How to Spot a Job Scam

Not every job scam is an outright con, many are just promises the employer can’t keep.

If a job sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So say employment lawyers and career coaches, who warn that, especially in this economy, employers may be making promises they can’t fulfill.

“There is a lot of fraud out there (in job postings),” said Barry Janay, an employment attorney who practices in New York. “The best way to prevent it is to do your research beforehand.”

Jill Knittel, an executive recruiter with ER Associates in Rochester, N.Y., said there are some companies that are taking advantage of the large number of people searching for jobs right now. “I recently spoke to a client who asked me about a job and said, ‘in my gut it didn’t sound right.’ I told him he needed to go with his gut.”

Both Janay and Knittel said there are certain things that, if you encounter them on your job search, are red flags that the opportunity may not be all that it promises. Be aware of these red flags, they warn, and investigate whether the employer can come through on what they promise.

  • An unexpected call from a recruiter. You don’t know how the recruiter found you. “If you didn’t apply for it and they are contacting you through e-mail, that could signal a problem,” said Janay. He suggests a job seeker find out how this recruiter found your name, and whether the connection is legitimate.
  • The job requires you to make an investment upfront. “Some companies are asking hires to pay for such things as training,” said Knittel. “Send X dollars and we’ll train you in how to do the job. Or, your salary will start once you make a sale. Take a job and don’t get paid? It’s not a good idea.”
  • The job requires relocation. This doesn’t always mean the job is not legitimate, but it does require you to do much more research. Uprooting yourself, and your family, is not something anyone should jump into after a phone interview. At the very least, you should go to the new city to interview and see the business and working conditions for yourself.
  • You are offered a job for which you know you are not entirely qualified. If the job doesn’t match up with your qualifications, said Janay, you need to ask why they would be soliciting you for that job. If you do accept a job where your skills don’t match the job description he advises that you get something in writing that states your employer recognizes that you do not have the experience or skills originally required for the job.

Not a job scam, but a false promise

Both Knittel and Janay say that a bad employment experience is less about outright scams and more about clarity on both sides of the offer; they say it is up to the job seeker to ask the right questions and do everything they can to protect themselves during the job search.

Tracey Bernstein, an executive attorney with the New York law firm Himmel and Bernstein, points out that “you have the most leverage before you start a job. Once you start, the ability to negotiate drops dramatically. So make sure you ask questions about compensation and job responsibilities before you start.”

Bernstein said people in sales jobs are especially vulnerable to employers who might take advantage of their situation.

Knittel agrees. “Sales jobs are heavily geared toward commission,” she says. “Candidates need to find out if what the employer is promising is realistic. Find out what your predecessor made. A lot of people are afraid to ask these questions. But they are a legitimate part of the interview process.”

Other questions to ask:

  • When will I have a salary review? Not just a performance review, but a salary review.
  • Whom will I be reporting to? It’s possible in this economy that things will change before you start your job, but it’s best to establish these relationships before you get onboard.
  • Can we put this in writing? Whatever you agree to in the interview that is important for you to succeed in that job, whether it’s salary, reporting structure, expected work hours or title, ask that it be written down.

All agree this does not have to be a contract, just a written agreement. “It can even be in an e-mail,” says Bernstein. “You just want clarity on what you agreed to. If all you have is a verbal agreement, then you are going to have misunderstandings.”