You would like to work from home but youve heard only horror stories about work-at-home scams? That's good. They're all true. Many people who have the desire to work from home have had their dreams shattered by crooks and con men.

Take for example, Robert, of Durham, North Carolina, who wrote: [The] company guaranteed employment and technical training materials. Took our money, provided nothing, then offered refund checks which bounced.

Randy, of Springfield, Oregon, found his work-at-home directions very unappealing: They needed $32.95 to send the materials I would need. What I got was a letter telling me to basically do the same thing to other people.

From envelope stuffing to assembly work, consumers have been ripped off to the tune of millions of dollars. In fact, its been estimated that for every one legitimate home-based business opportunity, there are over 40 scams waiting to take your money.

Not very good odds, you say?

True, but the way to turn the odds in your favor is to forget about the advertisements on the Web or in the back of magazines and newspapers, and turn your attention to companies that normally have no need to advertise or create your own opportunities in your community.

First, lets be honest. Whether as an employee or an independent contractor, not everyone is suited for the work-at-home environment. Many people who dream of working from home, end up back in an office building because their personality is simply not suited to the at-home environment.

For instance, are you lazy or immature? To be motivated, do you need a boss looking over your shoulder? Do you need the camaraderie of other workers?

A yes answer to any of those questions means that working from home might not be right for you.

Hate to say it, but you should also consider whether you are even remotely qualified for a work-at-home job. Generally speaking, you will have to perform as well -- or even better -- when working at home as you would if you were working in an office.

If you can't type, spell, write and speak grammatically, if you can't do simple math and have no patience with difficult customers and co-workers, an orange apron or a McDonald's cap may be in your future.

If you have a strong regional or ethnic dialect, you may not be suited to deal with the public on the telephone. Sorry, it may not be fair but that's the way it is.

I know, by this time you're saying, Shut up, David, and tell me where I can get a real job! OK, here are some legitimate ideas and companies that can help your work-at-home dreams become reality.

Virtual assistants

If you enjoy administrative work and are good at it, you may be a good candidate for a virtual assistant (VA) job.

The best VAs come from administrative backgrounds, but anyone who is detail-oriented, loves to work in a support role, and has a well-rounded work history would possibly do well in a career as a VA, said Stacy Brice, one of the founders of the VA industry.

Brice, who provides help and training through AssistU.com, said the pay could be rewarding, based on how well you do your job.

Because VAs are business owners, they set their own fees, based on the value they can create for their clients. You'll see fees all over the place, but AssistU-trained VAs generally have fees that are $30.00 + per hour, Brice said.

Why would someone hire a virtual assistant?

Many small business owners, sole-practice professionals and entrepreneurs hire VAs so they can concentrate on what they do best, rather than getting bogged down in administrative details.

Oh, and also so they can work at home. You'll find graphic artists, Web designers, technical consultants and all kinds of independent professionals working at home and using virtual assistants these days.

I use a virtual assistant so that I dont have the responsibility of overhead, payroll, etc., said Jonathan Pool, a Michigan-based mechanical consulting engineer. In a way, its like having a consultant of my own, someone with their own expertise.

In addition to AssistU, you can find valuable information at the International Virtual Assistants Association and at Staffcentrix.

Call centers

Or you could become a call-center professional, without moving to India.

There are legitimate companies that hire at-home customer service workers. Most positions are as an independent contractor, however, there is some companies that hire home-based employees, JetBlue being perhaps the best known.

Another is Alpine Access. Founded in 1998, it provides call-center solutions to various well-known companies, as well as to some of the largest financial institutions in the country. Agents who work for Alpine Access receive health benefits and a matching 401k plan, and are paid for the time they spend in training.

While being a call-center worker can mean juggling calls for many different companies, Alpine Access says that is not the case with them.

Alpine Access employees only work on one account, so if you train to take calls for J. Crew, you only take calls for them. In many other companies, you take calls for a variety of clients, which can be confusing, said spokeswoman Stefanie Jones.

In addition to Alpine Access, the following companies hire remote agents.

  •  Arise Arise hires remote agents to support almost 40 companies, including 14 Fortune 500 companies.
  •  National Telecommuting Institute, Inc. An organization that helps to assist Americans with disabilities. NTI prepares qualified individuals with disabilities primarily for work as customer service representatives, but also as technical support agents and in the medical transcription field.
  •  Working Solutions Established in 1997, Working Solutions has a network of over 20,000 remote agents who serve corporate and Fortune 500 clients.

Questions to ask

Before jumping on the home-based bandwagon, you must ask many questions or you might find yourself right back where you started.

  •  Are there startup or membership fees? Its usually a sure sign of a fraud if you must pay to work. However, we know of one legitimate company (LiveOps) that will ask you to pay for the cost of the background check.
  •  What equipment will you need and who pays for it? Youll typically need a landline phone, high-speed Internet access, and possibly a wireless headset. Also, ask about any special computer programs you might need.
  •  How often are you paid and who pays you? If you're working as an independent contractor, it's standard practice to be paid only once per month. An employee might be paid more often.
  •  Will you be taking incoming calls or making outgoing sales calls? If you dont like the idea of making cold calls to people you dont know, a telemarketing position might not be your thing.
  •  Are you paid per minute? This is important. Many legitimate companies will pay you based on how long you are actually on the phone. For instance, if you are sitting at your desk for an hour but are on the phone for 20 minutes of that hour, youll be paid for only 20 minutes.

Brain surgery

It goes without saying that there are some jobs you just have to show up for. You can't be a work-at-home bus driver. But, if you already have specific work skills or professional qualifications, the field is wide open.

The Internet, while it may be the new Scam Central, also makes it possible for many professional and technical types to work from home for the first time. If you are an accountant, lawyer, software engineer, journalist or architect, there are ample opportunities to work from home, or wherever else you happen to be.

You can find out about these from your professional or trade association.

Other prospects

The best job of all, of course, is the one you create yourself. If you're qualified to be a virtual assistant, your city or town may be the best place to get your start. You could try contacting the business owners and professionals you already know, offering to take over some or all of their back-office functions.

If you're computer-literate, able to set aside time to handle telephone chores and can be trusted with such essential tasks as billing and collections, chances are there are plenty of prospective clients close to home.

Most of your potential clients would rather deal with someone they can deal with personally when the need arises. Is that you? Well, I can't tell from here. Only you know the answer.

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