POSTED: Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 1:01pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 5:01pm
NBC NEWS — Donna Mora was browsing Craigslist for work-at-home opportunities when an ad for a "personal assistant" caught her eye.
It promised up to $300 per task.
When Mora responded, she was instructed to communicate via instant messaging with a person who identified herself as "Mrs. Vick Denton, hiring manager."
Denton messaged that the company would advance money for Mora to buy home office supplies.
"Sure enough, next day I got an overnight package with a check for $2,700," Mora said.
She recalled thinking to herself, "Wow," and then taking the check to her bank branch in Whittier.
Fortunately for Mora, her bank had seen this scam before and recognized the check as fraudulent.
"These are called advance fee scams," explained Robert Rebhan, a retired LAPD Detective whose company specializes in combating financial crimes.
Rebhan said the scammer sends a check that is nominally more than the cost of the home office supplies the applicant is instructed to buy.
In many cases, the bank does not immediately detect that the check is fraudulent, and the victims not only go out and make the purchases, but they then follow the scammer's instruction to send back the balance.
Eventually, the bank realizes the initial advance check is bogus.
But the job seekers who spent the money are left on the hook.
The scammer's profit per con can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000.
The particular ad Mora saw has since been pulled, but the internet is rife with countless others using this scam.
One way the scammers fool job seekers is by pretending to be with a legitimate company.
In Mora's case, "Mrs. Vick Denton" purported to work for Reliance Health Ventures of Mumbai, India.
"When you look it up, they have a really nice website," Mora recalled ruefully.
But, of course, there's no connection.
Rebhan estimates 98 percent of online work-at-home pitches are fraudulent, and advises job seekers to be wary.
"Consumers need to do a little work before they get involved with it," Rebhan said. "Do an investigation, and see if you can reach a person by phone."
Rebhan also suggests those seeking work at home jobs first avail themselves of the online expertise posted by the Federal Trade Commission and the World Privacy Forum.
WorkatHomeMoms offers reviews of companies offering work at home employment.
Above all, Rebhan said you really have to be careful when the online solicitation comes from overseas.
For its part, Craigslist does not try to inividually vet or police the multitude of ads that are placed on its service.
But like Monster.com and other online job seeker services, Craigslist warns its users of the potential for fraud and posts advice.
"Deal locally with folks you can meet in person," is right at the top of the list on the Craigslist webpage offering "Personal Safety Tips." The page goes on to state, "Follow this one rule, and you can avoid 99 percent of scam attempts on Craigslist."
In some cases Rebhan has seen, the scam is designed not only to victimize work-at-home applicants, but also to dupe them into serving as a "money mule" for the scammer.
Such schemes begin with an internet criminal hacking into the computer system that accesses the bank accounts of a small to mid-size company.
During hours when the business is closed, the criminal hacker transfers money from the company to the bank account of one of the persons it has recruited through a bogus work-at-home ad.
In some cases, they've been told they're working for an overseas charitable organization.
They're instructed to take a fee of about 10 percent and transfer the rest overseas.
Within days, the illegal transfer is detected and authorities quickly locate the "money mule", but it's often not possible to recover the money if it's already been sent overseas.
Rebhan says this kind of crime poses a real threat to smaller companies that do not have a 24-hour information technology staff monitoring the activities of its computer system.
As for Mora and the bogus $2,700 cash advance, she could not let it go without sending back an instant messsage challenging "Mrs. Vick Denton."
Mora said Denton feigned ignorance, and then never heard from her again.