A growing number of Arizona job seekers are getting ripped off by mystery-shopper pitches, pyramid schemes, work-from-home offers and other scams that seem too good to be true. Blame the recession.
The sixth sense that usually gut-checks suspicious offers can get blocked when a person is growing desperate for work, said Judd Rousseau, chief fraud officer of Scottsdale-based Identity Theft 911, which helps victims clean up after their personal information is stolen.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office reported an increase of more than a 275 percent in complaints about business opportunity scams, from about 225 during the first quarter of 2008 to about 850 in the first quarter of 2009, a spokeswoman said.
The Better Business Bureau of Central, Northern and Western Arizona has seen a spike, too.
“I think that people who run scams and these schemes follow the trends in the marketplace,” said Felicia Thompson, a BBB spokeswoman. Scam artists “know people are out of work and know that’s an opportunity to gain someone’s trust and violate that trust.”
There are ways to avoid getting duped, according to organizations such as the BBB, Identity Theft 911, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Trade Commission. Here’s how:
Rip-off: There are variations on this scam, but in one instance the victim receives an official looking letter and a sizable check to conduct undercover market research.
First, he or she must deposit the check into a personal bank account within a few days.
A portion of those funds is the victim’s payment and shopping money. He or she is instructed to wire the rest to an address provided in the letter.
The money needs to be wired in order to test consumer experience with services like Western Union or MoneyGram, some scams claim.
Here’s the problem: The initial check was fake. By the time it bounces, the company is long gone with the victim’s own money that has been wired.
The victim could be on the hook for thousands of dollars.
Warning signs: The Mystery Shopping Providers Association in Dallas warns consumers that shoppers never pay up-front fees. Also, mystery shoppers typically earn roughly $10 on average for an evaluation – not hundreds or thousands.
“People should always look at mystery shopping purely as an opportunity to make a few extra bucks,” said John Swinburn, the group’s executive director. “They can’t depend on mystery shopping to keep them solvent.”
Other sophisticated scammers spoof the Web sites of legitimate mystery-shopping companies.
Swinburn advises people to go to his association’s Web site (www.mysteryshop.org) and double-check the Web site address of its list of legitimate companies.
Rip-off: A victim pays hundreds or even thousands of dollars to become a “distributor” for a company that sells items like perfume, lotion or vitamins – often at an insanely high price.
The more friends and family recruited to this “multi- level marketing plan,” the more money is made, the pitch goes.
But only the scammers end up rolling in dough. The scheme eventually collapses under its own weight when there are no more recruits.
Warning signs: A pyramid scheme promises a get-rich-quick approach. New products on the market can take years to make money.
Also, be wary of initial membership fees. You never should have to spend money to get a job.
Work from home
Rip-off: Earn a handsome salary from the comfort of home by stuffing envelopes or processing medical billing claims.
Don’t take the bait. If it worked, everyone would apply for these positions.
Scammers, for example, may charge envelope stuffers to learn the “secrets” of the industry and provide help. But the victims are left to drum up their own business.
It’s worse for medical billing. Scammers can charge victims thousands of dollars to start a firm to help doctors with outsourced billing, accounts receivable, electronic insurance-claim processing and practice management, according to the FTC.
This rarely ever makes money. “Competition in the medical billing market is fierce and revolves around a number of large and well-established firms,” the agency reported.
Warning signs: Not all work-from-home offers are scams, but be wary. In writing, the company should provide information on duties, pay, when your first check will arrive and total cost for supplies, equipment and membership fees, according to the FTC.
Contact the local BBB or Attorney General’s Office and speak to as many references provided by the company as you can.
And research the company online.
Rip-off: There’s an advertisement circulating on Facebook and other social-networking sites that features a stay-at-home mom who claims she adds “$67,000 a year to my family’s income working 10 hours a week (that’s over $128 an hour!) by creating Web sites that host Google ads,” according to the BBB.
The advertisement takes the victim to a “blog” that urges signing up for a “risk-free trial” to learn how to get a site up and running. But read the fine print. Victims can be charged $60 to $70 every month if they don’t cancel the trial.
Warning signs: Just because a company uses the word “Google” doesn’t mean it’s a part of or sanctioned by the Internet search giant.
The company’s AdSense program is free and allows users to display targeted ads on pages and earn money from clicks.
A spokesman for the Mountain View, Calif.-based company recommended that “users exercise the same amount of caution they would when evaluating other types of get-rich-quick claims.”
Rip-off: Chandler resident Carrie Landry, who was furloughed from her job as a US Airways pilot, answered a classified advertisement in The Arizona Republic for a food and beverage server on a corporate jet.
A man called her back and said the firm had many rich and famous clients who took charter flights to cruise ships and private yachts. It paid $950 and $1,250 per week.
Landry also had nine years as a flight attendant and said she was interested. But the interviewer seemed nervous about her wide range of experience. He hung up on her.
However, the man offered to fly Landry’s friend, who had less experience, from her home in Ohio to San Diego for an interview. She had seen the same ad in a different newspaper.
She was told she would need to wire $300 to help cover the travel expenses. If she was hired, she’d be reimbursed. The woman wired the money, and it was gone before she and her husband learned they’d been taken.
Warning signs: Most companies will not make you pay up-front to travel to a job interview. Reimbursement never should depend on getting hired.
Most importantly, contact the publication where you saw the advertisement.
“We monitor all advertising for fraudulent activity; key is hearing from our readers about their experiences,” said Peter Ricker, senior vice president of advertising at The Republic. “Our staff is trained to handle matters like this with referrals to the proper agencies. Several notices are placed throughout our classified products alerting the consumer on what to look out for and how to direct their complaints.
“Unfortunately on occasion, we do experience advertisers who bypass our safeguards. Once we are informed, they are removed from our products.”