I was so excited in May when my husband showed me the posting on Craigslist for experienced carpenters that paid $27.50 per hour building trade show displays for a local company called AtlanticPacificOnline.
After all, he is a New York state union-trained carpenter with 20 years of experience and had run his own contracting company for more than 12 years. Without steady work in more than six months, his unemployment was beginning to wear on us, both economically and emotionally.
The psychological toll had also lowered our guard against dubious job offers.
My husband spoke to a staffing agent with AtlanticPacificOnline, who said that with his experience he was guaranteed a position. We checked out the company Web site, other job postings, and the contact and company information, which all seemed complete and legitimate.
He (and many others in such fields as hospitality, security and administration) went to the address listed on the Web site for a scheduled interview. Located in a strip mall at 13191 56th Court, Suite 10, in Clearwater, a staffing area was set up for applicants across the room from another trade show company's reception area. There was a line of applicants, as well as several other people milling about the parking lot. When it was my husband's turn, the staffing agent asked for his driver's license and Social Security card, which they scanned on a regular office scanner along with his hand print. Then he paid $42 for a background check "to weed out applicants," the staffing agent told him.
"That's it. …We'll contact you when the training for your position begins," she said.
And he walked out with a printed form receipt stamped "PAID" that said he would be notified the following week of the position's starting date.
But the company never contacted him, except with a form rejection e-mail. And, instead, a slew of warning e-mails popped up on Craigslist that same Wednesday in the last week of May — just days before the positions were supposed to begin. None of those applicants had gotten the job.
That's what sparked my husband's sinking feeling. Was it scam? Were they after the $42 "background" fee? Or worse, his identity? How had we been so naive and gullible?
Job seekers' negative, desperate mind-sets make them prime targets for sketchy employment offers, warns St. Petersburg licensed mental health counselor John J. Bosworth. They will do almost anything impulsive to relieve the negative feelings. It's just human nature, Bosworth explains.
The pool of potential victims has grown in the past year as Florida's unemployment has rocketed past 10 percent. Many of them have been without work for a long time, making them even more desperate — and vulnerable.
"They are so hopeful. They don't stop to evaluate the validity of the position in the current marketplace or that handing over their personal information could actually make their situation worse," Bosworth says.
Richard Burgess, also an experienced out-of-work tradesman, followed all the instructions when he showed up at AtlanticPacificOnline.
"I assumed there was a process involved, so I just complied," he told me recently. "I thought I wouldn't get the job if I refused, and I needed the job."
Even my husband said to me, "Why would I go in there thinking about a scam — when I'm thinking about a job?"
Other local applicants described similar experiences, including one parent, Pat Vallarelli, who reported in her complaint to the attorney general that AtlanticPacificOnline staffing agent Nicole Buscema came to Countryside High School to recruit applicants.
Twenty-three victims, including my husband, signed the online petition against AtlanticPacificOnline to the Attorney General's office, filed by Channing Finlayson, 19, a Tampa business student. Other victims have filed complaints with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office or the Florida Attorney General's Office.
"As soon as I left without an interview, all the red flags went off in my head," said Guy Bala. "I couldn't sleep that night worrying about identity theft — and that's why I started posting warnings on Craigslist."
That's why so many applicants were milling around the parking lot, second-guessing what they had just done, it turns out.
Robby Cunningham, spokesperson for the State of Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, said the agency's legal team did an extensive search and found "no restrictions or procedures in the law for how private Florida employers collect personal information from applicants."
What about identity theft?
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum's office is investigating complaints against AtlanticPacificOnline.
"The best thing to do is file a complaint with us at www.myfloridalegal.com including as much detail as possible like names, company names, phone numbers, addresses, dates, along with describing your specific experience," McCollum said. "In this case, since identity theft is a criminal offense, you need to file a complaint with your local sheriff's office, too."
Meanwhile, all contact information has been removed from the AtlanticPacificOnline Web site, although postings for positions remain for many states. Two other local companies — Gulf Coast Displays and Transworld Trade Development Co. — are connected to the same address, names and phone numbers as AtlanticPacificOnline.
When reached for comments by e-mail and by phone, Buscema, the staffing agent, denied lying or any knowledge of perpetrating a job scam. She said she is no longer affiliated with AtlanticPacificOnline, although her name is still associated with Gulf Coast Displays. And when complaints about the applicant-screening process were received, another form e-mail came from Mike Creamer, who heads the company, apologizing for any overhiring or misleading promises and a return of the $42 fee.
When reached by phone, Creamer also denied misleading applicants and said that he had let go of those staffing agents. But when my husband called Creamer to ask why he had gotten a refund check, Creamer replied that he had overhired for the positions and to keep applying to the positions listed online.
Some applicants have also received the refund check and cashed it, although the Attorney General's Office advises against cashing any such checks. My husband wondered whether any of these companies hired anyone to do real work.
So far, my husband remains unemployed, now wary of opportunities on Craigslist, which either pay way too little or seem too good to be true. We have frozen our credit accounts, and my husband's identity remains intact so far, but we remain on high alert.
In the meantime, we are turning his expert renovation skills on our own house, a luxury we were never able to afford because he was always so busy working on other people's houses, until the construction and housing market turns around.
Naomi Mannino is a freelance writer who lives in Spring Hill.