For decades, American workers and employers had dabbled with the idea of telecommuting — working from home — but only a tiny fraction of workplaces really allowed it. Then the pandemic hit. The world was plunged into a real-time experiment in remote work, and despite an awful lot of ups and downs and zooming around, it appears working from home is now here to stay. McKinsey recently found that a stunning 58% of US workers had the chance to work from home at least one day a week in 2022, and virtually everyone offered the opportunity to do it, took it. Can’t beat the commute.
But criminals have paid close attention to this trend too. Work-at-home jobs have always been fraught with the potential for fraud. Fake job listings – even fake companies — are easy to create when the job is virtual. Meanwhile, people who are unemployed and job hunting are particularly vulnerable.
Recently we dove deep into this problem at The Perfect Scam podcast. I interviewed Toni Frana, career services manager at FlexJobs.com, which helps people find work-at-home jobs. She had a lot to say — but I thought the most useful segment involved red flag terms and phrases that she thought gave job hunters a tipoff that a listing might be a scam.
“Things like “quick money,” “unlimited earning potential,” “free work from home jobs,” “investment opportunities and seminars,” “a part-time job with full-time pay,” and “envelope stuffing,” she said. “These are some keywords that should be red flags or cause a little bit of alarm when you’re reading the job posting and really require you to do some additional research. These are telltale signs that the job could be a scam.”
She also listed off for me jobs posting that should be treated with extra suspicion.
- “So the number one scam that we see at FlexJobs is data entry. …(they) promise a lot of money for a job that doesn’t require very much experience…. Data entry jobs very, very rarely pay an exorbitant amount of money. It’s pretty, it’s a pretty typical pay rate. So that’s something that you want to look out for.”
- “The second most common scam that we see.. (is) pyramid marketing schemes which don’t involve a product. It just involves the exchange of money and, again, sort of recruiting people to do what you are doing. So that’s something to be wary of. Those have been around for a really long time.”
- “Job scammers will also set up a scam for wire transfers … wire transfer scams move money quickly from one account to another. And so these transactions are very difficult to reverse, making it almost impossible to recover any of the lost funds…if we’re talking about the employee giving bank account information to the employer at a time when it’s too soon and they can take that money and, and run.”
- “Unsolicited job offers or urgent job offers. So sometimes a jobseeker will get an email or a message on email, in a digital, a social platform that says, “We have a job for you. We need you to take this job. You are the perfect person for this.” This is a job that is not sought out by the jobseeker but does offer immediate employment.”
- In a related way, “There are signs of scams in the interview… the interviewer might not be interested in the answers that you’re giving when he or she asks you questions. They’re not interested in what you’re going to bring to the table. Instead, they offer you the job immediately, and they express an urgency to accept. That is not typical of a legitimate job offer. Typically you have time to review the offer at least 24 hours, sometimes you can ask for more, so that is definitely a sign, a sign of a scam.”
- “There’s also this .. category of shipping or assembling products. And those are scams as well. Sometimes people will get a reshipping job, they’re called, or postal forwarding. These are work at home jobs that involve packing and repacking products and forwarding the package to customers outside of the United States. The catch is that the packaging of the product, they are stolen goods that have been shipped to the quote-unquote employee, and then the employee is taking those stolen goods, unbeknownst to them, and shipping them to people outside of the US.
- “I mentioned craft products. … There are companies out there that will ask you to help assemble gift baskets or crafts to send to customers. Usually they’re asked to pay an enrollment fee, and you have to purchase all of the supplies and materials from the organization. The company promises to pay you back for each package that you send. Usually what happens in this type of scam is the company will say the package that you made did not meet your standards, it does not look like the sample finished product that we provided to you, and you won’t get paid for it. And so you’ve lost all of that money.
The biggest tipoff of all is when a job pays “a lot of money for not a lot of work,” Franca told me. “you know, high-flying lifestyles like overnight you could have, you know, thousands of dollars a month for doing, you know, two hours of work.”
I think it’s worth listening to the entire interview, which you can do by clicking here or clicking the play button below. A partial transcript of our conversation appears below that.
[00:20:22] Bob: Why is it important that you make that legitimate distinction? What’s difficult about finding legitimate flexible jobs?
