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Job scams have increased as Covid-19 put millions of Americans out of work. Here's how to avoid one

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After roughly six months on unemployment and struggling to find a new job amid the coronavirus crisis, Aaron Heaps, a New York-based actor and waiter, finally thought he'd found something.

Automattic, a publishing company that owns and operates WordPress.com, reached out to Heaps via a startup job site called AngelList and encouraged him to apply for a customer service position using a special application code.

"It was a very long application," said Heaps, 28, adding that all communication was through an online app called Telegram. But the questions were typical for a job interview, so he thought "it seems legit, they're not asking anything too personal, I don't have much to lose," he said.

He also kept researching Automattic during the process and learned that the company does communicate online and has many remote employees. So, he kept going forward until he was sent a new hire form and contract that asked for more personal information including government identification and proof of address.

Aaron Heaps, standing, discovered a job he'd applied to was a scam.
Aaron Heaps

It was then he saw multiple red flags. The pay of $45 an hour seemed too high for the position and didn't line up with other company salary information he found online, Heaps said. And, he hadn't had any face-to-face contact with the company, something that would usually accompany a job offer.

He followed his gut and asked for a video meeting to go over some questions he had. He never heard back — neither AngelList nor Automattic had anything to do with what turned out to a fake job listing.

Now, any time another company reaches out to Heaps in a similar fashion, he worries it's also a scam. 

"It's really defeating," he said. He reported the fake listing to both AngelList and Automattic, both of which have taken measures to address false  postings. 

AngelList has seen an increase in fake job postings amid the pandemic, and some do end up on the site though there's a team actively detecting and catching fraud, said Kapil Kale, chief operating officer of talent products at AngelList. Automattic's actual job site – not the link Heaps was given – now lists a warning about the scam.

Scams and unemployment are on the rise

Complaints about scams for certain business and job-related opportunities have spiked this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to Federal Trade Commission data.

Reports about fraudulent employment agencies, job counseling, overseas work, multi-level marketing schemes and chain letters increased in the second quarter of 2020, according to the latest available FTC data. Complaints about fraudulent business opportunities and work-at-home plans are also elevated compared to last year.  

The uptick comes as the U.S. grapples with the worst recession since the Great Depression. More than six months into the pandemic, roughly 26 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits and there are nearly 11 million few jobs than there were before the crisis.

"Whenever we see times of great financial distress and high unemployment, unfortunately we do see an uptick in scams that are targeting people that have financial distress," said Kati Daffan, an attorney and assistant marketing director in the FTC's division of marketing practices.

There are a few major red flags that many scams share, according to Daffan. Fraudulent listings may ask for payment upfront, for example, seek the applicant's bank or credit card information, or guarantee outsized earnings or a luxurious lifestyle.

Too good to be true

Kaitie Gibbs, 30, a single mother of three from Florida, was the victim of a scam claiming guaranteed earnings. Desperate to find another job after being furloughed from her account executive position at car rental giant Enterprise Holdings in March, she applied for a remote shipping agent role she found online.

The job, at a company called Supreme Purchase, promised to pay $3,500 the first month and $1,750 on a bi-weekly basis after that. Gibbs started in June, receiving packages, replacing the outside label and shipping them from UPS.

Kaitie Gibbs, a single mother of three daughters, wasn't paid the $3,500 she was owed after working for a reshipping scam for a month.

"As a single mom, in my mind I was like, I can do this from home, this is super-easy," she said.

Near the end of her first month, Gibbs' manager, whom she'd only communicated with virtually, asked if she'd like to be paid through direct deposit or PayPal. Gibbs wasn't comfortable giving them her bank information, so opted for PayPal.

She never got paid, and after attempting to contact the company, discovered it had given her a fake phone number and address. The company has her driver's license information and Social Security number. 

"I feel used and abused," she said. "I did not get paid.

"I worked an entire month during Covid-19 expecting pay," she added. Gibbs wrote to the Better Business Bureau when she reported the company. Several calls by CNBC to Supreme Purchase for comment were not returned.

What happened to Gibbs is called a reshipping scam, and it's been on the rise, according to Daffan. "Some people with the best of intentions get involved in this and then in addition to contributing to something they don't want to contribute to, probably don't get paid," she said. 

What to do if you see a scam or are a victim of one 

If you have been the victim of a scam, or think you may have seen a scam, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself.

1. Do your research before you apply: While online job boards have protocols in place to spot frauds, people should still do their due diligence before sending any personal financial information.

"If you are suspicious in any way that a job posting may not be legitimate, call the company in question," said Mason Miranda, credit industry specialist at Credit Card Insider. "Google the company you're applying for and look up their contact information.

"Don't just trust the phone number listed, as that may also be a fake number."

It's also a best practice to apply to jobs through a company website, not a link sent to you or posted elsewhere.

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2.  Report it: If you see a scam or are a victim, you should report it to the website where the fake listing was posted, the FTC and the Better Business Bureau. You can also alert local law enforcement and your state attorney general.

Daffan recommends going through idtheft.gov, a site run by the FTC, because it gives people an individual recovery plan depending on what happened. In addition, if its recommendation includes sending letters to your state or credit reporting company, it supplies templates to follow, she said.

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3.  Protect your identity and finances: If you paid a scammer, you should alert the company through which you made the payment as soon as possible to trace and potentially recoup funds, Daffan said. Credit and debit cards have chargeback rights, and funds sent through gift cards or wire transfer may be able to be blocked.

 "Unfortunately, the scammers are pretty fast at translating those funds into products or cash in different ways, so it can be hard to stop it," said Daffan. "But we really do encourage people to try."  

If you've given out other personal information by accident, you may want to place a freeze on your credit reports from each major company, Equifax, TransUnion and Experian, to prevent other accounts being opened in your name, said Miranda.

You should also check bank and credit card statements for any fraudulent purchases and report them right away. 

4. Warn others : Lastly, if you have seen a scam or been a victim, Daffan suggests warning others in your network who may come across the same posting. Sharing your experience can also help process it, she said. 

"It's incredibly helpful for people to tell one another about the scam you've seen," she said. 

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.