Too good to be true? Beware of fake online jobs

March 2, 2020, 5:30 PM UTC

The posting on a big, reputable job board seemed perfect: An opening at a well-known company you’ve always admired, with generous pay and benefits and the option of working from home. Of course you submit a resume and after an interview or two by phone or video—usually with, say, the HR director and one other senior manager—you get a terrific offer, which you happily accept.

Naturally, once you’ve signed the employment contract that comes to you by snail mail, your new employer needs all kinds of personal information about you, including your bank account number for direct deposit of your paychecks, so you fill out and return the forms they send.

Then the nightmare starts.

When you show up for your first day of work, no one at the company where you’ve supposedly been hired has ever heard of you—or, for that matter, of the “executives” who interviewed you. It gets worse: The balance in your bank account is now $0. And of course, you’ve already quit your old job.

Unthinkable, right? But, according to a recent bulletin from the FBI, this scenario, or some diabolically clever variation of it, has been on the rise since early 2019. Not only that, but the scams have gotten more sophisticated, hence harder to spot. Technology now makes it pretty easy, for example, for crooks to create corporate web sites that look uncannily like the real thing. So, even if you skip the job boards and apply directly through what looks like a company’s site, you may be stepping into a snare.

These phony-hiring schemes have become so widespread that real employers are alarmed. “We have Fortune 500 clients who have called us in to figure out why so many people have come to them claiming that someone at the company hired them,” says Daniel Linskey, a managing director at security and risk management firm Kroll. The supposed new hires, he adds, are usually not just (understandably) upset, “they’re also out several thousand dollars.” Depending on how much information they’ve divulged to what they believed was their new employer, their identities may have been stolen, too.

Want to protect yourself from a similar fate? For now at least, you’re on your own. “Police departments don’t have the resources to investigate these incidents, and it has to be a multi-million-dollar swindle before federal authorities get involved,” notes Linskey, who is a former superintendent-in-chief of the Boston Police Department. “So the scammers just keep getting away with it.”

Even so, a little caution can go a long way. “One problem is that job hunters tend to ignore the red flags,” says Linskey. Here are four ways he and the FBI recommend to recognize—and avoid— a possible scam:

1. Never send money, or provide credit card information, to an employer.

As obvious a mistake as this might seem (heard from any Nigerian princes lately?), a common ploy is to request cash or credit up front — most often for health insurance premiums — that the scammers promise to repay in the new hire’s first paycheck. “People who are between jobs and need medical coverage” are particularly vulnerable to this kind of social engineering, Linskey says.

2. Beware of non-company email addresses and insecure websites.

A real hiring manager “is not going to contact you through a gmail address,” says Linskey. As for web sites, the FBI bulletin notes that many fake corporate sites begin with “http://” rather than “https://.” That’s not foolproof either, though, because “criminals can also use ‘https://’ to give victims a false sense of security,” the report adds. “A decision to proceed should not be based solely on the use of ‘https://’.”

3. Research the prospective employer online

You’d do this anyway, of course (wouldn’t you?), but the FBI advises “conducting a web search of the hiring company using the company name only.” Results that show “multiple web sites for the same company (abccompany.com and abccompanyllc.com) may indicate fraudulent job listings.”

4. If in doubt, call the company directly.

Got an appointment for an interview by phone or video? Great! Now, says Linskey, “call the main switchboard at the company and ask to speak with the person who will be interviewing you, just to confirm the appointment.” If the company operator has no phone listing for the hiring manager, or if such a person exists but he or she has no clue who you are, well then…you’ve just avoided a whole mess of trouble.

One more suggestion from Linskey: “Just to be on the safe side, be sure and take these steps before you quit the job you have now.” Noted.

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