[00:20:29] Toni Frana: I think that work at home jobs, or remote jobs is kind of the word that we’re using now, but work at home jobs have always been a target of scammers. And the scams that we’ve seen and that have been around for the pop up to take advantage of folks who are looking to do some type of work from home, to have flexibility, and to be able to have some control over their life, including their workdays.
[00:20:58] Bob: So what is it about remote work that makes it a target for criminals?
[00:21:02] Toni Frana: The vulnerability sort of comes in, in that it, these work from home job scams make things sound almost too good to be true. In fact, that’s one of the red flags, but it’s, it’s almost as if the job posting was written for you, or that’s how you read it, right? Like I want to work from home, I want to have a flexible schedule. I want to make a lot of money. And a lot of times these scams entice people because they say they do those three things. They let you work from home, they let you have flexibility, and they will pay you a lot of money to do a job that typically does not pay an extraordinary amount of money per hour or in a salary.
[00:21:43] Bob: Maybe this is obvious, but I feel like it’s important to say; at least in the old world when you applied for a job you would walk up to a building and there would be a desk, and you’d interview with a human being, right. So online, since all of that is gone, it, it is easier to create a fake company, right?
[00:22:00] Toni Frana: Absolutely. And what we see with some of these scams is even, it might not even be a safe company, it might a copycat website of a current company. And they will show you, or give you the website address. It looks professional, it looks almost exactly the same of a real company website, and what might be different in the URL is where, is one letter or a punctuation, a period, you know, .com or, you know, it might be careers.com and in another website it might be um, companynamecareers.com, and it just is something that is a very small change that can really go unnoticed by the jobseekers, somebody who is looking for a job because they need and want money to pay, you know, to, to support themselves and their family. When you are doing all of this online, you know, you can even get emails from people pretending to be recruiters or pretending to offer jobs, and one of the red flags to look out for is an email address that isn’t company specific. Most companies will have their employees, have an email address that is their name or something at, you know, FlexJobs.com. If people notice that someone’s reaching out to them about a job that they want to hire them for right away, and their email address is something more generic like, you know, gmail.com, yahoo.com, hotmail.com, all of those can be legitimate email addresses, but typically somebody who’s hiring or working at a company will have a company specific email address. So yes, so this is online and we’re not going into a brick and mortar building to introduce ourselves and drop off our resume and cover letter, these are some other things that we need to look at and look for.
[00:23:49] Bob: And it can be even more targeted than that, right. The ad might even say you know, chance to work with animals for example. It’s, it’s all, it can be almost personalized for you, like the per–,
[00:23:57] Toni Frana: Yes.
[00:23:58] Bob: …it’s the perfect job. It reminds me of how some of these fake catfishing dating ads are, sound like the perfect person, right?
[00:24:05] Toni Frana: Yes, and it, the scammers that are out there doing this, you know, unfortunately get better and better, and it’s sometimes harder and harder to identify them you know, right away, and some people get really far into the process with a job, and it turns out it’s a scam. And you know, sometimes people lose money…
[00:24:26] Bob: While this is a great time to be a remote worker, the US economy has been an up and down cycle now for several years, and economic troubles create opportunity for criminals.
[00:24:38] Toni Frana: I think we see an increase in job scams or scams in particular when there are times of hardship, economic hardship and stressors, and over the last several few years, kind of collectively, we’ve all been in a state of a little bit of increased stress, and wondering what’s going to happen next. And people find ways to prey on that, unfortunately, and sometimes the people on the receiving end of that don’t pick up on it right away. So it’s good to get the information out there so we know what to look for, you know, to kind of take the power back into our own hands.
[00:25:12] Bob: Meanwhile, people have called The Great Resignation, workers quitting their jobs because they want to reach for better opportunities, well that’s created opportunities for criminals too. That’s what happened to our high school teacher.
[00:25:27] Bob: Well one thing that did touch me about her situation was she was unhappy at a sort of traditional job, and this, this job kind of lured her into the FlexJobs’ universe, and so she gave up security in order to take this job.
[00:25:43] Toni Frana: Oh sure, yeah, uh-hmm.
[00:25:44] Bob: Yeah, so we’re living in this time of people, lots of people are actively pondering, is there another way to live? And that makes for the pool of victims to be even larger I would think.
