By MARK STONE
Most people know by now that online scams are everywhere. A fast-growing scam seeks to cash in on those desiring to work from home. A scammer will post a “work from home” job that is simply too good to be true. Many will offer good money for only a few hours of simplistic work like assembling candy boxes. Other ads will take the form of “Looking for a Personal Assistant” or something similar. Most are designed to either get you to send in an “application fee” or divulge personal information such as your bank account number for “direct deposit.” With these types of scams, communications with the “employer” are almost exclusively online and usually last no more than a few days.
A far more dangerous scam hires you in some capacity and then puts you to work, running minor errands such as collecting and depositing checks or other bank-related tasks.
A relatively simple scam will often ask you to cash checks at your bank, take a designated amount for yourself, and send the rest to the “employer” via Western Union, gift cards, or bitcoin. These checks are almost always counterfeit and take the form of a “Cashier’s Check.” The thing you need to remember here is that most banks require you to have a personal account to cash checks for you. If that check does not clear, the amount will be charged back to your personal account. A variation of this scenario is that scammers have accessed the banking information of a legitimate business account and asked you to go to the business’s bank to cash a check on the account. The scammers then give you a counterfeit check drawn on the account. As checks of this type are often not discovered until the legitimate account owners notice the transaction, you have completed your assignment and are long gone. But when the fraud is discovered, guess whose name and identification the bank has as the person who cashed the check?
Guess whose photo appears on the bank cameras? Yours! You can expect an arrest warrant in your immediate future.
It’s possible that the bank may even discover the fraud while you are there. In that case, they will simply delay you until the police arrive. Yes, you can try to explain, but the odds are you will end up waiting in a jail cell until an investigation can be completed. As for your “employer?” Good luck finding him, as all along, he has been using a false name, a bogus email account, and a Voice Over IP (internet) phone number to communicate with you. (These numbers are tough to trace).
A more complicated and longer-running scam often involves an “intake side” that funnels money in through check cashing or property rental scams, followed by an “outflow” side used to launder the money and make the scammer even harder to find. This one is a favorite of scammers in foreign countries and, again, seeks to hire you as a “personal assistant” or maybe even another position.
A recent case involved a retired Texas gentleman hired as a “property manager.” The “employer” heading up the scam was actually in Brazil.
The scammer and his associates would scour internet vacation rental sites like vrbo.com, a legitimate property rental site. They would then copy Florida vacation rental ads and place them in an online marketplace like Craig’s List, simply changing the contact information. A well-meaning vacationer would respond to the advertisement through a blind email address, which forwards to the scammer’s associates. The associates then email the victim what appears to be a legitimate rental contract, along with instructions. The instructions include sending the executed rental contract and a substantial deposit or payment in full to the “property manager” in Texas. The Texas gentlemen would then cash the checks at a check cashing store, take his “commission,” and deposit the rest in a bank account provided by the scammer.
Meanwhile, the scammer had hired several other “personal assistants” online throughout the United States to shield him from any potential paper trail with the banks. The scammer told the “personal assistants” that deposits would be made into their bank accounts. All they had to do was withdraw the bulk of the deposit, keep their “commission,” and buy bitcoin for the scammer. As bitcoin transactions are difficult to trace, this allowed the scammer to easily move his money out of the United States to his location in Brazil or another of his choice.
As you can see, the only people at high risk of being arrested were those who had innocently responded to a “personal assistant” type of ad online. These people all believed they had legitimate employment, but all along they were doing the work of a foreign criminal enterprise. By using false names, internet phone numbers, and e-mail addresses, the real criminals almost completely eliminated any trail leading to them.
Here are some common “red flags” if someone offers you online employment:
• The “company” contacts you exclusively through texting or e-mail.
• You are asked to use your personal bank account in the daily performance of your job.
• You are asked to receive and cash any checks in the mail.
• You are asked to send the “employer” an application fee or money for any other purpose.
• The “job” pays well but is incredibly easy or requires no real prior skills.
Any part of the job involves transactions with gift cards or cryptocurrency.
• The “company” has a voice-over IP (internet-generated) phone number or a number that is forwarded.
Here’s what you’ll want to do to verify any offers:
• Look at the company website and see if the information matches what you were given.
• Search online reviews for the company.
• Vet the company online through independent sources such as the Secretary of State’s office, business licenses, sales tax certificates, etc.
• Call the company and verify the person you are talking to actually works there. Be aware that scammers will sometimes use a legitimate company employee’s name that they obtain from the company’s website. When you call, ask to speak to human resources or the person with whom you have been communicating.
• Use reverse phone lookup to verify any phone number you are given.
Make a note of the number used on incoming calls. Does it match any company numbers online? Be aware that scammers can also “spoof” legitimate company numbers when they call you, so an actual call to the company and speaking to the person you believe you are dealing with is always best.
For more tips on avoiding job scams, visit the Federal Trade Commission website:
About the author: Mark Stone is a retired criminal investigator with many years of experience investigating online fraud. The scenarios in this article are from real-world cases.