Online job scams are rising thanks to covid-19. Let’s imagine for a moment. Like many others this year, you’ve lost your job, and in urgent need of a new one.
As you stare wearily at your computer, clicking through page after page of adverts, the last thing on your mind is whether this perfectly suited position you apply for next might actually be a job scam.
The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed that unlikely scenario of being lured in by a fake employer to become much more of a regular worry, as scammers have been indirectly gifted more power.
Rising unemployment and forced career changes have plagued 2020, while job websites are packed with more visitors than ever before, and fraudsters don’t even have to worry about lying to avoid meeting in person because most interviews are taking place through video calls anyway.
It all leads to more people left in a possibly vulnerable position, willing to take a chance on something that might just be too good to be true.
One person caught out was Bibi Rashid, 30, who was based in London when she was looking for a new job at the end of March, when the UK’s first lockdown had just started. “I was living by myself,” she says. “Obviously bills need to be paid, rent needs to be paid, and the only thing on my mind was that I need a source of income and I need it as soon as possible.”
Bibi had worked in HR for seven years, but despite her experience she’d spent the entire month applying without any luck, facing rejection after rejection. Just when her hopes had dipped, she came across a HR assistant role and got a response quicker than expected.
“When I had the interview, and they offered me the job I was like ‘oh my gosh’, this is the way of god saying ‘you know what, you’ve been through quite a bit, here’s some good news’. The job felt like the light at the end of the tunnel because basically they were offering me everything I wanted already.”
But just as she was nearing to sign a contact and get started, Bibi was told she’d need to do a training course first – one that would cost her £280 ($370 USD). She was suspicious, but was assured she was only paying half the cost, and it would be paid back to her in her first month’s salary.
As soon as Bibi had paid, she realised. The login details she’d been sent to do her training didn’t work, the company wouldn’t respond to her emails, and she was left feeling confused and depressed. Eventually, Bibi had to move out of London and back in with her parents, as she still couldn’t find work.
“It made me feel so alone,” added Bibi, “It’s just this feeling that’s it’s not going to get better for a very long time. It filled me with so much anger, because it’s that feeling that you may never get your money back – or see any justice.”
In some countries it’s been young people hit hardest by unemployment during the pandemic. Three million across Europe have been left without work – which experts warn will have an impact on economies across the continent for the next decade.
You could be more susceptible to a scam than you think. The thought of a quick payday or a promising role in an established company during hard times could lead to handing over personal details, or even money like Bibi, and then never hearing from that ‘employer’ again.
Carl Miller works as a technology researcher and has spent time shadowing a cyber-crime police unit in the UK. He believes it’s too early to say just how big the rise is in these types of scams – reports from international bodies aren’t likely to be released until next year.
But he says it’s also too hard to tell because online scams are still largely underreported. However, this hasn’t stopped police forces across the globe warning locals specifically about recruitment fraud throughout the last year. Local authorities are quietly aware of its impact.
“For sure, the pandemic has made something already pretty bad a lot worse,” says Carl. “Not only now are scams easy but you’ve got many more people before that are online, including people that are actually just less used to using online platforms. It might not have grown that kind of knee-jerk scepticism that people who spend a lot of time on the internet have about who anyone is.”
If you’re lucky enough to still make the trip to New York City this year, in between the dazzling lights and slightly less busy streets you’ll find the shutters are still down on Broadway theatres – they’re expected to remain closed until next summer.
When actor and waiter Aaron Heaps, 28, heard the news of their closure earlier this year, he had to move back home to Wisconsin because he couldn’t afford to stick around. In April, unemployment in the US hit an all time high.
Spotting The Signs
Like many, Aaron was looking for some remote work and thought he’d got lucky when someone claiming to be from the jobs site AngelList got in touch with an unexpected offer. The role was working in customer service for the company Automattic, which owns the website-publishing firm WordPress.
“The company looked fantastic,” he says, “It was a little weird because on the [Automattic] website itself it said they weren’t hiring, but then I was sent a link with a code to apply, so I thought maybe I was a perfect match for what they’re looking for.”
When he was repeatedly sent forms to fill in that asked for personal information before he’d even spoken to a real person, Aaron started to get suspicious and decided to ask for a video interview – but he never got a response.
Luckily in Aaron’s case he hadn’t handed over anything these fraudsters could use against him, but it did leave him feeling really let down, and he avoided the idea of looking at any other adverts out of fear he’d just stumble upon the same problem again.
“For a while I just gave up on applying for jobs at all because I was like ‘what’s the point? There’s no hope for me’ essentially is what I thought, so it’s definitely been a huge source of stress and worry for me.“
“It’s just really unfortunate that we’re targeted when we’re almost at our lowest financial moment, and you’re desperate for something, anything, and you see one beacon of hope and you try to grab onto it and it could be your downfall, and could do some serious damage.”
After avoiding being scammed himself, Aaron decided he’d try to help others by reaching out to the real Automattic and Angel List. Thanks to his efforts both their websites now have a clear warning about scams and companies being falsely represented.
Back in the UK, more than half a year afterwards, Bibi has finally managed to get a full refund through her bank for the money she’d handed over. The scammers, however, still haven’t been brought to justice. She believes the owner could’ve easily changed the company’s name a number of times, and that they might not even be living in the same country.
According to Carl, this is often the biggest problem stopping police from cracking down on cybercrime. Scammers can easily work remotely from other countries where the laws are completely different, making it so much harder to both track them down and bring charges against them even if they do.
“That simple problem of geography more than anything else makes it extremely, extremely difficult for police to investigate cyber crimes or scams and bring the people that do them to justice,” he says, “Because they just cannot reach across those borders and bring them into a single court room.”
A statement from the website Bibi found used to find her role said they were sorry to hear about her ordeal, and that they’d removed the advert and “ceased working with the organisation some months ago”.
“We urge jobseekers to never share payment details with an advertiser,” it reads, “And report any adverts which feel disingenuous.”
Take care of online job scams during the covid-19! Be aware that scams are becoming our every-day reality.
Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontage: Martina Advaney
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