While the pandemic has brought out the best in many who are creating and joining efforts to help their communities move forward in the face of extreme disruption and ambiguity, it has also unfortunately uncovered some parasites, whose goal is to exploit others’ misfortune.
With unemployment numbers reaching the tens of millions in the U.S., online scammers with nefarious intentions have sadly found their silver lining to the detriment of many individuals searching for work.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, since January over $40 million has been lost to COVID-19 related scams. And, since the pandemic’s economic impact started to emerge in March, the Better Business Bureau has reported nearly 8,000 job listing scams in America, an increase of about 8% compared to the same period last year. And, that’s only the ones that have been reported.
Recently, I spoke with nationally recognized technology consultant and owner of the software development company emedia, Anna P. Murray, who shared some important tips to protect job seekers from a potentially costly online mistake.
With more people online since the pandemic hit earlier this year, plus the huge increase in unemployment, we’re seeing an increase in online and virtual scams. In your expertise, what is driving this, Anna?
Psychology is so much a part of online scams, and the scammers and hackers want to catch people in that moment where they’re not thinking. We all have those moments in our lives when we’re not thinking and you wonder, “why did I do that?” from putting the ice cream in the oven to watering your dog instead of your plant. You’re distracted because you’re stressed.
So, in the COVID environment, we have an ideal petri dish of people doing all kinds of new things they haven’t done before – working from home, your pencil’s not where you thought it was – and very stressed. Maybe they’ve lost a job, maybe their spouse has lost their job, maybe they don’t know if their company’s going to succeed or not. So, all of this creates a really ripe environment for scammers.
And, they’re getting more sophisticated. Now that scammers know we’re online 24/7, they’re putting more effort into it. If you’re not paying exquisite attention, we can all fall for these.
Yeah, there are a few basic things we’ll get to in a minute that can be your vaccine, so to speak, against this, but for sure these scams are very sophisticated. There are websites that mimic the Small Business Administration to get people to go there to apply for their loans. There are reports of fake job recruitment happening — one woman lost money through a scam and went through several rounds of actual interviews. There are sites that mock well-known brand sites with job listings.
I think the bottom line is the rule has now changed. It used to be you could take a careful look at the URL or the email addresses and in two seconds understand there’s something wrong. If you’re just relying on your eyes, especially if you’re distracted, that’s not going to do it.
We’re constantly hearing negative news, all of which is increasing anxiety. So, when you see something online that looks like the perfect job, it’s really easy to want to believe it. What are some things people need to recognize when they’re doing an online job search?
Well, the first thing is to be aware that employment-related scams are either at the top or nearing the top of the current scam environment these days. If you’re not reading the cyber security headlines, job hunters might not even know this is a really popular vector for scammers right now.
Some of it is happening through unsolicited inbound communication and people posing as recruiters, and some of it might be a job posting for a well-known brand. The net result of these online scams is, generally speaking, what’s called a “money mule” scam or a “harvesting of your information” scam. So, you see this posting and it is a very generic title like “customer service rep” or “administrative assistant.” That’s your first tip off – it’s not super corporate lingo. Then, you get into an interaction where you start fill out this online form with your name and your social security number and your bank information so they can wire you money. And, the trap has just closed when you give all that information.
Yes, there’s no reason to give out that level of personal information until you’re hired, you’ve filled out the legal paperwork and are sitting at the desk. But most of us are not sitting at the desk now. It used to be that “work from home” was one of those signs something is probably a scam, but now many are working from home, so some of those general things aren’t even red flags anymore.
That’s correct. Truly, I think people get confused because we all know when you go for your first day on the job, you go to the HR office, and indeed, you give them a lot of personal information. So, that’s somewhere in the back of your mind. Just remind yourself that doesn’t happen in the interview. So, definitely don’t give personal information, bank routing information, or any of that to somebody you don’t know.
The next thing to remember is a lot of these employment scammers do this odd check overpayment thing. So, maybe they’re telling you you’re going to have to buy some computer equipment, etc. Now this sounds like a really good deal. Rather than you buy it, fill out an expense report and get reimbursed, which would be what happens in the normal world, what’s happening in the scam world is somebody’s offering their new “employee” a $4000 check for expenses or whatever.
The check is an overpayment, and they may even tell you it’s an overpayment by saying, “you’re going to have to buy a bunch of equipment — we want to be sure you’re covered, so here’s a check.” It goes into your account. Initially, it clears, so you think ‘great.’ Then, they ask you to transfer money out of the account or maybe they’re asking you to purchase equipment from this particular site, which of course they’re also in control of, and then your bank calls you five days later and says the check was a fake. It cleared and then the money was discovered to be fake.
It used to be there were obvious spelling or grammar errors, and some of that’s still happening, but now scammers are doing a really great job of looking legitimate.
The scammers and hackers have really become literal professionals. I mean, this is a profession in the world here for making money. And, when you’re in a distracted frame of mind, you really are far more vulnerable. Most of us are a lot less smart than we think when we’re really super anxious and distracted. And, the other psychological factor that comes into it is if you are feeling a little bit desperate in your life because you’ve lost a job or whatever it might happen to be – you had a small business, but now you can’t pay the rent — when you’re in that frame of mind you actually want to believe this good thing is happening. So, you’re fighting your own wish that it’s true. You can feel the relief flooding in – you want to believe.
One way people can see if something’s real is by doing a deep Google search — Do they have a legit website? Are they on LinkedIn? Do they have legit followers on LinkedIn? Basically, is there a paper trail, or a digital trail, to their legitimacy? What else can people do?
So, there are a couple of rules of thumb you have to keep in mind. Anything that’s incoming to you, is by its nature suspicious. By now, we’ve all been drowning in marketing phone calls. If it’s inbound communication and arrives out of the blue in your inbox or on your telephone, question it. So, number one, question inbound communication.
Number two, resist the urge to click. Do not do the following – you’re on the phone with your boss or somebody else secretly combing through your inbox and some headline grabs you and you’re clicking before you know it. This is the definition of distraction. Multitasking — we all do it, but if you combine that with an unknown or surprising email and you click, you’re in deep trouble.
The third thing to keep in mind is if any alarm flag goes off, there’s always another way to get in contact with someone who’s legitimate. Okay, Chase Bank called you? Hang up the phone, turn the card around, get the 1-800 number and dial it because outbound is always safe. If somebody is saying ‘well, this is a major brand and we’re getting contractors for that major brand’ go to that major brand’s website. Type it into the URL and then look up their job postings. Call their HR department saying, “I think I’m being scammed by someone using your name.” There’s always a backdoor, another way around.
Maybe it is real. But if it’s real, ask the person on the phone for their postal address and the phone number where you can reach them. Ask for a reference for another person who’s gotten a job with this recruiter. Once you start to do just one or two things, you’ll very quickly expose for yourself if this is a scam.
We’re all busy, but this is one place not to be lazy. Anything inbound, turn it around and make it outbound – that is perfect advice, Anna. Also, if you’re subject to a scam, definitely report it to the Federal Trade Commission because they need to understand what’s going on so they can help people avoid these scams in the future.
Anna P. Murray is a nationally recognized technology consultant, speaker and blogger who owns a successful software development company, emedia. She is the author of the critically acclaimed “The Complete Software Project Manager” (Wiley, 2016) and “Greedy Heart” (Tule Publishing, April 2020), a romantic thriller with a savvy tech heroine.
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