends you tell everyone you know if you’re a victim. Don’t be ashamed.

“It is not something to be embarrassed about,” she said. “It is something that you should be letting people know, because the best way we can protect ourselves is to advise each other.”

Jack Pointer

Jack contributes to WTOP.com when he's not working as the afternoon/evening radio writer.

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