Preying on the desperation of the unemployed

As many unlucky job seekers are learning the hard way, an ailing economy can bring out the worst in people.

With the unemployment rate at a 17-year high, some job searchers are feeling desperate, making them vulnerable to scammers who are happy to take advantage by promising job placements in return for money or personal information that is later used for identity theft.

Joe Epstein, 58, of Brentwood, MO, did not fall into a common trap. A recent e-mail from a staffing firm promised him a portal to a new job, about a year after he was laid off as a sales representative. He called the company, talked to a "very nice, very positive" woman, who told him that his resume was selected from a job search engine. She told him that her company could improve his resume, offer interview tips, and provide him with "exclusive" job listings, all for a mere $4,000. Epstein said no thanks. "Once you give them your credit card, you're up a creek," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Consumer advocates say be suspicious if anyone seeks payments to locate a job. "I've never met anyone who had to pay to get a legitimate job," said Chris Thetford, director of communications for the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois.

The Federal Trade Commission received nearly 6,000 complaints against employment agencies and job-counseling services in 2007, The Wall Street Journal reported - and this was before 3.6 million Americans lost their jobs.

Linda Dominguez, author and executive coach, says fraudsters apparently are targeting increasingly desperate executives, who are paying thousands of dollars in upfront fees to phony executive search firms. In general, "Executive recruiters are paid by the companies, so if they are asking for your money, a red flag should go up," Dominguez told the Journal.

Advice from the experts:

  • Withhold some personal information on resumes posted online. Never supply Social Security numbers or bank account numbers. "In fact any competent job site will give you the option of hiding your personal information," said Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum to NBCSanDiego.com
  • Do not give out your mother's maiden name. Some fraudsters know that information is often used as a security feature by banks and credit-card companies, Newsday reported.
  • Do not pay for information. Some scammers are seeking upfront fees of $40 to $200 for what ends up being vague instructions on placing Internet ads.
  • Never pay for referrals to federal jobs. Go to www.usa.gov instead. The pitch promising a good job at the U.S. Postal Service for a fee is a scam.
  • Beware of work-at-home pitches involving medical billing, rebate processing or "secret shopper" jobs. Scams in these areas are on the rise.

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