Callie Heim was thrilled to start her marketing job with Waymo, the buzzy self-driving car company, earlier this summer. She’d had a tough year — her mom recently passed away, she moved back home and she was adjusting to life after college.
The job offer felt like a turning point: “I was at my lowest of lows and felt like I was on the come-up of some good things,” the 22-year-old Towson University grad tells CNBC Make It.
But elation quickly faded when she got a message from her new employer: Before she started, she’d have to buy her own laptop and work phone from a company portal, and they’d send her a check to cover the costs. When the check arrived in the mail, the alarm bells sounded off.
Heim had been scammed by a fake job listing.
‘I went from excited to devastated in a month’
In a series of TikTok videos that have since gone viral, Heim recounts how she applied to the job via LinkedIn’s “Easy Apply” function and went through what felt like a normal, even promising, interview process. First, she answered a few questions about her marketing background through Wire, an encrypted messaging app she was asked to download (a red flag, she now says).
She was invited to a phone interview the next day, where the interviewer said the job would entail getting a computer and phone to do her job remotely. She then got another phone call the day after with an offer (red flag No. 2, Heim says).
After a few more conversations, Heim filled out some employment forms, submitted a scan of her driver’s license and sent over her bank information to get set up for direct deposit. Then she was told she’d need to buy her home equipment upfront and then be reimbursed for it later.
In reality, this is what’s known as a fake check scam, where scammers hope you’ll send them money and “reimburse” you with a bad check. Sometimes they’ll send a check first, tell you to deposit it, and hope you buy your equipment (in reality, send them money) before the check bounces.
Thankfully, Heim realized the scam once the check arrived (“it looked so photoshopped,” she says) and before she actually sent any money to the scammers. But she did have to immediately close her compromised bank account and freeze her credit line.
Heim describes the experience as humiliating and a shot to her confidence. She also felt embarrassed that the news she was so excited for and shared widely with friends and family wasn’t real. “I went from excited to devastated in a month,” Heim says.
The experience has been emotionally draining to say the very least, but Heim considers herself lucky that she didn’t lose any money in the process.
Red flags of a job scam
Americans were scammed out of $86 million due to fake business and job opportunities in the second quarter of 2022, according to the Federal Trade Commission. People reported nearly 21,600 incidents of business and job opportunity scams during that time, with roughly a third of those resulting in a financial loss.
Employment-related scams have been a persistent problem but rose in 2020 as criminals took advantage of people who lost work due to Covid, Rhonda Perkins, an attorney and chief of staff for the FTC’s Division of Marketing Practices, told CNBC Make It in June.
Job scams take a variety of forms: Bad actors could pose as a staffing or temp agency and require a fee for their services; list fake mystery shopping, government or postal jobs; or post re-shipping and re-skilling scams on the false promise of making money from home.
Or, they might imitate a reputable employer and create a fake website or post fake listings on job-search sites, like what happened to Heim.
The FBI says these are some warning signs to look out for through the hiring process:
- Interviews are not conducted in-person or through a secure video call, but rather on a teleconferencing app using an email address instead of a phone number
- Potential employers contact victims through non-company email domains and teleconference applications
- Potential employers require employees to purchase start-up equipment from the company, or pay for background screenings
- Potential employers request credit card information
- Job postings appear on job boards, but not on the company’s website
- Recruiters or managers don’t have profiles on the job board, or the profiles do not seem to fit their roles
After getting scammed, Heim took a few weeks off from applying to jobs but is back on the market with new vigilance.
For one, she makes sure to verify that any job posting she sees on sites like LinkedIn or Glassdoor match up with one on the company’s website. But that can be tricky since anyone can spoof a real website — the scam she fell for was modeled after a real job listed on Waymo’s hiring page — so you have to be extra cautious, she says.
Take it a step further by looking up the name of the company or the person who’s contacting you, plus the words “scam,” “review” or “complaint,” Perkins says. Run the company or staffing agency through the Better Business Bureau’s directory.
You can also contact the employer directly, using information you’ve found on your own (as in, not an email or phone number provided to you through an unsolicited message), to verify the legitimacy of the job and how to apply.
“It’s tempting to use LinkedIn’s ‘Easy Apply’ to rapidly apply to a bunch of jobs, but if you take the time to write your cover letters and reach out to the company directly, you might have more success,” Heim adds.
She also knows that “if anyone is asking for your for financial information before you’re hired, that’s a no-go.” Employers will only ask for your Social Security number after you’re hired, and you should still be vigilant to confirm their identity in-person or over video before you share it.
“It’s the worst way to learn a lesson, but it taught me about being naïve on the internet,” Heim adds. “You never know who you’re actually talking to.”
What to do if you’ve been scammed
If you see or lose money to a job scam, Perkins says to report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. And if you’re concerned about becoming a victim of identity theft, you can report it and get a personalized recovery plan with the FTC at IdentityTheft.gov.
LinkedIn has numerous resources to help job-seekers spot and avoid scams, including taking extra precautions for work-from home jobs. A LinkedIn spokesperson says fake profiles and fraudulent activity are against its user policies, and that the platform uses “automated and manual defenses” to detect and address violations. “Whenever we find such materials, we work to remove them quickly and are constantly investing in new ways to improve detection. We also encourage members to report anything that doesn’t seem right, so we can investigate.”
Wire, the messaging app, says it is aware fraudsters use the app for job-related scams. It reminds candidates that they should never be asked to purchase their own work equipment, and if they’re in doubt, they should contact a senior employee of the company to ask if these are standard business practices.
Waymo says any interviews with the company are “conducted either in-person or over video-conferencing and never over email, Telegram, or other platforms,” and notes best practices on its hiring page, according to a statement provided to CNBC Make It. “We also work with cybercrime experts and alert anti-fraud departments for career sites when we learn about scam accounts, with a goal of getting them removed as quickly as possible.”
Heim feels good about sharing her story now. “My friends and I joke about it now, but at the time it was a hit to my confidence and ego.” Her confidence is back up now that she has a few job leads in hand (some recruiters even reached out in response to her videos), and buoyed by positive responses that she’s made a difference.
“People have come to me and said, ‘Oh my god, I was just on the Wire app this morning interviewing for a job. Now I’ve blocked and deleted that number.’ Hearing I’ve helped them makes me feel good,” Heim says.
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