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"Mystery shopper," "work-at-home," and other job scams are nothing new, but with so many people looking for work, it's more important than ever to be on guard. Some of these offers are legitimate, but many are scams to rip you off or even involve you in criminal activity. Here are some scams to watch out for:
Who wouldn't want to get paid to shop? Mystery shoppers are hired by businesses to make undercover shopping trips, then evaluate the service they receive. Such jobs do exist, but many of the classified ads or email offers you receive are scams. The Mystery Shopping Providers Association warns that any job that requires you to to cash a check from a legitimate business, then wire back most of the money to "evaluate" the wire service; the check turns out to be forged. ("Fake Check Scams -- Do Not Be Fooled!," May 24, 2011.)
At best, they may charge you a fee for certification or for access to job listings. The Federal Trade Commission's "Mystery Shopper Scams" article points out that "is unnecessary to pay money to anyone to get into the mystery shopper business. The shopping certification offered in advertising or unsolicited email is almost always worthless."
If you are interested in becoming a mystery shopper, start by visiting the Mystery Shopping Providers Association at http://www.mysteryshop.org. Their site lists shopping companies you can apply to for free, along with other free information.
Government jobs – for a fee
Another type of job scam is the email or classified ad offering to help you find and apply for jobs, for a fee. Often these listings relate to jobs with the federal government or U.S. Post Office. According to the Federal Trade Commission, "Some [companies] even try to hoodwink people by using company names that sound like federal agencies, like the 'U.S. Agency for Career Advancement' or the 'Postal Employment Service.'" ("Government Job Scams," FTC, Feb. 2010.) All federal job are announced to the public for free at USAJOBS.gov .
The FTC's list of "tip-offs" for fraudulent job placement services include:
- Classified ads or verbal sales pitches that imply an affiliation with the federal government, guarantee high test scores or jobs or state that "no experience is necessary."
- Ads that offer information about "hidden" or unadvertised federal jobs.
- Ads that refer to a toll-free phone number. Often, in these cases, an operator encourages you to buy a "valuable" booklet containing job listings, practice test questions and tips for entrance exams.
- Toll-free numbers that direct you to other pay-per-call numbers for more information.
Under federal law, any solicitations for pay-per-call numbers must contain full disclosures about cost. Also, the solicitation must make clear if there is an affiliation with the federal government. You must have a chance to hang up before you incur any charges.
Not all job placement scams relate to government jobs. The FTC's helpful website, "Money Matters," offers steps to take before spending money responding to ads for any kind of job placement services. Suggestions include being skeptical of firms that require payment up front, reading your contract carefully to understand the services offered and fees charged, and contacting any company or organization mentioned by an employment service to find out if the company is really hiring.
Emails, classifieds and even signs on telephone poles advertise tempting opportunities to make money at home typing, stuffing envelopes, home assembly work, processing medical billing, re-shipping packages, and more. According to the FBI, many of these offers are fraudulent. You may be required to pay for supplies, set-up and training that turn out to be worthless. Or it may turn out to be a pyramid scheme – your compensation may depend on recruiting other "distributers" to sign up (and pay for supplies) as well.
Sometimes overseas criminals hire U.S.-based agents to receive and re-ship checks, merchandise, and solicitations to other potential victims – involving you in a criminal scheme without your knowledge. The personal information you provide in your "application" may also be used to steal your identity. ("Work-at-Home Scams: Job One–Don't Take the Bait," Federal Bureau of Investigation, April 17, 2009, http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2009/april/workathome_041709.)
The FTC provides more details on the types of work-at-home schemes to look out for, as well as questions to ask before applying for a work-at-home job. Questions include:
- Be suspicious when money is required up front for instructions or products.
- Don't provide personal information when first interacting with your prospective employer.
- Do your own research into legitimate work-at-home opportunities, using resources that may be available at your local library.
You can also check for complaints against the company with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org/).
More details, including where to complain if you feel you have been cheated, can be found on the FTC's website ("Work-at-Home Businesses," Federal Trade Commission, Feb. 2010), and on the website of the Better Business Bureau ("Work-at-home Job Scams," Better Business Bureau).
Links for "Job Scams"
Federal Trade Commission, www.ftc.gov
"Mystery Shopper Scams," FTC, June 2012
"Government Job Scams," FTC, Feb. 2010
"Job Hunting/Job Scams," FTC’s MoneyMatters
"Work-at-Home Businesses," FTC, March Feb. 2010
Mystery Shopping Providers Association, http://www.mysteryshop.org
"Fake Check Scams -- Do Not Be Fooled!," May 24, 2011.
Federal Bureau of Investigation, www.fbi.gov
“Work-at-Home Scams: Job One–Don't Take the Bait," Federal Bureau of Investigation, April 17, 2009.
Better Business Bureau, www.bbb.org/
"Work-at-home Job Scams,," Better Business Bureau, 2013
By Kate Fitz, Public Services Librarian
06/2009, updated 5/2013