The cardinal rule for avoiding work-from-home job scams is simple: if an opportunity sounds too good to be true, chances are very good it is.
With U.S. unemployment stuck around 9 percent and the hunt for a new position taking 40 weeks or longer for many people 50 and older, offers to get paid for work you can do from home may sound irresistible.
But proceed with caution. Scammers are preying on desperate job seekers. In April, a Santa Ynez, Calif., man was sentenced to six years in federal prison for falsely promising bartending and mystery-shopper jobs to people around the country in a scam that cost thousands of victims $6 million, according to the FBI.
Christine Durst and Michael Haaren, experts on home-based careers who run a virtual-jobs training program for the U.S. military, maintain a "Scam-o-Meter" to track cons that part job seekers with money or personal information. As of July, they estimated that there were 60 scam listings online for every legitimate work-from-home opportunity.
In tough times, people let down their guards out of desperation, says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a website that offers subscribers pre-screened listings for part-time and other flexible positions. "Scammers have been successful because (people) keep coming back for more," she says. "It's really tough, even for savvy job seekers. I've talked to people who (blog) about this topic extensively and they've come forward and admitted, 'I've gotten scammed.'"
If you're looking for part- or full-time work you can do from home, here are some red flags that employment and fraud experts say could signal a job listing isn't on the up and up:
1. Phrases such as "work from home" or "WFH." The home-based job market is changing, with more companies and government agencies giving employees flexibility to choose where and when to work. Companies with legitimate positions are opting to use "telecommute" or "telework" to describe available positions to distinguish themselves from scammers.
2. No company name. Blind ads aren't unusual, especially if they're placed by a recruiter or staffing firm working on a company's behalf. But they could also signal a scam. If you have doubts, research the recruiter or staffing firm to make sure they're for real, Fell says.
3. No company website or email address. At a time when even the smallest company has a website or other online presence, be careful of job listings that don't include a URL. Likewise, take care when replying to an email address that doesn't include a company's domain name. It could be a scammer posing as the company "but you'd have no way of checking," Fell says.
4. Promises of quick cash. "If you're promised you'll make easy money for easy work, that's a red flag," Fell says.
5. Advance fees. You shouldn't have to pay anything up front to get a job. The same goes for providing personal financial information -- don't share it, or you could be the unwitting victim of identity theft, according to the FBI's work-at-home job scams tip sheet.
If you find a job that sounds promising, try verifying it yourself to see if it's legit. Contact the company directly. Vet them with the Better Business Bureau. Do a Google search on the company's name and the word "scam" to see what comes up. However, take search results with a grain of salt. You may find some unflattering comments, "but that doesn't mean they're scammers," Fell says. "It just helps give a bigger picture of a company. And if there's nothing, that's an even better sign."
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