BUSINESS

You're hired! Send us personal information: Why job scams are skyrocketing

Jaimie Ding
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Two days after applying for a job on LinkedIn, Sandi Pounder received the good, if surprising, news.

"I am glad to inform you that due to your level of experience and your working skills, the company has decided to hire you as one of our Data Analyst (REMOTE)," the email read. "On behalf of our firm, I congratulate you on your achievement."

A subsequent email from HR told her she would receive a long list of equipment to her home in Monta Vista, Colo. — including an Apple iMac Pro, external hard drive, file cabinets, HP LaserJet Printer — that she could purchase using a check that would be mailed to her.

In the span of 48 hours, she had submitted a resume, filled out a list of extensive interview questions, and received a job offer.

The process couldn't have gone more smoothly — until she opened the official offer letter. It was addressed to "Greeshma."

Pounder quickly discovered she was the target of a job scam, an elaborate ruse to trick desperate job-seekers into handing over their personal information, and in many cases, their money.

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Scams have been around for as long as people have, but employment scams have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic as remote positions become the norm and employers become increasingly dependent on online forms of communication.

The number of job and employment agency-related scams reported to the Federal Trade Commission nearly tripled between 2020 and 2021 from 7,324 to 21,848 in the third quarter of each year.

"Scammers always follow the headlines and are looking to exploit the things that people need in any given moment," said Kati Daffan, assistant director of the FTC's Division of Marketing Practices, which responds to consumer fraud. "So we saw a lot of offers — that people could work from home, that people could have flexible jobs, that people could make a lot of money without too much effort."

Pounder, 52, was re-entering the workforce after taking some time off and selling her home in Wyoming. She had several years of experience in IT, mostly business systems and data analyst roles.

The company she had applied to work for was a legitimate architecture firm based in New York, and though the pay was lower than she would normally accept, it was a remote role and she was interested in working in architecture. While she never spoke to anyone during the application process, she figured it was just how things worked in a pandemic-transformed world.

"That should have been a red flag from the beginning … if I hadn't been busy with other things," Pounder said.

She also double-checked that the person who initially reached out to set up an interview matched the name of the person on LinkedIn listed as the hiring manager. After receiving the offer letter addressed to the wrong person, however, she decided to call the architecture firm to confirm her position.

They told her their LinkedIn account had been hacked.

Others have also reported encountering fake recruiter profiles for legitimate companies on LinkedIn and other job search sites like Indeed.

Heather Lagaso, 42, has been on the hunt for a remote job since her role in compliance and records management at the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health division was cut in November 2021.

In 2022, she encountered 67 fraudulent job postings almost all on LinkedIn or Indeed, she said. She's been keeping track of the listings in a document she shared with The Times.

"I was honestly looking for anything that offered … a home schedule or some sort of flexibility with it," due to her son's medical needs, said Lagaso, who lives in Gervais, Ore. She noticed many of the jobs were in customer service, personal assistance, or things involving logistics or dispatch.

Some scams were obvious, but others were tougher to spot — including one that involved a web address similar to the real company's domain name, she said. In that case, she applied through LinkedIn, and was asked to download an app called Wire for further communication.

Online scammers are increasingly using fake job offers to lure victims. (Dreamstime/TNS)

LinkedIn spokesperson Autumn Cobb said members should report scammers so they can take appropriate action and utilize new features to job search safely, such as information on when profiles were created and warning labels on "potential high-risk content."

"Unfortunately, scammers are becoming more sophisticated," Cobb said. "We use a combination of human reviews and automated defenses to prevent job scams and we encourage members to watch for signs of potential fraud at every stage in their job search."

LinkedIn said it proactively removed 87.1 million spam or scam content in the first half of 2022.

Indeed spokesperson Spencer Dandes said the site encourages users to report suspicious job advertisements or make a report to the police if they feel necessary.

"We have a dedicated search quality team who goes to extraordinary lengths deploying a variety of techniques to assess the suitability and validity of job listings," Dandes said. "Indeed removes tens of millions of job listings each month that do not meet our quality guidelines."

Pounder's experience is a classic example of the fake check scam, which makes up about one-third of income scam reports to the FTC, according to Daffan. Lagaso said she also encountered five job scams that involved receiving a check.

"The scammer will send money to somebody and have a very convincing story for why when you receive this money, part of your new job will be to send the money elsewhere or buy equipment or buy gift cards for your boss," Daffan said.

The scam is effective because banks often make funds from deposited checks available within a couple business days, but it can take weeks to find out they're fake. By then, the person will have made their purchases and are out with their own money.

Sometimes people are asked to buy equipment and ship it somewhere as a way to convert money to products to resell or gift cards for their co-workers and bosses.

Another common job scam is personal information phishing, where a supposed employer asks for your social security number or banking information for direct deposits.

When Lagaso heard back from the company to which she applied, she was told to fill out another form that included direct deposit information.

"That's a strange thing to put as part of the application, but people who are desperate aren't going to really question that," she said.

Lagaso said her job search has been hindered by a felony conviction from 2005 that makes it difficult for her to apply for more traditional positions.

"People like me with you know, bachelor's degrees from universities and valuable skills are sort of left out in the dark looking for whatever we can get," Lagaso said. "And the 'whatever we can gets', we're the sick animal in the pack, basically, we're the target, because we're desperate."

Since the rise in income scams at the end of 2020, the FTC has worked with law enforcement agencies to implement nationwide crackdowns on scams and bring cases against fraudulent companies. The agency is pursuing policy to have greater tools for tackling government or business impersonation.

Consumer and business education is also crucial to preempting scams. Daffan's department tries to research and keep the public updated on new trends and types of scams "because obviously it's much better to prevent someone from losing money in the first place," she said.

Pounder's experience of being nearly scammed has made her more cautious during her job search, especially when receiving unsolicited emails and calls from recruiters, she said. She has made sure to double-check LinkedIn profiles and contact information with company websites, though everything has checked out since.

"What caught me was that I was [using] LinkedIn as basically as a trusted source," Pounder said. "So that's the big thing that's changed for me I think."