[00:25:53] Toni Frana: Absolutely. It goes back to you know, what I was saying before. When there is a time of economic hardship or shift or change, there are people whose goal is to prey on those who are most affected by it. And that is scary. And during, you know, what we’ve seen over the course of The Great Resignation, I think a lot of people who haven’t had the opportunity to have a flexible job or work remotely before, you know, many more people, millions of people were working remotely overnight, right. And you sort of get the sense of oh, well this is a, an easier way for me to balance everything that I have going on in my life. I’m still productive at work, I still am able to, you know, meet my goals for my company, and also, I don’t have a two-hour commute. And so people, scammers, if you will, have found ways to, to use your word, lure people into the promise of flexible, remote work with an exorbitant amount of money, or you know, ability to move up quickly in the ranks at the organization.
[00:27:03] Bob: There are plenty of different flavors of scams that victimize would-be remote workers.
[00:27:08] Bob: I think it’s not that uncommon that someone goes a month or two down the road with a company that ends up you know having their checks bounce. You never get paid. You, you must hear from people who use your service who end up in that situation, right?
[00:27:22] Toni Frana: Yes, that situation or also what might happen is a company will hire you, you’ll get started working, and they will tell you that you have a technology reimbursement coming, you know, so you take care of your home office needs, and maybe you purchase a computer, and you get all of your equipment set up, and then the reimbursement never comes. So in that case, you know, not only are you working and maybe not getting paid, you’ve also put out some money with the promise of getting a reimbursement for that. Or, I actually worked with a client uh once who was pretty far in, in the process and had, had started working, and she was asked to provide all of her financial information, you know, too early in the process. But at the time she really needed the job, and she provided all of her information, and they claimed it was for direct deposit, right, but the way they got the information it was a way for them to sort of take her, her routing number, her checking account information, and sort of, you know, do what they wanted to do in her bank account.
[00:28:28] Bob: As we’ve already heard, when a job seeker is victimized by criminals, the victims lose much more than just a few paychecks.
[00:28:37] Toni Frana: The emotional toll that this takes when you are, you know, a victim of a scam, is something that takes a while to, you know, recover from. It’s hard. I mean you; you want to work and find a meaningful way to make a living and support yourself and your family, and, and this kind of stuff is just, you know, can be devastating and it certainly takes time uh to recover from. And that’s hard, but I, it happens to thousands of people, so I think it’s so good that we’re talking about this so that it’s out there and people know, you know, the different things that can affect you.
[00:29:16] Bob: And you know, to put a blunt point on it, you know you’re working because you have to pay rent and you have to eat, and if you waste time for weeks or months on a job that ultimately doesn’t pay you, you’ve really set yourself back.
[00:29:30] Toni Frana: Absolutely, and there’s no way to recover that income or that time. And by the way, when you’ve been working and, and not getting paid in her case, you’ve also not been looking for your next job because you are focusing your efforts on your new job and doing a good job there to perform; it just is awful. You know, there’s not another word, I don’t think. Um, it’s, it’s just really hard, and then to start over, a job search is hard enough, and then to have an experience like this, and then be right back in it and try to, you know, trust the process and trust the organizations that you’re working with to find your next legitimate job, it can take a toll. It can definitely take a toll.
[00:30:13] Bob: One thing about job hunting that I… always strikes me during these conversations, are people like me give this trite advice about how to avoid scams, you know, don’t give out personal information, don’t talk to strangers, don’t do all these things, right. When you’re hunting for a job, you have to do all these things. You have to put personal information on your resume. You, you probably have to provide financial information, people are going to look up your credit report, all these sorts of things, so I feel like we don’t talk enough about what a disadvantage job hunters are in this world where scammers have the advantage, because you are forced to share so much about yourself, right?
