ALLOR CERNEKA
Donna McWilliam  /  AP
Nancy Allor works from her Arlington, Tex. home as customer service representative. While client-support job opportunities are usually legitimate, other types work-at-home job offers are not.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/21/2008 7:17:19 AM ET 2008-04-21T11:17:19

All Bernard K., a state worker from Atlanta, wanted was a work-at-home gig to supplement his pay check because rising gas prices were taking a big bite out of his wallet.

But his innocent plan — that started when he got an unsolicited email last month offering him a job mailing packages — landed him in jail.

Bonnie Brown from Lancaster, Ohio, also thought the work-at-home job she heard about through a newspaper ad her friend gave her was a godsend.

Being disabled, she was no longer able to work at an office job, and jumped at the chance to do medical billing from her home.

She paid a $195 upfront fee to get the job, and she bought a printer and fax to boot. What did she get for her money? No job, just aggravation.

Oh, the desire to find that lucrative work-at-home job. I get e-mails from readers on a weekly basis looking for the perfect home-work opportunity.

I’m here to tell you folks, the majority of the Internet offers you get in your e-mail box and ones you see in ads in periodicals and jobs boards offering you fast cash opportunities right from the comfort of your living room are bogus, bunk, bamboozles.

"Work-at-home scams are the number one thing consumers write in to ask about," says Beau Brendler, director of Consumer Reports WebWatch, who estimates ten out of ten e-mails he gets about such offers are not legitimate.

And the scammers prey on people who are desperate for money but can’t leave home for work, he notes, like those who are disabled, or stay-at-home moms or dads who’d like to help their spouses make ends meet.

Complaints to the Better Business Bureau regarding work-at-home opportunities rose to 4,100 in 2007 from about 3,800 the previous year. And work-at-home offers and business opportunities ranked 13th last year among fraud complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission.

Work-at-home scams are only expected to become more prevalent as economic conditions worsen and people find themselves out of work or in need of extra cash to deal with escalating prices for basic goods, experts in law enforcement and consumer advocacy say.

"As the demand for at home employment increases so to will the schemes," predicts Joan Coughlin, a spokeswoman for the BBB in central Ohio.

Coughlin says the Internet, which gives criminals “new ways to connect with people”, has also buoyed the rise in such scams.

One of the big, recent scams the Pennsylvania’s Attorney General is monitoring is the so-called mystery shopper scheme, says Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the office.

“You get an e-mail saying you were randomly selected to become a mystery shopper and you can earn $500 to $800 a week,” he explains.

But, what they end up asking you to do is deposit a check and then wire a portion of it back to them. You deposit what is a bogus check, keep some of it, and then wire the rest back to the company.

The check eventually bounces and you’re out the money you sent them.

In the case of Bernard from Atlanta, who didn’t want his full name used, he was caught up in the so-called repackaging scam, which has gotten worse in the past year, says Tripp Brinkley, a postal inspector for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The rise in such cases prompted the agency to recently release an advisory.

This is how it works: You get an unsolicited email, or find a job post on a major job board, about a work-at-home job involving freight. Typically they offer to pay anywhere from $20 to $40 for every package you receive at your home and then reship with a pre-paid shipping label the scammers provide.

The criminals are often based in former Soviet Bloc nations, and the unsuspecting victims are paid through a money wiring service such as Western Union.

What’s actually happening is the scammers are purchasing goods online with stolen credit card numbers and they’re using the victim’s home address to ship the goods.

Sometimes they even ask victims for their bank account numbers, Brinkley says, promising to directly deposit their paychecks in the account but they end up cleaning them out.

For Bernard, the company seemed real because it has an impressive Web site called ecargodeals.com.

At one point, he got a little suspicious and refused a few packages. He e-mailed his contact at the company asking if they had a business license, to make sure they were legitimate. After he received a copy of what looked like a real license, he continued to accept the packages.

That is, until he showed up at a Federal Express office to pick up the packages he had refused. He saw police officers enter the building while he was waiting and go in the back of the office, and then come back into the lobby.

"They asked me my name and then took me outside and handcuffed me," he says. "I said, ‘oh my God. This is the end of everything.’"

Bernard, who says he was never in trouble with the law before, was taken to the police station, read his rights and told he was accused of receiving stolen property.

After a few hours, Bernard was let go because the police realized he was just an innocent middleman. But a postal inspector came to his house a few days later, told him about the scam, and made him sign a statement saying he would never forward packages again.

As for Bonnie Brown from Ohio, she says she was scammed by Unlimited Healthcare Services, Inc., that promised to train her and pay her for filling out medical bills.

She never got a dime and ended up calling the BBB about the issue, and eventually got her $195 back.

“We were supposed to get paid a dollar for each claim we did,” she says, but after weeks and then months of waiting to be paid, she got a letter saying she was terminated.

Officials at Unlimited Healthcare would not comment on the issue, but the BBB has an extensive file on the company and gives it an “unsatisfactory” rating.

Hopefully, these two examples will help all of you wake up and smell the work-at-home scam coffee!

Scammers are getting more and more sophisticated and you need to be on your toes or you’ll end up with a bitter taste in your mouth and out lots of cash.

Since scams like these are only going to get worse, there are a few key things to keep in mind.

  • Research the company you’re interested in working for and get references from employees. Check Web sites like www.ripoffreport.com, www.wahm.com, and the BBB to make sure they don’t have a checkered history, says Christine Durst, founder of RatRaceRebellion.com.
  • Do not ever pay money to get a job. That’s not how it works. Employers pay you.
  • Don’t expect real companies to be sending unsolicited emails to your computer with job offers. Hardly any firms ever look for employees this way.
  • And just because a job is posted in your local newspaper, or a well-known web job board, doesn’t mean the job is real.

While both Bonnie and Bernard, are now a little gun shy when it comes to any work-at-home offers, there are legitimate jobs to be had.

Matthew Harris, a disabled father of four who fell victim to a medical billing work-at-home scam after his Internet company went belly up, is now gainfully employed at home.

In 2006, he took a job with call-center outsourcing firm Alpine Access as a technical customer service rep taking calls at home from Office Depot customers. He works between 30 and 40 hours a week and makes $9 an hour plus benefits.

Before he took the job he got a recommendation about the company from a friend and he also researched the firm.

“After being scammed,” he says, “I was very leery.”

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