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When the economy sours, watch out for job scams

(ran NP edition)

Optimism helps job hunters and entrepreneurs get through tough times. But naive optimism can also turn them into victims, especially in an economy such as this one.

Two things in particular to watch out for are people who say you can earn large sums of money working at home and career counselors who promise you the world _ in exchange for a huge wad of cash. Payable in advance, of course.

The Better Business Bureau has warned people for years about work-at-home schemes. People are told they can make money by assembling items at home or processing insurance claims or monitoring the Internet.

"The old standby is stuffing envelopes," said Gene O'Neil, president of the San Mateo County (Calif.) Better Business Bureau. The workers are asked to send in money, then receive a list of companies that supposedly need their services. But the companies rarely do.

The Internet not only allows scam artists to target more people in a hurry, but it has let them offer all sorts of "Internet opportunities" that resemble the traditional scams. Inc magazine's February issue had a great article by senior editor Joseph Rosenbloom (http://inc.com/search/23856.html), who tried to get rich off some of the offers that popped into his e-mail inbox.

He has kept his day job.

For more information about work-at-home schemes, check the Better Business Bureau's Web site (http://bbb.org) and search for "work-at-home scams." O'Neil said a legitimate business might pay people to perform routine tasks at home, but it's easy to tell a reasonable offer from a scheme.

"If they ask you for money upfront," he said, "then you are in a work-at-home scam."

While those schemes tend to take advantage of desperate people with low incomes and limited skills, or ones who want to get rich quick, sometimes executives become victims when they listen to exaggerated promises from career counselors.

These executives pay thousands of dollars in advance to firms that promise they have wonderful contacts to land great jobs. All you have to do is sign this contract . . .

"Over the last 20 years, I have had to listen to grown men and women cry over the telephone, all because they signed a contract," Richard Nelson Bolles writes in his classic job-hunting book, What Color Is Your Parachute? "Most often they were executives, or senior managers, who never had to go job hunting before, and unknowingly signed up with some executive counseling firm that was fraudulent, or at least on the edge of legality.

"They thought the high fee guaranteed excellence. It didn't."

This is not meant in any way to trash career counselors or executive recruiters. There are a lot of honest, talented people in both areas. But recruiters get paid by the company, not the job hunter, and most legitimate career counselors don't ask for thousands of dollars in advance.

So how do you find a good counselor? Don't write to me, because I don't make recommendations. Bolles' book has a great appendix on how to select a career counselor and a sampler that lists dozens of them, but he makes it clear that he is not recommending anyone. To get a good counselor, you have to do the legwork and figure it out for yourself. It's not an exact science.

But you should remember that anybody can call himself a career counselor. Some states have certification programs that may help a bit, but mostly you are on your own.

Before you look for a counselor, think about what you hope to get out of the relationship. Even good career counselors don't have magic wands; they can help you find a direction, but you'll have to do the work. So if all you really want to do is complain about how unfair the world is, save your money.

Otherwise, think about your key goals and what might be holding you back. If you blame all your failures on workplace politics or some gnawing unhappiness, counselors with expertise in psychology might help the most. Others specialize in aptitude tests and changing careers, or in becoming an entrepreneur. They can help channel your energy in the right direction.

Consider, too, whether having a counselor with expertise in your industry is important. If you already like your career and want to move up, it probably is.

Check your network for recommendations, and talk briefly with several counselors. Find out their credentials, get references, ask what they would do to help someone like you. And don't ignore your gut feelings; chemistry can be crucial.

The right counselor will give you optimism. The wrong one will take it away.

_ Dave Murphy writes for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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