James Bradbrook is Employer Engagement Support Officer (Vacancies) for the Career Zone. 

How many times have you read a story about someone being conned out of money and thought, “Idiot! I would never have fallen for that!”? Don’t be so sure.

Finding the right job can be hard work. Sadly, it can be even harder when unscrupulous individuals target jobseekers with the aim of conning them.

Recruitment scams are a growing issue. In 2017, the government estimated that up to 10% of jobseekers have fallen victim to a recruitment scam. Younger people and visitors from other countries are especially at risk – categories that many of our students fall into.

The scammer ecosystem is constantly evolving, so it’s difficult to provide a comprehensive guide, but here are some of the most common that come across our desks in the Career Zone.

The Impersonators …

All fraud involves some element of deception, but this kind hinges on someone pretending to represent a legitimate company. They post a job advert, using the name of the company to attract applicants.

Once you apply, matters can escalate in all sorts of ways. For example:

  • The highly detailed personal information you’ve helpfully supplied is then used to facilitate identity fraud, phishing scams, etc.
  • You bag the job (or so you think!), hand over your bank details so they can pay your wages, and suddenly your bank account is compromised.
  • You’re asked to pay fees of some sort. This can be anything from a background check to a “processing” fee of some sort or travel arrangements (especially with jobs abroad).

Would you like to help my drug cartel launder some money?

This sort of fraud usually takes the form of a foreign company asking for “local representatives” to process payments from their customers. The “representative” may be asked to use their own bank account or set up a new one, which they then use to receive payments from one party and pass it on to another, keeping an agreed share of the money for themselves as their “fee”.

The main risk here is not that the representative will get ripped off by their “employers”, although they may be. Rather it is that their accounts are being used to launder money, the source of which may be as minor as eBay fraud or part of a far larger operation by criminal organisations.

Best of all – for the criminals – is that if the authorities do manage to track the passage of funds, they find … you! And while you might not be involved in the wider crime, you will have committed an extremely serious criminal offense which can carry lengthy prison sentences. International students must be particularly vigilant against these sorts of scams as even minor offenses can compromise their visa status.

The point is not to develop a paranoid suspicion of every recruiter, but to take  responsibility for your job search. If something about a role or company doesn’t seem right, investigate it! Get in touch with Career Zone – we can’t tell you what to do, but we will tell you if we think your worries are rational or not.

How can I avoid fraud? 

There’s no foolproof way to avoid being scammed, but you can usually save yourself a lot of pain by knowing the warning signs. Here are some to look for:

Professionalism (or lack thereof!). Are the company’s communications professional and well-written? Bad spelling, grammar, etc. are often a sign that you’re not dealing with a legitimate company. Again, this is definitely a red flag if you’re dealing with someone claiming to represent a large company, but you might sometimes want to make allowances if you’re dealing with smaller companies or someone who’s not writing in their native language.

Unofficial email accounts. Be wary if you are asked to submit an application to a Hotmail, Gmail or similar account. You have no way of verifying whether the person is who they say they are or if they are acting with proper authority from the company they claim to be working for. Only communicate this way if you are 100% sure who you are dealing with. Large corporations will hardly ever communicate this way, although smaller companies might sometimes do so.

Websites. Does the company have a website? Does it look professional? If the company doesn’t have a website ask yourself how the company survives without such an essential marketing component. Very small companies and start-ups may not always have a website but this is unusual and definitely something to investigate further.

Also check to make sure that the domain name of the website is correct. Sometimes fraudsters will create a duplicate website with an address that is subtly different from what it should be e.g. adding or removing a single character. These doctored addresses are very difficult to spot unless you’re paying close attention. The same applies to email addresses. Does the email domain match the company’s website domain? There are legitimate reasons for such a mismatch, but it can also be a warning sign.

If you have suspicions that a website may not be authentic, there are a variety of online tools that you can use to look up information about it (e.g. http://www.domainwhitepages.com/). If the website of an established company is very new, or registered in a country that seems unlikely, there’s a good chance it may be fraudulent.

