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Scammers target job-seekers

McClatchy Tribune (McClatchy Tribune / The Spokesman-Review)
McClatchy Tribune (McClatchy Tribune / The Spokesman-Review)

ORLANDO, Fla. – With unemployment soaring, identity thieves are increasingly preying on unsuspecting job seekers by stealing personal information and trying to cash in on it.

The scams run the gamut from fake help-wanted ads and job-search services to bogus resume-posting Web sites, part of a new arsenal of weapons targeting millions of recently unemployed people.

Job-search fraud is one of the fastest-growing segments of identity theft in Florida, generating thousands of complaints a year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. It fielded more than 2,400 such complaints from Florida in 2008, up nearly 40 percent from 2007.

Overall, Florida posted the highest number of identity-theft complaints on record in 2008 (24,400), up nearly 44 percent in the past three years. The state ranked third in the nation, behind only California and Texas.

“There are so many people out there who are desperate to find a job,” said Linda Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit watchdog group based in San Diego. “Unfortunately, identity thieves are taking advantage of people in these uncertain times.”

Whether they are registering with employment agencies, responding to ads, posting resumes or surfing career sites for work, jobless people too often give up their Social Security numbers and other personal data, experts say.

If it falls into the wrong hands, the results can be disastrous. Thieves have used the information to wreak financial havoc, often trashing victims’ credit while using their names to open bank accounts and obtain credit cards and other financial accounts.

Most job-search fraud appears to come through bogus help-wanted ads, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, citing numbers from the Association for Payment Clearing Services, a British global financial monitoring agency.

Even some legitimate job-search outlets have been victimized. Earlier this year, acknowledged its database was compromised by hackers who captured user IDs, passwords and other information, though not resumes or other sensitive data.

Monster said it was monitoring the situation but was not aware of any fraud from the breach. Users were told to change their passwords and delete any unsolicited e-mail asking them to click a link and “confirm” their personal information or download certain software “tools.”

That incident highlights how wary people should be when they use online job-search sites, said Steven Fahlgren, a former Orlando lawyer who now practices in the Jacksonville area. He said it especially hit home for him after he used to post an ad for a paralegal.

“Almost immediately I was bombarded with e-mail trying to get me to click on … sites asking for personal information,” he said. “Sorry to say, some people who might be new to the Internet or don’t think about what they are doing will get dragged into those sites.”

But job-search identity theft can also be low-tech. Some companies hold job fairs where they have job seekers provide their Social Security numbers and other basic information to recruiters. Even when the company is for real, that can pose a security risk for job applicants, Foley said.

“That’s a problem when a company asks for such information at a job fair,” she said. “It exposes a person’s Social Security number to numerous people who really don’t need to have it – recruiters, screeners, receptionists and others. It increases the odds there could be a breach.”

Ultimately, job-search services will need an applicant’s Social Security number and certain other information for proper background checks, said Steve Kirby, co-owner of the Orlando franchise of Snelling Personnel Services.

But the services have an obligation to give background info to job seekers who want to verify the firms are legitimate, he said.

“It is important for companies to provide full disclosure to the general public,” he said. “I mean, all contact information – e-mail address, phone numbers, references – should be available so people can do their own due diligence. They can also check with the Better Business Bureau to make sure they’re dealing with a reputable firm.”


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