Job scams are surprisingly smart. Here’s how to not get burned.

A common job scam is personal information phishing, where a supposed employer asks for your social security number or banking information for direct deposits. — Image by on Freepik

Last fall, Aaron Perkowitz applied for a job as a technical writer. The hirer asked him to compose a paid test article – and when he finished, requested his banking information, to pay him.

Perkowitz asked why so much information was needed – couldn’t they just mail a cheque? No response. “The article took me three hours,” he says, “but I’m glad I didn’t fall for their scam.”

Perkowitz got off easy. Today’s scam ads are often indiscernible from legitimate listings, and can appear on reputable job sites like LinkedIn and Indeed, as well as in your inbox as phishing attacks. Other scammers extract money from applicants under the guise of background checks, security clearance, uniforms or training.

It’s a lucrative line of crime: of the 22,325 job scams reported to The Federal Trade Commission in the third quarter of 2022, the median loss was US$2,000.

“Employers usually have an easy enough time getting applicants’ addresses, phone numbers and even social security numbers,” says Ben Michael, an attorney at Michael & Associates. “Throw in a bank account or credit card number, ostensibly for direct deposit, and that’s everything you need to commit identity theft.”

If it seems like job scams are surging, it's not your imagination: they’ve more than doubled since late 2019, FTC data show. Right now, job-hungry populations are being targeted, such as people laid off by tech companies, immigrants seeking jobs (especially for visa requirements) and recent college grads. The boom in remote jobs allows scammers to advertise positions or companies that don’t necessarily exist.

“The jobs are really tempting,” says Rahul Telang, professor of information systems at Carnegie Mellon University. “People really want to believe what they are seeing. If they see a remote job with flexible hours, they typically tend to fall for that.”

Job hoaxes are getting harder to avoid. Just two years ago, reasonably savvy people could spot most scams with common sense. Most were click-and-go crimes, involving the minimum interaction to procure identity information or install malware. Today’s scams are surprisingly elaborate, with fake company websites and phone or video interviews.

“We’re seeing a willingness of cyber criminals to invest more time in an ongoing relationship with the victim,” says Steve Grobman, chief technology officer at McAfee. “It’s more difficult for scammers to scale, but if they think they’ll get a reasonable payout, they’ll do it.”

We asked experts how to avoid becoming a victim. They say that ten minutes of due diligence is mandatory: locate the company’s website, find the street address on Google Maps, and then scan for articles and press releases that mention the company. Can you find actual employees and message them? Or if it’s a well-known company, call its offices and ask to speak to the person set to do your interview. Beyond that, here’s how to navigate savvier scams.

Don’t be fooled by very individualised recruiting. Previously, a personalised, in-depth recruitment letter meant safety. But today, anyone with access to your LinkedIn profile can ask an AI tool like ChatGPT to create a recruitment letter that name-checks your alma mater and employers. “Scammers can now generate tailored attacks at scale,” says Grobman. He suggests extreme caution in text-only conversations, and to look for unexpected deviations from the timeline: typically, a company shouldn’t ask for information beyond your name, phone and address before formally hiring you and sending a job offer letter.

Tech downloads are a no-no. Unfortunately, video interviews no longer correlate with legitimacy. A common scam is to send an online video link that enables criminals to access valuable information on the computer, or for a hirer to say, “This is a remote position, but we need to do a scan on your equipment to make sure it meets our minimum requirements.” Just say no. “Any request to do something to any of your technology should be a red flag,” says Grobman.

Do not pay for anything. Really. Even if it seems like a plausible charge, such as an application fee, training program or “job placement” service. “Legitimate employers will not ask for any money up front,” says Darren Shafae, founder of software provider ResumeBlaze, who frequently sees his customers fall prey to scams. “If a position requires you to buy something, it is likely fraudulent.” Shafae is also a fan of ignoring too-good-to-be-true jobs. “Not to sound cynical, but chances are that you’re not going to get a job that pays well for very little work.”

Ask a lot of questions about daily job tasks. Boston career coach Amy Reeves recently had a client who was hired for a “professional marketing position” with “on-the-job training” – and when he arrived, was handed a sandwich board and asked to stand on the street. “I’ve heard lots of similar stories,” says Reeves. “They show up for their first day in a suit and are asked to sell burner phones from a folding table or pass out new flavours of hummus at an intersection.” Inquire about specifics of the day-to-day role. – Bloomberg

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