The ads are everywhere: in your mailbox, online or tacked to telephone poles in your neighborhood.
They all make similar promises. "Earn big money! Work at home!"
With unemployment at a 25-year high and even people with seemingly secure jobs feeling uneasy, it can be tempting to respond to offers to turn your computer into a cash machine to help you earn big money for doing simple tasks. There are some legitimate work-at-home opportunities, but there are also countless scams that could cost you money — and even get you into legal trouble.
Sandie Durham, a legal assistant with one law firm, was hoping to find an alternative source of income in case she lost her job.
"I've been at the law firm for 11 years, but with the economy, people would rather eat than pay their attorneys," she said. "I was just trying to find something legitimate."
Last month, she clicked on an ad for what appeared to be data entry work for online search engine Google.
"I saw that word, 'Google,' and I thought this cannot be a scam, that is a very well-known name," she said.
Durham plugged in her credit card information, agreeing to pay $1.97 for online details and another $2.95 for a CD with more information about the work. She canceled her credit card after four charges, plus foreign transaction fees, totaling $163.17 appeared on her statement.
Michael King found an ad touting a way to earn through Google on a news Web site. He thought the site would have vetted its advertisers.
"I was under the impression that if a legitimate Web site would allow the company to post something on there, it's got to have a certain degree of legitimacy," said King, of Winston-Salem, N.C. "That's not true."
"We see this over and over and over again," said Alison Southwick, spokeswoman for the U.S. Better Business Bureau, which handled complaints from Durham and King. The BBB has gotten complaints about variations invoking names like Google, eBay, Craigslist, Facebook, YouTube and most recently the buzz-laden Twitter, but all rely on people not reading the fine print and unwittingly agreeing to pay monthly fees on their credit cards.
"Google isn't affiliated with these sorts of sites," said Jan Nancarrow, a spokesman for the Mountain View, Calif.-based Internet company.
In April, the Texas attorney general took action against the operators of several sites, including Google, MoneyTree.com and InternetIncomeInitiative.com, charging them with running fraudulent sites. The operators agreed last month to suspend their activities while a civil case moves forward. But Southwick said one of the problems with these scams is that the operators often simply set up new sites after they are outed with multiple complaints to the BBB, government agencies or on consumer boards.
Moreover, this is just one type of job scam that law enforcement and consumer advocates see. Another common scheme has unwitting people receive, repackage and ship items, often to overseas addresses. That could result in someone being fooled into receiving stolen property and distributing those items, both crimes that could be prosecuted, said Charles Pavelites, a supervisory special agent for the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3.
"The first place the police are going to find is you," he warned.
A variation of that scam involves having people cash checks and wire the money somewhere, again often overseas. Such "work" is likely a cover for a money-laundering scheme, Pavelites said.
Similar problems have been found with some rebate processing work, envelope-stuffing jobs, magazine subscription sales and medical billing gigs, all of which have concealed frauds designed to sell unwitting workers products they don't want or that are variations of pyramid schemes, which use new victims to fund the "profits" of older ones. If victims provide enough information, Pavelites noted, the scams also can be used for identity theft.
Scams during recession
It's hard to quantify how many job seekers get caught up in such frauds, Pavelites said. For 2008, there was more than $264.6 million in victim losses from overall Internet fraud, an average of $931 per complaint, reported to IC3. And, he noted, not everyone files a complaint with the FBI.
"You've got to imagine the problem is much larger," he said.
It's also difficult to say if the recession has led to an increase in scams, but there's a general impression it has.
"Obviously when there are more people looking for work, I think that the chances that people will take up one of these fraudulent offers is greater," said Patrick Manzo, chief privacy offer for online job site Monster.com.
Monster uses both technology and human assessment to review job postings on the site, but it also warns job seekers to carefully assess any offers they receive.
"We can only do so much, ultimately, to make sure that a resume doesn't fall into the hands of someone who doesn't have the best interests of a job seeker at heart," Manzo said.
Adding to the confusion is that there are legitimate ways to earn money through Google and other sites. Google, for instance, operates a free program called AdSense that enables participants to earn money by displaying targeted ads on their own Web pages or blogs.
Job seekers should take precautions and research any companies they are considering working with before sharing credit card or personal information, said Pavelites, adding, "Anything that looks too good to be true probably is."