[00:30:51] Toni Frana: Absolutely. And one of the things that I think becomes, it’s doesn’t rise to the top of a jobseeker to deal with is to do some due diligence on the job that you are looking for and the people who are contacting you for jobs, right, because you’re really busy, you know, tailoring your resume and writing cover letters and networking and submitting those applications. But really, you know, looking for the company name, the job title, and the word scam, just doing a google search with those three terms can really return some enlightening results from either the Better Business Bureau or the FTC. It will help identify if there have been job scams out there for that particular role that you’re looking for. It’s why it’s really important to make sure where you are finding your role online at a website, that you use a reputable job search service that is taking care of some of this for you, and vetting those jobs, and prescreening those jobs. You know as a jobseeker, when you get a job offer, you will be asked to provide personal information. You have to fill out, especially if you’re an employee in the United States, you fill out 1099 forms, you fill out tax forms, all of that is normal and legitimate. But that happens after you’ve got the job offer, or on your first day. Any type of information, Social Security number, that type of information when it’s asked for in the first contact or very early on in the job search process, is definitely a red flag. And so, you know, being mindful of the data that we’re giving out to people as you say, when you’re a jobseeker you’re putting your information out there, you know, just being aware and making sure you’re doing some due diligence so that you are comfortable and confident that who you are giving this information to is the right person for the particular job you’re looking for, and you know it is a legitimate opportunity.
[00:32:53] Bob: And the advice we give is, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. But people who are looking for a job, they really, really want these things to be true, right, you might, you might have been looking for a couple of months and finally you get this really enticing offer, and, and you’re just really inclined to believe it, because that’s what you want.
[00:33:09] Toni Frana: Yes, and, and that’s where they get us. Because you’re tired. It is hard to find a job. You know, you put your information out there, and you apply to jobs, and oftentimes you might not even hear back from an employer when you submit an application, and so when somebody from an organization starts to engage with you, it’s easy to get excited and to get your hopes up that this might be the right fit. It is hard to be in that position. And that’s why, you know, this information and just trusting your gut, right, when you get into a situation where everything about the opportunity seems too good to be true, if you can force yourself to take a step back, and all of the information that you have and that you know from previous work experiences and how you’ve landed at a job, and the process that you went through, really just take a step back before you say yes to anything, can save you a lot of struggle and heartache if you get further and further along in, inside a scam.
[00:34:21] So, Toni, what are the red flags that consumers should looks for when hunting for remote work?
[00:34:27] Toni Frana: So there are plenty of them. I’ve mentioned this already asking, or the job is paying you a lot of money for not a lot of work, or any sort of rags to riches story that showcases, you know, high-flying lifestyles like overnight you could have, you know, thousands of dollars a month for doing, you know, two hours of work. A job posting that has grammatical or spelling errors is a telltale sign of, you know, a job scam. We talked about email addresses already, and any upfront expenses. We talked about the technology stipends and, and reimbursements there. If a job compensation is based on how many people you recruit, that is a sign of a scam as well. That’s just when you’re reading the job online, right, the job posting. There are signs of scams in the interview, um, you know, the interviewer might not be interested in the answers that you’re giving when he or she asks you questions. Um, they’re not interested in what you’re going to bring to the table. Instead, they offer you the job immediately, and they express an urgency to accept. That is not typical of a legitimate job offer. Typically you have time to review the offer at least 24 hours, sometimes you can ask for more, so that is definitely a sign, a sign of a scam.
[00:35:54] Bob: You might remember that our high school teacher got her first paycheck via PayPal. I asked Toni if that was a bad sign.
[00:36:02] Toni Frana: They are, you know, but I will say um, in regard to PayPal, I had a remote job once before, and I was a 1099, and I was paid via PayPal. And I will say that when that first was established with me, I was concerned, because I had never had that before. But it was legitimate. We were an organization, you know, I worked there for almost two years, and so I think with 1099 or freelance type work, you may see that companies will, you know, pay via PayPal or another outlet. So that’s not necessarily in–, indicative of a scam. However, it is indicative that you need to do some more due diligence, right, and figure out um, before you go any further, is this, you know, legitimate. You know, who can you talk to. Are there people on LinkedIn who work at the organization. How long have they been there? Maybe somebody would be willing to talk to you a little bit about what it’s like to work at the organization. So are there, there are some things that you can do. When you express concern or your question their boss, and then there’s some sort of threat about you asking questions, you know, certainly that type of behavior, I think too can be, can be a red flag.
[00:37:19] Bob: You bring up a really important point which is now in the 1099 world with the P2P systems, well there’s all sorts of third party payrolls systems. All of this is more complicated than I think it used to be and, and there are thousands of ways to work for a company that are legitimate that makes it even harder for people to sort through what might be a red flag and what isn’t, I think.
