Online Employment Scams on the Rise, Says FBI

Looking to change jobs? Watch out for fraudsters who use legitimate job services, slick websites, and an interview process to convince applicants to part with sensitive personal details.

4 Min Read

Online fraudsters are increasingly targeting job seekers by posing as legitimate employers, conducting interviews, and then "hiring" the victim, at which time they request personal and financial data, according to an advisory issued by the FBI's Internet Criminal Complain Center earlier this week.

The long con often results in victims giving up Social Security numbers, direct deposit information, and even images of driver's licenses. The scam often ends by the "employer" asking the victim to pay fees or purchase equipment to work from home, after which the criminals break off communications. The average victim loses $3,000, according to the FBI advisory.

While such employment scams are not new, the level of involvement in the latest iteration of the online scam makes it stands out, the FBI said.

"While hiring scams have been around for many years, cyber criminals’ emerging use of spoofed websites to harvest PII (personally identifiable information) and steal money shows an increased level of complexity," the FBI stated in the advisory. "Criminals often lend credibility to their scheme by advertising alongside legitimate employers and job placement firms, enabling them to target victims of all skill and income levels."

The increase in attacks underscores a general trend of criminals targeting business processes. Business e-mail compromise — the largest source of fraud by potential losses, for example — accounted for more than 20,300 complaints in 2018, the IC3 stated in its last annual report. The fraud put more than $1.3 billion at risk, compared to less than $4 million for ransomware that year, although the FBI has questioned whether the ransomware figure is accurate since victims frequently do not report ransomware attacks.

Employment fraud consisted of almost 15,000 incidents, accounting for more than $45 million in losses in 2018, according to that report.

The fraud has employment services and job-posting aggregators on watch. Job search site Indeed, for example, has a search-quality team who searches out fraudulent advertisements and job postings, although the company did not provide data on the number of fraudulent postings it removes each year.

"Jobseekers should never agree to send payment to a potential employer, and charging fees is a violation of Indeed's rules for companies posting on our site," the company said in a statement to Dark Reading. "We encourage job seekers to review our Guidelines for Safe Job Search."

Indeed is not the only organization to urge applicants to be on the lookout. College seniors and new college graduates are often targeted, and schools issue warnings for the relatively inexperienced applicants to look out for employment fraud schemes, including verifying that postings are from legitimate companies.

The University of Southern California, for example, warns job seekers to beware of a number of signs, such as "the posting appears to be from a reputable, familiar organization — often a Fortune 500 — yet, the email handle in the contact's email address does not match the domain used by representatives of the organization."

Yet online fraudsters are going for longer and more involved schemes to try to work around such advice. While USC warns applicants to not provide Social Security numbers or driver's license information in the initial application, fraudsters are now offering jobs and requesting such information during the onboarding process, the FBI stated. Interviews are increasingly conducted as part of the extended scam.

"Applicants are contacted by email to conduct an interview using a teleconference application," the FBI stated. "According to victims, cyber criminals impersonate personnel from different departments, including recruiters, talent acquisition, human resources, and department managers."

The FBI listed a variety of telltale signals that should tip off a job seeker that they should look deeper at their prospective employer. If interviews are not conducted in-person or through a secure video connection, that should raise red flags, the advisory stated. In addition, the job seeker should be suspicious if an employer requests financial information or a credit card to purchase startup equipment. 

Finally, work-at-home jobs that pay high initial salaries for inexperienced workers is another sign to question the job posting.

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About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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