Personal Finance

How to Avoid Startling Work-from-Home Scams

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I’m sure that a week doesn’t go by where you don’t receive at least a few emails in your spam folder. Some of them probably try to lure you in by talking about wonderful opportunities where you can work at home.

In some cases, the e-mail promises a job. But the job requires you to shell out money first (an application fee, registration costs, and the like). Whether it’s for a ‘check-cash go-between’ for an international company or a mystery shopper who doesn’t have to pay for anything you buy, the opportunities for fake work are endless.

So, how can you spot and avoid these types of scams? Do legitimate work-from-home jobs exist and, if so, how can you distinguish them? Here are a few tips for spotting frauds and phonies.

My Almost Scammed Experience

Just a few years ago, when I was fresh out of college and deeply in debt, I decided to see what these scams were all about. I responded to a work-at-home offer with all my moves planned in advance. My hope was that if this was a scam, I couldn’t get burned.

Resource: How to Tell if a Credit Card Number is a Fake

Like most scams, I received an email stating that there was an opportunity for me to work from home. My primary responsibility would be to cash checks.

I could keep 10% of every check I cashed. I'd mail the remaining 90% out to this international company. They would provide international Fed-Ex envelopes so my expenses would be zero. And that's all there was to it. Pretty sweet deal, huh?

After sending them nothing more than my contact information, I was hired! Much to my surprise, I actually received a Fed-Ex overnight envelope a few days later. Inside was an invoice from a company in Utah; it appeared they'd made a $2,500 purchase.

The envelope also contained five $500 American Express money orders issued by Fifth-Third bank. To the scammers' credit, the money orders looked 110% legit, with holograms, raised numbers, and the Trojan logo of AMEX. Truth be told, for a split second, I thought that these money orders could be real. I might have the easiest job in the world!

I moseyed on down to my local Wachovia branch. Before cashing the money orders, I asked a personal banker to research their authenticity.

Each money order had a 12-digit number on it. Wachovia’s banker called to I’m not sure where to find out if my business was legit. Unfortunately, the representative came back and said that the money orders were fraudulent. By law, they had to keep them to pursue the lead.

I walked out of that bank without any money knowing. I knew, once and for all, that the job was too good to be true. A few days later I received an email from my “employer” asking if I had sent them the 90% check back. I replied simply, “Only after you send real money orders.” Not surprisingly, I never heard from them again.

Related: Work from Home Jobs: The Definitive Guide to 29 Legit Home-Based Careers

Due to the recent uptick in scams in the current job market, the Federal Trade Commission launched a program called “Operation Bottom Dollar.” In conjunction with local law enforcement, the FTC is doubling its current efforts to find and expose scam artists.

Federal and state law enforcement officials will not tolerate those who take advantage of consumers in times of economic misfortune, Vladeck said. If you falsely advertise that you will connect people with jobs or with opportunities for them to make money working from home, we will shut you down. We will give your assets to the people you scammed, and, when it’s appropriate, we’ll refer you to criminal authorities for prosecution.

How to Protect Yourself

Any time you're approached at random--online or in person--about a job or money-making opportunity, chances are likely it's a scam. Here are some tips on how to spot a scam and how to avoid losing things you value in the process:

Check the email address.

One of the easiest ways scammers can instill confidence is to send a message from an email address that looks official.

Every day, I receive emails that appear to be from institutions like Bank of America, PayPal, the American Cancer Society, etc. But when I check the actual email address of the sender, it’s usually a random combination of numbers and letters OR a simple Gmail or Yahoo! account.

No real company will send you an email from anything other than their official website address. For example, you may see "Chase Credit Card Department" in your inbox. However, when you click the email to read that you need to reset your password, you instead see the email address is "emailaccount.chasebank@yahoo.com." This is a 100% surefire way to know that the person emailing you is attempting to hurt you.

Related: A List of Famous Money Experts (And How to Spot a Fake Financial Guru)

Never pay a penny for ANYTHING.

If you receive an email for a job opportunity that involves mailing money back to the employer, delete it quickly.

There is never a good reason for a stranger to contact you and offer to send you money. And there's never a good reason for you to send money to a stranger. Whether it's an application fee, a commission fee, or a new job employment tax, the chance that you are being scammed is somewhere north of 100%.

Ask for more information.

If you've read everything twice over and it looks legitimate, follow up by asking for more information.

Ask that they point you to a website so you can read more about the opportunity. Then, you can research the job or offer online to see if others have received the same message or have written about a potential scam. If someone has contacted you to "act fast" or given you a time limit, you're likely the pawn in a con.

Be Aware

For just about all of us, there's always the dream of waking up one morning and hitting the lottery. Then we just have to decide how to spend our $200 million.

When you open your email to find that an amazing job has fallen right into your lap, without even applying for it, walk away. There’s almost a 100% chance the money made is not going to be for you, but for someone else, FROM you.

Do not let your dreams (or naivety) create a nightmare. Make sure to protect yourself with every move you make, especially when trying to ascertain whether the work-from-home opportunity you’ve been afforded is legitimate.


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