Work-From-Home Scams

How to Spot Them So You Can Land a Legit Remote Job
Meet the Expert
Eleni Cotsis Remote teams expert View Bio
Written by:
Alix Cirac View Bio

Nearly 4 million people worked remotely at least 50 percent of the time in 2015, according to the 2017 State of Telecommuting in the US report. With so many professionals working from outside the office, it should be easy to find a legit remote position, right? Not necessarily. According to Forbes, the Federal Trade Commission received 8,192 complaints involving work-at-home business opportunities in 2010. As more and more people work from home, it gets easier for these scammers to find targets.

Real harm can befall potential employees in these situations, including identify theft. It’s critical that job-seekers are smart and armed with information when searching for positions. This guide works to inform potential remote workers about these scams, provide information on how to avoid them and to help career-hunters find legitimate remote jobs that can give them the flexibility they need.

Red Flags to Look Out For

Much like other get-rich-quick schemes, anything that seems too good to be true probably is and should be avoided. “Do your research and trust your gut,” says Eleni Cotsis, a specialist in remote work and the founder of Women Entrepreneurs of Medellin. “If it feels like a pyramid scheme or a scam, it probably is.”

In addition to a gut-feeling, there are clear-cut signs that a work-from-home opportunity isn’t on the up-and-up. Job-seekers should keep a particularly close look-out for these common signs:

They ask for money up-front, with the promise that you’ll make it back many times over. According to the Federal Trade Commission, “promises of a big income working from home, especially when the ‘opportunity’ involves an up-front fee or giving your credit card information, should make you very suspicious.”

You don’t speak with or see a real person. Anything done all through email should be immediately suspicious. The Better Business Bureau also warns that a job offer without an interview is a major red flag. But keep in mind, if there’s an interview done on the phone, that’s not enough to clear it of being a scam. Job seekers should still do their due diligence to ensure it’s a real company.

They use a generic email account (Gmail, AOL, Yahoo, etc.) and the web site doesn’t seem legit (or it doesn’t exist at all).

The job description lacks detail or is mostly “fluff”. If the job posting provides very little information about what the job entails or makes promises of quick and easy hiring, that might signal it’s not a real job.

There’s little available information about the company and the people who work there. If you can’t get someone on a video chat to hire you or find historical information about the company or its employees, that’s a bad sign.

Common Work-From-Home Scams

There are many different scams that potential remote workers must sift through. Most work-from-home scams fall into two categories:

1. Potential employees work from home as part of a supposed company that often does menial work like envelope stuffing or assembly. These scams are often built on roping other people into the scam, too.

2. Potential workers start their own business with the help of the scam, only after they buy into or pay money to get “certified” or get the “starter kit.”

While most scams fall into these two categories, individual job listings can mix up the details enough and provide enough convincing information to make them seem like legitimate careers. Read on to learn about some specific examples of common work-from-home scams.

  • Medical billing is a legitimate career, but it’s never done by an individual remotely. Scammers collect as much as $1000 from targets for software and equipment that they send, but they don’t tell you that clinics outsource their billing to organizations and that the list of clients they give you is likely fake.

  • All you have to do is send in money and you’ll get envelopes to stuff with flyers about the program (read: scheme) you’re working. The goal is to rope people into sending you $2 in a pre-paid envelope so you can get them to pay up, too.

  • “No experience necessary! Let our experts show you how! You just have to pay right now!”

    These scams are brutal because they require payment up front, often with a credit card, the information on which they keep and continue to charge. The “expert training” often comes with additional prices and fees. More often than not, the scammers are just looking for lump sums up-front and your credit card information.

  • This one sounds like it could be fun, if only it were real. Some of these scams charge for false certifications. Others ask you to deposit some money and then wire some of it back, which turns into a fake check scam that is difficult to combat.

  • Unfortunately, our opinions don’t matter as much as we want them to. Getting paid to fill out surveys is likely a con. Supposedly, the more money you pay in, the more access to surveys you get. Here’s the kicker though, if a company really wanted your opinion, they wouldn’t make you pay to fill out their survey.

