Rising unemployment is turning more job seekers into victims of Internet scams.
The FBI is tracking an increase in Web-related schemes that promise large paychecks for a few hours of work per week from home. In some cases, the victims are unwittingly laundering ill-gotten money for unnamed "overseas investors."
"We are aware of what we would call a slight uptick in reports of fraud involving work-at-home scams," said Brian Hale, FBI spokesman.
The FBI's figures do not yet document the increase in the scams because they occurred only "in recent months" as unemployment rates continue rising, he said.
However, the Spanish software firm Panda Security reported that job-related messages nearly tripled their share of spam e-mails from August to October, hitting a record of 0.31 percent.
The messages also were much more successful in recruiting victims, scoring a 1.8 percent rate in October, compared with 0.5 percent in August, Panda Security reported.
Gloria Holland said she fell victim to an e-mail solicitation that offered her a job as an online computer sales representative. The catch was she had to mail in a check for a $39 "sign-on fee."
She was searching for a work-at-home opportunities while she cared for her husband, who is home-bound with emphysema.
"I try to find something to do while I'm at home to make some extra money," said Mrs. Holland, of Princess Anne, Md.
She mailed in the $39 check, but she never heard from the company she signed on to represent, prompting her to report the incident to the Maryland Attorney General's consumer affairs division.
"Then they had to send my money back," Mrs. Holland said.
One of the most common scams is the "mystery shopper." Letters and e-mails offer home-based workers opportunities to make money while shopping at major retail outlets, such as Wal-Mart.
The victims are sent checks - sometimes for thousands of dollars - and asked to deposit the checks in their bank accounts, then wire some of their own money to accounts in foreign countries to test whether the MoneyGram wire system works properly. The messages claim to be sent by marketing research firms that are testing consumer choices.
The problem is that the checks the victims receive are fake. Before their banks recognize the forgery days later, the account holders already have wired off their own money, leaving them little chance of recovering it. Typically, the amount of funds lost runs around $200.
"I would attribute it not just to situations with a decline in the economy, but also an increase in the amount of technology," said Karen Kistenmacher, spokeswoman for Service Intelligence, a marketing research firm.
She suggests anyone who receives the solicitations check them out thoroughly, using the Internet to police the Internet.
"If they just Google a bit, they will realize this is too good to be true," Ms. Kistenmacher said.
Another scheme asks work-at-home job seekers to help companies pay clients in foreign countries. The victims are asked to open bank accounts in their own names, accept anonymous payments into the accounts, then forward the money by wire transfer to other accounts abroad, often in Eastern Europe.
Unknown to the U.S. account holders, the money they are forwarding could be stolen or reaped from drug deals.
The FBI calls the account holders "mules," but the e-mail ads that seek applicants for the jobs call them "international sales representatives" or "shipping managers."
Other work-at-home scams ask job seekers to provide money upfront for job training or for foreign-based real estate investors. The chances the victims get their money back or find steady employment are small, according to the FBI.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the fact the targets of the scams merely want to pay their bills while unemployment has left them with few options, Mr. Hale said.
The frustration of job seekers can be found in the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics joblessness report this month.
Those seeking work outnumbered the available jobs in the market by a three-to-one ratio, according to an analysis of BLS figures by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based public policy organization.
"The rapid increase in this ratio clearly indicates the weakness of the current labor market and the difficulty that workers are having finding jobs," Tobin Marcus, an Economic Policy Institute analyst, wrote in the organization's monthly report.
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