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Friday, Feb 23, 2024

Scammed out of money and tricked into fake work - the recruitment cons costing jobseekers thousands

Scammed out of money and tricked into fake work - the recruitment cons costing jobseekers thousands

Theo thought he'd finally landed a steady job. But he was never paid, tricked into handing over cash and talked into scamming other people. He's one of a soaring number of people in the UK falling foul of recruitment scams.

The job offer couldn't have come at a better time for Theo.

He had been job hunting for a year, picking up part-time hours in events. He was homeless, crashing on friends' couches.

"I took the first opportunity that came to me because I was like, I just need to get out of this situation," Theo, whose real name is being withheld, told Sky News.

From the employer's perspective, he was the perfect candidate: he was desperate, and he didn't ask too many questions.

He knows that's what they looked for because when he started, that's who he was told to hire.

The ones who weren't put off by the scant information on the company's website. The ones who really needed the money.

Except they would never get paid for their work - and they would get scammed out of hundreds of pounds in the process.

The scammed becomes the scammer

The scam that got Theo was a multi-pronged attack.

First his new "employer" told him he'd need to pay for an HR qualification, with the promise of reimbursement as he completed the modules.

"They said, it's only going to cost a few hundred pounds, but you're going to have a job, you're going to get monthly income - and, yeah, so I just took it."

He paid £275 to what looked like an external training provider and logged in for his first day.

He was told he would be recruiting people. All he needed to do first was buy a burner phone and shell out £118 for a job board CV subscription.

The first person he called was "just some woman who was trying to find a job as well, just as desperately as I was".

"When the roles were reversed and I read the script, and then I remembered the way I was interviewed I was like, okay, this is exactly the same," Theo said.

"In my mind, I was like, this is not right. But at the same time, I spent a lot of money that I didn't want to walk away without getting refunded."

Scams on the rise

Theo is one of a growing number of people falling foul of recruitment scams.

The scams aren't new, but as people lost work during the pandemic and recruitment moved online, the trend picked up - and it has accelerated as the cost of living crisis has deepened.

The Cyber Helpline, a charity helping victims of cyber crime, has seen a 286% increase in job scams over the last nine months compared with the whole 12 months before that.

New research commissioned by Ofcom revealed 30% of adults in the UK have experienced some kind of employment scam.

The scams are varied. Some trick people into paying fees for fake visas, qualifications or security checks, others get people to hand over bank details.

Some people find they've unintentionally been involved in money laundering or perpetuating the scam, or get tricked into doing real work they never get paid for.

Theo was tricked into recruiting other people to the scam.


Fool me twice


Job scams hand criminals the tools to hurt their victims more than once, The Cyber Helpline CEO Rory Innes explained.

"Think about what's valuable to criminals - money and information about individuals.

"Job fraud's perfect because you can get someone to send you a CV and their passport details and pretend to do a DBS check or criminal record check [...] and then you scam them out of money, so you've made the money, you've also got all the data which you can then use or sell for other scams."

You might think scammers would run for cover once they’ve been found out - but some take it as an opportunity to exploit people again, Mr Innes said.

"They'll phone up, pretend to be the police, and say, 'Look, we know you’ve been scammed by this fake company. If you need to put your money into a safe account or if you give us a deposit, we will go and help and recover your money' - and then they get scammed again."

Often people lose more in these recovery scams than they do in the original scam, Mr Innes said, particularly if they’re tricked into handing over their bank details.

'I was a mess'


How much people lose through job scams varies widely. Some, like Theo, will be scammed out of a few hundred pounds. Others lose thousands, even tens of thousands of pounds.

But the impact is more than financial, Mr Innes said.

"Think of somebody who's lost maybe £2,000. That might remove their ability to pay the rent or feed their children.

"The bigger impact on that individual is mental health, it's their ability to be online and trust, but it's also just their day-to-day lives."

Maya, whose real name is being withheld, quit a job she liked for a role at the same company as Theo. She was "a mess" when she realised the job she had signed up for didn't exist.

"When it all went down I was crying hysterically, not because I've lost out on the money, they can keep the money. It’s the fact that I don't have a job… You need a job, especially in London."



How scammers work - and the warning signs


Maya said she's normally switched on to scams but "everything was perfect".

She got a contract, she had a Zoom interview, the website seemed legitimate and "nothing was giving me the gut feeling that this was weird", even when she was asked to pay the £275 training fee.

At first glance the company's website seems appropriately furnished with HR buzzwords and office photos. But look a little closer and the pages are peppered with dummy lorem ipsum text, the pictures are stock images and typos abound.

These are classic job scam warning signs, JobsAware CEO Keith Rosser said. His organisation helps job scam victims - and they have received 10 complaints about this company alone.

Another red flag is generic sounding jobs with low barriers to entry, because the scammers want as many applicants as possible.

"Even if every day they are fooling 10% of those people, it's very lucrative for them," he said.

Tracking down scammers


Prosecution is rare in job scam cases, despite JobsAware and The Cyber Helpline building evidence for police reports.

But with police resources stretched and a lot of scammers based abroad and operating online, tracing individuals is difficult.

Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud, the national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, confirmed it had received four complaints about the company Theo and Maya claim they were scammed by.

At least one is still being assessed by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) at the City of London Police.

Life after the scam


Theo left the job after three days, £400 poorer and without the bar shifts he used to rely on.

He's wary of job hunting now, "demoralised" and only applying to the bigger - but more competitive - companies.

Maya had more luck finding work, but she's still having to ask for help with rent over the next few months.

"It's definitely affected my trust," she said.

"To find a job in this day is hard enough. You actually get a job and you get passed through all the ID checks and everything - for it to just be a scam is a shock to the system.

"One week I was celebrating. The next week I was crying."

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