    The Better Business Bureau also suggests being aware of fake testimonials.

    “…many of these testimonials are fake. For example, part or all of the following testimonial appeared on six different survey websites.

    ‘I am a first timer to your wonderful website. I must admit that it had kickstarted my interest in earning a second income stream once I saw it. You have definitely opened up a whole new world for me.’

  • Some multilevel marketing jobs are legitimate, so this one might be the toughest to differentiate real from fake. The best distinction between the two is that in real MLM businesses, the workers make commission on the sales of their product. It’s important to ask how much money the majority of the entry-level salespersons make, and not to get wrapped up in the amount the high-level people make.

    The Federal Trade Commission notes this important point, “If anyone suggests recruiting is the real way to make money, know this: MLMs that survive on recruiting new participants rather than retail sales are pyramid schemes. Pyramid schemes are illegal, and the vast majority of participants lose money.”

What Happens if You Get Scammed?

If the scammers succeed, they will have gotten money off of you that will be very difficult to get back. In more extreme cases, they can go as far as to steal your identity. All people, not just remote workers, should keep an eye on their credit reports to be alerted if this happens. Services such as Lifelock, Identity Force and ID Watchdog can also be helpful in monitoring one’s identity.

If you fall victim to a work-from-home-scam, take action right away, especially if they’ve stolen money from you, or more.

Tips for Finding a Legit Remote Job

The chance of running into a work-from-home scam can sound scary, but there are steps that workers can take to vet potential positions. The first is to research the available “opportunities” as much as possible.

“If it is a scam, they have definitely scammed other people,” Cotsis says. “Research on Glassdoor and other sites to find other people’s experience with that specific company. And trust your instincts!”

Here are some other steps to take to vet a work-at-home opportunity. We recommend following all or most of them, as none of them on their own are enough to guarantee legitimacy.

  • If any money changes hands, check with your attorney. Or just don’t do it. According to the Better Business Bureau, job-hunters must understand that legitimate employers do not require fees or investments as a condition of employment. You should NEVER pay money up front for a position. Or transfer money. Or deposit money that isn’t a legitimate pay check. This is probably the biggest red flag there is.

  • Get details about the job before you take it. Ask what you’ll be expected to do, how much you should expect to earn and other details about your required tasks. Legit hiring managers will be willing to give you this type of information before you agree to a job.

  • Get everything in writing. If someone signs something and is willing to put together a contract or document, it’s more likely to be legit.

  • Check out the BBB Scam Tracker to see if the company has been reported before. If it’s on there, or any other reporting sites at all, don’t go near it.

  • Talk to someone on the phone, or better, on video. Real people may translate to real business and real opportunity. Keep in mind, though, that this in itself is not enough to vet a company. Many scam job postings will list a telephone number and have you speak with a “representative” from the company. But repeated contact with the same person can be a good sign.

  • Be skeptical. Protect your info, including Social Security Number and banking information. If you head into the situation with the understanding that it’s likely a scam, you’re more likely to sniff out anything that’s off. Plus, you’ll be less disappointed if it doesn’t work out.

  • Do your research, and check out the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, which states that a business has to give you a disclosure document before you give them any money. This includes investments and purchases of any kind.

  • Trust your gut. Period.

  • Use reputable search sites and people in your network that you trust. “There are a lot of ways to find remote work,” Cotsis says. “There are specific job boards dedicated to remote work and there are also a lot of job boards that filter for remote opportunities. AngelList is a great option for people who are interested in working specifically with startups. As in any job search, your network is the best way to find a remote role.”

    A listing for remote part-time work on Craigslist is a lot more suspect than a job posted on a reputable job board or on an actual company website. Some sites, like FlexJobs.com, screen job opportunities before allowing them to be posted, which can help ensure they’re legitimate.

These are great ways to ensure that the job you’ve found is real, and that real people exist who people you know and trust have been in contact with. With these tools, job-seekers can be prepared to take on the job search without fear of falling into a scammer’s trap.

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