Callie Heim was thrilled to start her marketing job at trendy self-driving car company Waymo earlier this summer. She had had a difficult year – her mother recently passed away, she came home and was adjusting to life after college.
The job offer marked a turning point: ‘I was at rock bottom and felt like I was on the verge of doing some good things,’ said the aged Towson University graduate 22, at CNBC Make It.
But the excitement quickly faded when she got a message from her new employer: Before she started, she had to buy her own laptop and work phone from a company portal, and they were sending her a check for cover the costs. When the check arrived in the mail, alarm bells rang.
Heim had been scammed by a fake job offer.
In a series of TikTok videos that have since gone viral, Heim recounts how she applied for the job through LinkedIn’s “Easy Apply” feature and went through what seemed like a normal, if not promising, interview process. First, she answered a few questions about her experience marketing through Wire, an encrypted messaging app she was told to download (a red flag, she says now).
She was invited for a phone interview the next day, where the interviewer said the job would involve getting a computer and a phone to do her job remotely. She then got another phone call the next day with an offer (red flag #2, Heim says).
After a few more conversations, Heim filled out employment forms, submitted a scan of his driver’s license, and sent in his banking information to prepare for direct deposit. Then she was told that she would have to buy her household equipment in advance and that she would be reimbursed later.
In fact, this is called a fake check scam, where scammers hope you send them money and “repay” yourself with an NSF check. Sometimes they’ll send a check first, tell you to deposit it, and hope you buy your gear (in effect, send them money) before the check bounces.
Luckily, Heim realized the scam once the check arrived. (“it looked so airbrushed,” she says) and before she sent money to the scammers. But she had to immediately close her compromised bank account and freeze her line of credit.
Heim describes the experience as humiliating and a blow to his confidence. She also felt embarrassed that the news she was so excited for and shared widely with her friends and family was not real. “I went from excited to devastated in a month,” Heim says.
The experience was emotionally draining, to say the least, but Heim considers herself lucky not to have lost any money in the process.
Americans were defrauded of $86 million due to bogus deals and fake jobs opportunities in the second quarter of 2022, according to the Federal Trade Commission. People reported almost 21,600 incidents of business and job opportunity scams during this period, about a third of which resulted in financial loss.
Employment scams have been a persistent problem, but have increased in 2020 as criminals take advantage of people who have lost their jobs due to Covid, Rhonda Perkins, attorney and chief of staff of the Marketing Practices Division of the FTC, told CNBC Make It in June.
Employment scams take a variety of shapes: Bad actors could pose as a recruitment or temp agency and charge a fee for their services; list fake mystery shopping, government or postal jobs; or post reshipping and requalification scams on the false promise of earning money from home.
Or, they can impersonate a reputable employer and create a fake website or post fake listings on job search sites, like what happened to Heim.
The FBI says these are warning signs to watch for throughout the hiring process:
- Interviews are not conducted in person or via a secure video call, but rather on a teleconferencing app using an email address instead of a phone number
- Potential employers contact victims via non-professional email domains and teleconferencing apps
- Prospective employers require employees to purchase start-up equipment from the company or pay for background checks
- Prospective employers ask for credit card information
- Jobs appear on job boards, but not on the company’s website
- Recruiters or managers don’t have profiles on the job board, or the profiles don’t seem to match their roles
After getting scammed, Heim took a few weeks off to apply for jobs but is back in the market with newfound vigilance.
For one thing, she makes sure to check that any job postings she sees on sites like LinkedIn or Glassdoor match those on the company’s website. But that can be tricky because anyone can spoof a real website – the scam she fell for was modeled after a real job listed on Waymo’s hiring page – so you have to be extremely careful, says -she.
Take it a step further by searching for the name of the company or person contacting you, as well as the words “scam”, “review” or “complaint”, says Perkins. Run the company or recruitment agency through the Better Business Bureau directory.
You can also contact the employer directly, using information you found on your own (for example, not an email or phone number provided to you via an unsolicited message), to verify the job legitimacy and how to apply.
“It’s tempting to use LinkedIn’s ‘Easy Apply’ feature to quickly apply for a bunch of jobs, but if you take the time to write your cover letters and contact the company directly, you might be more successful,” adds Heim.
She also knows that “if someone asks you for financial information before you’re hired, it’s forbidden.” Employers won’t ask for your social security number until after you’re hired, and you should always be vigilant to confirm their identity in person or via video before sharing it.
“It’s the worst way to learn a lesson, but it taught me to be naive on the internet,” adds Heim. “You never know who you’re actually talking to.”
If you see or lose money to an employment scam, Perkins advises you to report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. And if you’re concerned that you’ve become a victim of identity theft, you can report it and get a personalized recovery plan from the FTC at IdentityTheft.gov.
LinkedIn has many resources to help job seekers spot and avoid scams, including taking extra precautions for home-based jobs. A LinkedIn spokesperson said fake profiles and fraudulent activity are against its usage policies, and the platform uses “automated and manual defenses” to detect and address violations. “Whenever we find such materials, we strive to eliminate them quickly and constantly invest in new ways to improve detection. We encourage members to report anything that doesn’t seem right, so we can investigate.”
Wire, the messaging app, says he knows fraudsters use the app for work-related scams. He reminds candidates that they should never be asked to buy their own work equipment and if in doubt, they should contact a senior company official to ask if this is standard business practice. .
Waymo says all interviews with the company are “conducted in person or via videoconference and never via email, Telegram or other platforms”, and notes best practices on his hiring page, according to a statement provided to CNBC Make It. “We also work with cybercrime experts and alert career site anti-fraud departments when we discover fraudulent accounts, with the aim of having them removed as quickly as possible.”
Heim feels good to share his story now. “My friends and I joke about it now, but back then it was a blow to my confidence and my ego.” Her confidence has returned now that she has a few job leads in hand (some recruiters have even reached out in response to her videos) and backed by positive responses indicating she has made a difference.
“People came up to me and said, ‘Oh my god, I was just on the Wire app this morning interviewing for a job. Now I’ve blocked and deleted that number.’ It makes me feel good to hear that I helped them,” says Heim.