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How to Avoid Online Job & Internship Scams

When it comes to applying for jobs and internships, it’s hard to not feel desperate. As you’re sifting through the thousands of postings online, the stress and pressure piling up, you find an offer promising “immediate work!” and “Great money!”

You may think you’ve finally found the Holy Grail, but the unfortunate truth is that there are a handful of job and internship scams on the web that can rob you of your money, time and hard work. Since it can be tough to determine what is legitimate on the web, we’re here to help. We talked to experts to get you the best information on how to keep your job search and application process scam-free. 

What is an online job or internship posting scam? 

Since just about anyone can post a job offering online, it’s no surprise that there are illegitimate ones out there. According to Tom Dezell, author of Networking for the Novice, Nervous, or Naïve Job Seeker, now is a prime time to encounter these scams. “Unfortunately, the poor labor market and increase in the average length of job searches has greatly stressed many job seekers, making them easy targets for online predators,” he says. “Plus, scammers will also prey on the inexperience in job searches of college students. The market is at an all-time ripeness for taking advantage of job seekers with high levels of desperation and naivety.” 

These scams typically ask you to pay upfront for a work-at-home position at a company that does not actually exist. Alternatively, you could be given legitimate work but then fail to receive the payment you were promised, a situation that Briana, a recent grad of Georgia College, encountered.

“As a freelance writer, I am constantly in danger of being scammed,” she says. “What happened to me was that I wrote several articles for a client and let him defer payment. When I asked him where my money was, he disappeared.” 


Job search expert and author of several job-search-related books Rick Gillis says that scams often turn out to be a money-laundering process in which you are asked to process checks and involve your personal bank account, under the guise that you are processing payments or transferring funds as an assistant. 

“Any time you have to involve your bank account with a job offer, run as fast as you can,” Gillis says. The Career Services Network at Michigan State University explains that these checks can be fraudulent and “leave you out of thousands of dollars and facing criminal charges.” 

The MSU career site goes on to explain that common scams targeting college students include postings for positions such as personal assistants, mystery shoppers, workers who have to repack or ship items from home, pet sitters or models. There are “a variety of scams where a student is asked to pay for certification, training materials or equipment with promise of reimbursement.” 

What are the signs of a scam? 

Aside from the common guises listed above, there are other key ways to spot a scam. Our experts gave us a list of red flags to watch out for. 

  • “If an offer you did not inquire about is sent to your email address (like spam).” – Gillis
  • “If a fee is requested upfront. There is no reason for you to pay anything to anybody for a job in terms of the application.” – Gillis 
  • If you found the posting on Craigslist.
  • “If there is any lack of following the normal steps in hiring: application/résumé, interviews, job offer and salary negotiation. Any process that seems to be short in any of these areas should concern the candidate.” –Dezell
  • If it is a work-from-home position, which Gillis and Dezell both note is a common career area to encounter a scam in. Dezell advises to always check the website Rat Race Rebellion to assess any work-from-home opportunity. “It is run by the company Staffcentrix, which researches the legitimacy of advertised work-from-home opportunities,” he says. The site has a Scam-O-Meter where you can see the ratio of scams to legitimate opportunities.
  • “If there is no legitimate information about the employer when conducting research on the web.” – Mary Sullivan, associate director of employer relations for Career Services at Emerson College
  • “If the employer’s business address is actually a residential address.” – Sullivan (you can check using housing websites like Zillow)
  • “If there have been complaints about the business through the Better Business Bureau or through other similar organizations.” – Sullivan
  • “If you are asked to provide or rent your own equipment.” – Sullivan 
  • “If you are asked to conduct meetings or requested to work in a private residence.” – Sullivan


How can you avoid them? 

As scary as the possibility of unknowingly getting sucked into a scam is, there are ways to avoid it. It’s important to go about your job and internship search as smartly and safely as you can.

“People should avoid these scams by being very cautious and by understanding that it is their responsibility to conduct a thorough investigation of all employers before taking additional steps to agree to work for a company,” Sullivan says. “This means students need to review as much information on the organization’s website as possible, and check the Better Business Bureau and/or other similar organizations to determine if there have ever been complaints against a particular company… [Students] should be very skeptical if there is no information available about a company on the web, or through other public means.”

She further advises working closely with the professionals at your school’s career service center, since they have the knowledge and resources necessary to navigate the online job jungle. 

“If at any point you have doubts, Google the company name and ‘scams’ to see what comes up. Another site to look at is Glassdoor,” Dezell says. “Quality searching will beat quantity searching every time. Rather than blasting countless résumés and applications to opportunities on job boards, research the types of companies you would like to work at reach out to them.” He adds that networking is a great way to go about the job search because “you’ll face less competition” and “network sources won’t refer you to a potential scam.” 

Gillis stresses that you should “always look at job postings with a skeptical eye,” no matter what the posting is or where you found it. If you found it on any website other than the company’s own page, he advises to “always go to the corporate website to cross-check and make sure [the] job is also listed there.”

Gillis’s main tip for ensuring a safe job search is to not provide any personal information (such as your home address or social security number) to anybody until “you’ve met in person, shaken somebody’s hand and know they are legit.” 

Briana’s advice after getting swindled as a freelance journalist is to “always discuss payment upfront and make sure you get paid after every article.” If you do not get the payment you were promised after doing the work you agreed to, contact the employer immediately—if you get a sketchy response, do not do any further work for them. 

What should you do if you’re a victim of a scam? 

If you are the victim of a job scam, Sullivan explains that there are several legal routes to pursue. 

“If someone believes that they have been the victim of fraud, deception or an unfair business practice, [her state’s] Attorney General’s Office is available to file a complaint,” she says. “The Attorney General’s Public Inquiry and Assistance Center is staffed with trained professionals who will review your complaint to determine whether it is appropriate for the AGO’s free, voluntary mediation service.” She adds to be aware that “the Attorney General’s Office cannot provide individuals with legal advice or act as your attorney. If you have questions concerning the specific application or interpretation of the law, please consult with a private attorney.” 

Hiring a private attorney is a second route you could pursue. However, Sullivan warns, “this course of action could be prohibitive financially and could be very time-consuming.” 

A third option is to report the fraudulent organization to the Better Business Bureau. Sullivan explains that this “may not result in getting money back; however, it would put the organization on notice for consumers in the future.” 

 

If you’re searching for a job or internship online and you have any trace of doubt about the legitimacy of an offer, always proceed with caution—it’s better safe than sorry and robbed. We know the application process can be stressful, but it’s totally worth it to put in the time and get the job and internship that you deserve. You’re better than the sleazy scammers! 

P.S.- Rest assured, our Careerette page is always free of scams! 

Sammie is a student at the University of Michigan where she is pursuing a BBA. A foodie since birth, she enjoys cooking, eating, smelling, looking at, photographing, reading about, and playing with any and all types of food. Her idolization of culinary delights is complemented by her active spirit- she enjoys running, swimming, barre classes, and even spontaneous bursts of interpretative dance if the mood strikes her. She has completed two triathlons and a half-marathon and plans to tackle more races in the future. She also dreams of traveling the globe, saving the world, and marrying James and/or Dave Franco. 
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