Jon Novotny of Pinellas Park has been out of work for 16 months. He says he's living on hot dogs, beans and macaroni and cheese.
Three weeks ago, he called a phone number in the job ads of this newspaper, and a woman's recorded voice told him that "career positions" were available for "immediate hire."
Not only that, the voice said, "over 90 percent of our clients are beginning work within the first one to 15 days."
Novotny phoned a number on the recording and was directed to My Career Corp., at 8130 66th St., Suite 6, in Pinellas Park. There, he said, he paid a $75 cash fee and was told he'd have work in days.
He's still waiting. He now thinks My Career Corp. is a scam, and so do Ken White of Largo and David Graus of Pinellas Park, jobless men who paid the company in April for help.
Novotny says he should have known better.
"I was so desperate to find some kind of employment," he said. "You get to that point where you are almost willing to try anything to get a nibble, a dream, a hope, a prayer."
My Career Corp. president Laurie Gallagher called the quality and level of service her clients get "outstanding." So far this year, she said, her company has found jobs for nearly 400 people.
Two complaints have been filed with the Florida Attorney General's Office against My Career Corp., along with a dozen others involving another of Gallagher's businesses that she dissolved in October.
Accusations of fraud against that business, which placed ads on Web sites and in newspapers nationwide offering to find rental housing for a fee, led Oregon's attorney general to fine the Seminole resident a year ago and ban her company from the state.
Gallagher, 39, said it's unfair to raise her past problems with another business. My Career Corp. is a bargain, she said.
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Novotny, 61, was a courier for DHL until he was laid off in March 2008. When he visited My Career Corp. on June 3, he dealt with a "pleasant" Gallagher. She promised to use her expertise and contacts to "flood the job market" with his resume, he said.
Novotny said she wouldn't take a check or credit card, only cash, for what was described on her recording as "a guaranteed placement fee of $75."
Novotny signed a receipt for the fee, but not with My Career Corp. The terms printed on the receipt were with an operation called Jobs1234 and state clearly that job placement is not guaranteed and the fee not refundable.
Gallagher gave him a list of perhaps 30 companies, Novotny said, but no information on hiring contacts was included. The next day, he was e-mailed a revised resume based on one he had provided her.
It "looked like a fourth-grader put it together," he said.
After a week without a job lead, he went back to the office, where he found an angry Ken White. In April, the 49-year-old unemployed man had also responded to a newspaper ad and had a similar story to tell.
One difference: When White signed the receipt for the $75 fee, it was not with Jobs1234 or My Career Corp. but with something called Job Cafe. Also, My Career Corp. was then on Seminole Boulevard.
Feeling he'd been "ripped off," White went back to the office on Seminole Boulevard, only to find it empty. He checked the newspaper, found the ad still listed and had his girlfriend call, posing as a job seeker.
That's how he learned that the business had moved to 66th Street. Gallagher wasn't in. He and Novotny voiced frustration to a receptionist and left, agreeing they'd been duped.
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David Graus, 51, paid his $75 to Job Cafe two months ago, nearly a year after he lost his job as a warehouse worker. So far, nothing. He feels used, though he still calls Gallagher regularly asking for updates.
In an interview June 18, Gallagher denied wrongdoing and said her clients get a lot for what they pay.
So far this year, she said, she has gotten work for 397 people. Novotny, White and Graus, like all other clients, are sent regular job leads via e-mail, she said.
Asked to produce a client that she had placed, the e-mails sent to Novotny, White and Graus, and evidence for the hundreds of placements she claimed, Gallagher said she would.
In the days that followed, Gallagher provided e-mails that she said her company sent the men. They ask whether the men are happy with their attached resumes, and in some cases list companies and their Web sites but don't include hiring contacts.
The St. Petersburg Times tried to contact six companies that Graus was told in an e-mail would be sent his resume. Of the four that responded, three said they could not comment and the fourth said it had never gotten his resume.
Pressed for more, Gallagher provided four written testimonials from purportedly satisfied My Career Corp. clients.
In compiling the testimonials, My Career Corp. included only the clients' initials and omitted information on where they had been hired, citing privacy concerns.
E-mail addresses were included. A reporter contacted the four and asked them to call and discuss their experiences with the company.
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Gallagher started a business called Tenant Marketplace in late 2007. Records indicate it was at 14955 Gulf Blvd., No. 11, in Madeira Beach.
The company advertised in newspapers across the country and on Craigslist, offering to find rental properties for a $149 fee.
The result: the company's practices drew complaints to the Better Business Bureau from 18 states — from California to Massachusetts, Minnesota to Florida — and the District of Columbia.
In many cases, consumers would learn that the rental listings provided were not even vacant, and landlords often had never heard of the company.
In June 2008, Oregon's attorney general fined Gallagher $10,000, ordered her to make restitution to several consumers and booted the business from the state.
"Tenant Marketplace knew its product was mostly nonexistent and stale at best but took money for it anyway," said then-attorney general Hardy Myers at the time. "There is no room for fraudulent retailers such as these in Oregon's marketplace."
She was not charged with a crime, and Gallagher said Tenant Marketplace had done no wrong.
Last week, Oregon regulators filed a default judgment against Gallagher in their state courts for failing to pay $745 in restitution to former clients.
Gallagher formed My Career Corp. in December, listing a Tampa address. She said she has placed ads for her new business throughout Florida. The Better Business Bureau has received two complaints about My Career Corp., one from Jacksonville, the other from Georgia.
Novotny recently filed a complaint with Pinellas County's Office of Justice & Consumer Services.
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Novotny knows that the $75 he paid Gallagher may seem small. But for him, every dime matters. He said he has been able to keep up with his mortgage but is seven months and $5,700 behind on his condo fees.
"This is a blatant case of taking advantage of people, especially in this depressed economic environment," he said. "It's just brutal out here; then you have these leeches."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4166.