[00:37:41] Toni Frana: Absolutely. And I, I wish there was, you know, an easy button for, for us to, you know have a, a streamlined process to make sure that, you know, this freelance opportunity, or this gig job, and this way that they, the third party pay system is legitimate, I think the important thing here is as a jobseeker, as a person who is looking for work, the due diligence and the research component to this is really critical. I think, again, if you can identify other people who maybe have had experiences or worked through opportunities if it’s a freelance position with an organization that you are looking at or interested in or in conversations with, you know, can be really helpful. Um, and again, as I said, sometimes just a simple online search with the word scam attached to the search criteria can reveal scams if they’re out there. And that doesn’t take very long, but it’s well worth the time and effort to do it because of what you might uncover, and it can save you a lot of time and heartache in the long run.
[00:38:51] Bob: Okay, Toni, what are the most common job listings that turn out to be scams?
[00:38:56] Toni Frana: So the number one scam that we see at FlexJobs is data entry. You know, these are jobs that are easy, I, I suppose, I don’t like to say the word easy for scammers, but, but really, they can be, because what they can do in the scam, description of the job is promise a lot of money for a job that doesn’t require very much experience, right. So it would be a great way to get started with remote work. It might be a great way to get started at, as an entry level worker, somebody who maybe has just graduated from high school or college, and so there are a lot of data entry scams out there. Data entry jobs very, very rarely pay an exorbitant amount of money. It’s pretty, it’s a pretty typical pay rate. So that’s something that you want to look out for. The second most common scam that we see, believe it or not, are pyramid marketing schemes which don’t involve a product. It just involves the exchange of money and, again, sort of recruiting people to do what you are doing. So that’s something to be wary of, and I, those have been around for a really long time. Job scammers will also set up a scam for wire transfers, and sometimes this seems, you know, kind of convoluted in my mind, like how could this be a job, but wire transfer scams move money quickly from one account to another. And so these transactions are very difficult to reverse, making it, you know, almost impossible to recover any of the lost funds, and this could be again, if we’re talking about the employee giving um, bank account information to the employer at a time when it’s too soon and they can take that money and, and run. We talked um, a little bit about unsolicited job offers or urgent job offers. So sometimes a jobseeker will get an email or a message on email, in a digital, a social platform that says, “We have a job for you. We need you to take this job. You are the perfect person for this.” This is a job that is not sought out by the jobseeker but does offer immediate employment. There’s also this, you know, kind of category of shipping or assembling products. And those um, are scams as well. Sometimes people will get a reshipping job, they’re called, or postal forwarding. These are work at home jobs that involve packing and repacking products and forwarding the package to customers outside of the United States. The catch is that the packaging of the product, they are stolen goods that have been shipped to the quote-unquote employee, and then the employee is taking those stolen goods, unbeknownst to them, and shipping them to people outside of the US. I mentioned craft products. So there, there are companies out there that um, will ask you to help assemble um, gift baskets or crafts uh, to send to customers. Usually they’re asked to pay an enrollment fee, and you have to purchase all of the supplies and materials from the organization. The company promises to pay you back for each package that you send. Usually what happens in this type of scam is the company will say the package that you made did not meet your standards, it does not look like the sample finished product that we provided to you, and you won’t get paid for it. And so you’ve lost all of that money. Those are the, the main scams that we’ve seen. You mentioned catfishing earlier. This is also out there for, for a job scam. You know, you click on a specific link or you’re giving detailed personal and financial information. Someone is trying to collect as much information as they can for you to use maliciously. One of the things that we’ve been seeing, or I read about recently is a new scam where a recruiter will contact you, and you’ll be in conversation with them, and they will say, let’s move this conversation to Telegram, uh which is an app that encrypts all of the information there, and, and once you give that information through that app, the, the scammer has it and can use it to your disadvantage, and their, you know, advantage.
[00:43:26] Bob: Toni even has a list of keywords that are red flags for job seekers.
[00:43:32] Toni Frana: Things like, quick money, unlimited earning potential, free work from home jobs, investment opportunities and seminars, a part-time job with fulltime pay, and envelope stuffing. So these are some keywords that should be red flags or cause a little bit of alarm when you’re reading the job posting and really require y