A student sits in my office, tears trickling down her face. I feel terrible.
"I'm sorry to say this, but I think you've been scammed," I had told her a few moments before.
I can remember her reaction: eyes widening, back straightening, shock and surprise showing clearly on her face. All she could say was, "what?"
I don't blame her for being surprised. She was in a pretty desperate hunt for a job - had been looking for weeks and lack of money was becoming a pretty serious issue. It didn't help that she was new to campus - and to the country, for that matter. The whole process of looking for a job here seemed like a mystery. Then she found a job posting on Craigslist that seemed appealing - almost too good to be true, really - so she applied.
From there, things seemed to only get better. She got a call back right away on the same day, and after talking for only a few minutes, was offered a job outright.
She hung up the phone that day feeling the kind of excitement and relief that only long-term job seekers escaping unemployment can feel. All she needed to know at that point was that her days of looking for a job were over, and that the desperate situation she was in was about to get better.
Unfortunately, the truth was that things were about to get much worse.
It didn't bother her too much that she didn't really know that much about the job she was just hired to do. The vague descriptions on the original job ad sounded easy - she knew she'd be able to work from home for the most part, and the man who called her said he would have more information for her soon. He couldn't meet with her in person right away as he was currently overseas on business.
For now, to sort out some banking information and give her an advance on her first paycheque, all she had to do was cash a cheque that he would mail to her, and wire some money back to an account he would specify for the same amount minus a few hundred dollars, which she could keep.
What had been excitement turned into frustration and confusion after the package he tried to send her was intercepted at the border. Frustration and confusion turned into anxiety when she couldn't get a hold of the man who had contacted her to let him know what had happened. It was that worry that brought her to my office. That worry later turned to legitimate fear once she realized that a scammer now had a bunch of her personal information. Needless to say, her next stop after seeing me was the local police station.
Fortunately, she came to see me before sending any money away. Had she done so, and deposited the promised cheque, she would have learned the truth about the fraud she'd been pulled into, and been hundreds of dollars poorer for the lesson after the fake cheque bounced.
I'd love to say that employment scams like the above only happen rarely. The harsh reality is that they are becoming more and more common, and scammers are continually coming up with new strategies to efficiently separate innocent and often desperate job seekers from their money.
So What Can You Do About It?
It's a terrible feeling to be the victim of fraud, even if you don't end up losing that much money. The feeling that someone else has taken advantage of you, stolen important information from you, and unfairly gained from your losses leaves one feeling incredibly vulnerable. So what can you do to prevent this from happening, and if you think you're being scammed, what should you do?
Does it sound too good to be true? It probably is. Is the "employer/recruiter" using a personal email address instead of a company one? Are they asking for personal information other than your phone number and email address up front, such as bank account information? Worse yet, are they asking you to buy something or send them money? Treat any and all of these signs as red flags that the job is really a scam. Here's a great article outlining these and more warning signs. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre also has some helpful tips on preventing fraud, in addition to a forum and various scam samples.
Contact your jurisdiction's police department (non-emergency - this is not a 911 call) as soon as you suspect that you've been involved in a potential employment scam - they will have a financial crime or fraud unit that you can speak to. They may also have important information for you on keeping yourself safe if you've shared confidential personal information. Additionally, report the scam to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre - you can do so online, by phone, or by email.
If you found the posting on a job posting website such as Symplicity, it's also a good idea to flag the posting, or contact the administrators of the job board to let them know about the potential scam so they can remove the posting immediately. Often, job boards employ a self-serve system that savvy scammers can trick into allowing them to post, often posing as a representative of a legitimate company. Users of these job boards can be a great help in spotting and removing fraudulent postings.
Have you ever been involved in an employment scam, or heard of a nasty one? If you're comfortable sharing, I'd love to hear about it in the comments, or on Twitter @lindenforest!