Sitting at her laptop hunting for a part-time job, University of California-Davis student Isra Sebiaa spotted an "office help" ad that sounded incredibly appealing.
Posted by an "international business consultant" in Davis, the would-be employer was frequently overseas and needed help running errands, paying bills, mailing packages and doing shopping. The pay: $150 a week for 10 hours of work, plus mileage and expenses.
"It sounded perfect," recalls Sebiaa, a senior majoring in political science. She immediately applied online, sending her resume, a crisp cover letter and a request for a face-to-face interview.
To Sebiaa's delight, she was "hired" instantly. And that's when the job description suddenly became something very different. Her unseen boss, supposedly in Sweden meeting clients, emailed Sebiaa's first assignment: She'd receive an $1,100 check, to be deposited into her own account. After deducting $150 as the first week's "pay," she was to wire the remainder to an address in the Philippines.
Officially known as a "payment-transfer" scheme, it's a familiar scam that has seduced many adult job seekers for years. Now it's trickling down to college kids.
The ruses vary. In some cases, students are told they're hired, then informed that the "boss" has taken ill on vacation and needs funds wired to his account. The students are assured that they'll be reimbursed, plus expenses.
At a time when college costs are accelerating and part-time hiring is stuck, this type of online scam is particularly troubling. "Students are having a hard enough time finding a job and are among the last who should be victimized. It's a tragedy when anyone trying to find a job becomes a victim," said Sylvia Kundig, an attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's San Francisco office.
Last year, foreign money and counterfeit check scams were among the FTC's top 12 consumer complaints. "It's a perennial scam," said FTC spokeswoman Monica Vaca.
The phony job ads come as college graduate hiring by genuine companies appears healthier. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, job offers for U.S. college graduates this June are expected to be up 13 percent from a year ago.
The FTC and others say the online perpetrators are hard to trace and shut down.
How to avoid getting scammed? When an unseen, online employer makes a tantalizing job offer, use common sense and do some Internet digging.
It's easy for a con artist's company to have a website, or even be incorporated. "That's not a badge of legitimacy," said the FTC's Kundig. "You have to dig below that. Google (the company and person's name) and look for complaints. Do some research."
Anyone who has encountered an online job scam, even if no money was lost, should file an online complaint with the FTC online at FTC.gov. "Filling out that form is our first step in trying to put somebody out of business," Kundig said.