Jobseekers beware: don't fall prey to this advance fee scam

Photo © Stepan Popov - Fotolia

Real financial jobs let you use your employer's corporate bank account to pay company bills, never your own

If you're looking for work in this economy you know you must be careful, because there exist plenty of scammers, thieves, and con artists using fake job offers or help-wanted postings as bait to hook new victims. A California man named Ryan recently wrote us about a close call he had when he applied for a job that turned out to be bait for an “advance fee scam.”

There are two main types of scams that job-seekers are falling into these days: advance-fee or check-cashing scams, where the scammers' goal is to steal money from you; and various money-laundering scams, where you unwittingly help the thief steal money from someone else (and you might even face criminal charges over it).

Personal assistant scam

On June 25, Ryan saw a help-wanted ad for a receptionist position offering $16 an hour plus benefits. When he responded, the supposed employer “said the job was filled, but [he] had a smaller offer,” Ryan said to us.

So he applied for the other job. “The worst part is, I used to be in law enforcement, and should have known better,” Ryan ruefully observed later.

Ryan forwarded us the email describing that second job. Supposedly, an “Interior Designer, Decorator & Arts collector with a large client base" was seeking a trustworthy person to be his personal assistant. 

“If you accept my offer, I will need you to take charge of my mail pick ups and drop off as well as errand running during your spare time outside of work. The job is flexible so you can do it wherever you are as long as there is a post office in the area. I will pay for the first week in advance to run any errands,” the email said.

That sounded semi-plausible, perhaps; such “personal assistant” jobs do exist, especially in parts of California where the population contains a higher-than-average number of rich celebrities.

So Ryan, thinking he'd found a part-time job to provide some necessary income, gave his “employer” his mailing address, and soon received a tracking number for a FedEx shipment — his new employer sent him a check to “pay for the first week in advance,” as he said.

With the tracking number, Ryan watched in “real time” as the envelope left its point of origin in Boston heading for his house in California. But by then, Ryan's delayed skepticism had kicked in, and he realized that several things about that job offer smelled fishy. So he contacted the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, and also wrote to tell us about it.

Fake check

A couple days, later, on June 30, Ryan received a check made out for $1,950, apparently drawn on a payroll account at Chase Bank. When a suspicious Ryan took the check to the nearest Chase branch, “they said it's fake and confiscated the check without asking,” Ryan said. (That's actually a standard anti-fraud measure.)

Ryan did not tell the scammers that he was on to them. Instead he asked for more detail, and on July 2 received an email, allegedly from a health care company (as opposed to an interior designer and art collector to the very rich), outlining his job duties in more detail:

We offer a simple part-time home based job which doesn't require any special experience.
Our customers from the USA will send you checks by mail. Checks will be written out to your name.
All you'll need to do is to cash these checks, take out your part and transfer the rest of the amount from your local Money Gram office to clients. All names and amounts will be in the detailed instruction.
Check amounts will be from $2,000 to $3,000. They'll be sent one at a time.
Your salary will be 5% + $3,000 at the end of the month.

If you want to start working in our company, please confirm that your address is correct and current:


Also let me know if you are ready to complete the first task.

Compulsory requirements:
1) ability to cash checks,
2) transfer money through Money Gram.

And that's how Ryan knew it was a scam. There is no legitimate money-handling job anywhere requiring you-the-employee to use your own money or your own bank account to do it. Pick any company you can think of – let's say Coca-Cola. The company genuinely does have entire departments full of paid staff whose job is to spend Coke's corporate money on various things: the payroll department regularly issues wages to various Coke employees; the people in accounts payable give money to sugar producers, cola-nut growers, and other suppliers who provide the raw ingredients used to make Coca-Cola … and these employees are all carefully vetted before getting permission to use Coca-Cola's own bank accounts to perform these activities. None of them are expected to write personal checks on their own bank accounts to cover Coke's corporate costs.

The same rule applies if you're working for a small start-up business, or an individual who's rich enough to hire a personal assistant. If you're paid to perform financial tasks for your employer, you perform those tasks using your employer's financial accounts, not your own.

Since the paycheck Ryan received proved to be a fake, it's obvious that whoever sent it hoped to snag Ryan into an advance fee scam. As the scammer told Ryan: “All you'll need to do is to cash these checks, take out your part and transfer the rest of the amount from your local Money Gram office to clients.”

What the scammer hoped would happen is this: Ryan would deposit that fake “Chase” check into his non-Chase bank account, then immediately withdraw money from his account and use an untraceable MoneyGram to send that money to the scammer. By the time Ryan discovered the Chase check was no good, the scammer and Ryan's money would be long gone.

Common scams

Though advance-fee job-scam offers usually claim to involve some type of financial job, that isn't always the case. Last April we told you about Suzanne in Hawaii, who applied for a housecleaning job that turned out to be an advance-fee scam: the scammer mailed her a check for $3,000, allegedly to buy cleaning supplies, but Suzanne learned that check was no good.

And on July 2, Kelly Schlicht commented on Suzanne's story to say that she has “Just received a check for $2,850 for a nanny position written on a non-existent account.”

Ryan hasn't heard back from the scammers who unsuccessfully tried to ensnare him – though he can take comfort in knowing that not only did he not lose any of his money, he even cost the scammers a little (at least in FedEx fees). Ryan hasn't heard back from the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, either, but if you encounter a would-be scammer it's still worthwhile to file a report with the IC3.

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