Lastly, if you’re applying online, is their website HTTPS secure?

Registrations. Nearly all companies are required to meet certain legal requirements to keep operating. In the UK, at bare minimum, all incorporated companies must register certain details with Companies House. Depending on the nature of the company, additional registrations may be required: for example, finance companies must register with the Financial Conduct Authority, charities with the Charity Commission, etc. If a company doesn’t have the registrations you would expect, ask them why. There may be a legitimate reason but then again …

Other contact details. What other contact details does the company have? Do they match your expectations? Registered companies have to provide addresses to their regulators – however, these may not be identical to their operating address. Often, companies will use the address of their accountants or solicitors, so don’t automatically assume that this is a red flag. Use of PO Box addresses is uncommon but is sometimes employed by very small businesses that operate from residential premises. Companies in sensitive industries (especially defence or pharmaceutical companies) may also employ them. Telephone contacts are also worth scrutinizing – does a large company only seem to have a mobile telephone for contact? Or are you being asked to call a premium rate number?

Remarkably easy recruitment processes. Ever been offered an amazing, well-paid job without even having to sit an interview? No? Well, neither have we and that’s because such things do not exist. The better paid or otherwise more attractive a company or role, the pickier the recruiter can afford to be. There’s a simple reason why most graduate recruitment schemes have high entry requirements and are arduous affairs with multiple stages. The easier the recruitment process, the less desirable the role is likely to be.  If the company is offering great rewards for little in return, you should be suspicious. Remember, if something is too good to be true, it probably is.

Trust your instincts

As mentioned above, there is no guaranteed method that can avoid fraud completely, but by staying vigilant and thinking critically about the sort of roles you come across you can reduce your risk considerably.

Nor should you rely solely on others to keep you safe and that includes recruitment agencies and job boards (and that includes University ones!). Regulation and enforcement in this arena is notoriously lax and operators will always face commercial pressure to advertise more roles as opposed to less. This is particularly true in times of economic difficulty. And there is always the additional problem of human error.

The point here is not to develop a paranoid suspicion of every recruiter, but to take personal responsibility for your job search. If something about a role or company just doesn’t seem right, investigate it! Ask your friends and family for their view. Or get in touch with Career Zone – we can’t tell you what to do, but we will tell you if we think your worries are rational or not.

Don’t think it can’t happen to you!

How many times have you read a story about someone being conned out of egregious sums of money and thought, “Idiot! I would never have fallen for that!”?

Don’t be so sure. Under normal circumstances, you might be right. But what if you are vulnerable at a particular moment? Are you short of cash? Have you just had a hard breakup? Struggling with your course? Family trouble?

All sorts of life events can temporarily blow us off course and weaken our judgement and we are also vulnerable when we find ourselves in stressful or unfamiliar situations. What affects each individual will be different, but anybody can be vulnerable in the right circumstances.

In the current circumstances of the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic difficulties accompanying it, everyone is under greater and unfamiliar pressures than ever before.

In these circumstances it is even more important to be vigilant and stay connected with people who can sense-check your decisions … and for you to do the same for them.

More information

If you’d like to read around the subject further, here are some useful links to get you started.

Safer Jobshttps://www.safer-jobs.com – This non-profit website is a collaboration between industry, government and law enforcement. Useful general information but not regularly updated.

Action Fraudhttps://www.actionfraud.police.uk/a-z-of-fraud/recruitment-scams – Managed by the City of London police, this website provides general information on fraud and cyber crime. The link we’ve provided is a specific page dealing with recruitment fraud, but there’s plenty of other interesting information.

CIFAShttps://www.cifas.org.uk/insight/fraud-risk-focus-blog/internet-safety-tips-for-students – Another anti-fraud industry body, but with plenty of information for consumers too. The link connects to some general internet safety tips specifically for students.

Need more help with your job search? https://www.exeter.ac.uk/careers/