Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Catfish Job Scams

Catfish aren't only lurking on the romance sites.

The recent story involving Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o’s fake internet girlfriend has brought the term “catfish” to a mainstream audience.   The Urban Dictionary defines catfish as “someone who pretends to be someone they're not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.”  But the loathsome practice of catfishing can also be applied to individuals who pretend to be employers and set up false identities to deceive or steal from vulnerable job seekers.

The least damage a catfish job scammer will do is waste your time.  The worst is that they will empty your bank account and steal your identity.  Catfish jobs are often phishing scams: thinly veiled attempts to get you to part with personal information that can then be used to steal your identity. Therefore, do not send your credit card numbers, social security number, birthdate, etc., unless you are absolutely sure the company and the opportunity are legitimate. If you suspect you might have applied to a catfish job scam, contact your bank and the credit reporting services immediately. Here’s a federal government site to help you further. 

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About.com has an extensive site about job scams, including a place where you can submit information if you believe you have been scammed, with the hope of alerting others to common scams. They indicate that, particularly for college students and entry-level job seekers, certain fields like marketing, sports, and entertainment are likely to have a greater number of scams connected to them, and they provide lists of known scammers.

Here are seven red flags that should cause you to pause before applying for the job:

1. The job opportunity arrives via email and is unsolicited.   Be careful about opening or clicking on a link in this type of email. If you think it might be legitimate, log out of your email and then try entering the email or website address in your browser’s search box and see if anything pops up. Make sure your anti-virus software is current.  Do not open or fill out any “applications” sent via this email.

2.  The job is listed on Craigslist. While Craigslist is a great site for many things, and the source of many legitimate jobs, it has also become a haven for job scammers. Here is a funny video created by Benny Valencia, who, having been scammed himself by a fake job opportunity on Craigslist decided to play along with a scammer. (Note: this is generally not a good idea—if you’ve been contacted by a scammer don’t interact. Report them to the police.)

3. The job description looks suspicious.  It is vague, contains poor grammar or misspellings, the email address doesn’t include the company name, or the phone number or zip code doesn’t match its geographic location.  Here’s a tip: try copying a portion of the text and pasting it in the search box of your browser.  Sometimes you will discover that the same text has appeared on a variety of job boards (sometimes for many years) probably indicating that it is not a genuine opportunity.

4. You are offered the opportunity to get rich while working from home.  The “work at home” field is filled with scams.  We are all enchanted with this idea that we can stay at home and somehow magically rake in huge amounts of money.  This doesn’t mean that everything work-at-home related is a scam, but you must be careful.  Here’s a site that several news outlets have reported as legitimate. I would still say tread with caution and investigate thoroughly.  As the site owner says on her homepage: “I believe the opportunities presented here to be legitimate. Always do your own research.”  She is correct.  This article at CareerBuilder.com quotes a 56-to-1 scam ratio in the work-at-home industry.

5. The job is 100% commission-based.  While certain fields like real estate or sales are often 100% commission-based and legitimate, many of these sales-based jobs are a tough career choice unless you have unlimited wealthy friends and relatives to whom you can sell the product.  Some people have the personality for this type of sales work, but many don’t.   Here’s a good article about whether to take a commission-only job.

6.  You are offered “hidden” federal government job opportunities.  These scammers will offer so-called practice examinations and application assistance, and often claim to have access to special hidden opportunities.  You can get sample test questions for free from the agency producing the test, and often the tests are aptitude based, meaning you probably can’t prepare or study for them.  All the information you need to obtain a government job is online and free. Start here.  There is no need to pay for “special” government job postings.  All postings are public. The Federal Trade Commission also has information about these scams. Remember, too, that legitimate government agencies have the “.gov” ending  of their URL.  If the ending is “.com” you’re likely not on a legitimate site. 

7. You are asked to send money or otherwise pay to learn about job opportunities.  This scam shows up often around writing jobs. While there are some special circumstances such as being asked to purchase products for demonstrations, again, be very careful.  Avoid search firms that charge fees to help you find a job.  This fee might take the form of “resume review” or “interview preparation.” They might offer you the “opportunity” to take their workshops for a fee.  Legitimate employment agencies do not charge you a fee—the employer pays their fees. 

Do your homework. Google the name of the company. But remember that’s not always going to help—an elaborate scam will have a fake website so add the word “scam” and search again. Look up the organization with the Better Business Bureau. If you can, visit their physical location or MapQuest the location.  Be aware that catfish job scammers often pose as legitimate well-known companies, stealing their logos and other identifying information to throw you off.

Bottom line, your mother was right.  If an opportunity sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  And if it looks fake, it probably is.

©2013 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved.  Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit: ivanpw’s photostream

Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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