Bobbie Jean thought she had finally found work when she answered an online classified ad last fall for an overseas firm. Instead, within weeks of her hiring, she was arrested at her local bank, charged with a felony, and is currently facing an August trial date in a Harris County, Texas court. Bobbie Jean now says she was tricked into helping an international fraud ring to move stolen money out of the country.
Fraudulent ads on online job sites are not new . But expert Pam Dixon, who has studied the phenomenon, says this is the first case she's heard of where the alleged victim was actually arrested as an accomplice to a crime. Dixon operates WorldPrivacyForum.org.
The 51-year-old Bobbie Jean, who requested through her attorney that her last name not be published, is a former accountant who had been unemployed for several months when she responded to an ad on CareerBuilder.com. When she was hired, she was told to collect payments from clients in the United States and wire the money to London.
But the ad, like the firm, was a con.
Video: Online job scam The other part of the scam took place on eBay, where the same con artists put up a motorcycle for sale, according to Bobbie Jean's attorney, Jeffrey Goldstein. The motorcycle was sold to a Florida resident for $9,000, and he shipped the money to Bobbie Jean in Texas. But there was no motorcycle -- the con artists were just using Bobbie Jean as a domestic address, so as not to raise the suspicion of the eBay buyer.
According to Goldstein, when Bobbie Jean showed up at her local bank to wire the money to London, she was arrested and later charged with a single felony. According to the complaint filed against her, she is charged with taking more than $1,500 and less than $20,000 from the Florida eBay buyer.
Goldstein says Bobbie Jean is an innocent victim, but local authorities so far don't see it that way.
Prosecutor Joe Vinas did not return phone calls placed to his office by MSNBC.com.
"A person got duped who couldn't find employment," Goldstein says. “"(Prosecutors) did not buy that she was [a victim of] some kind of criminal conspiracy ... but she has no criminal background."
Ads keep popping up
Online job sites like Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com, and Yahoo.com's HotJobs expend a lot of energy trying to beat back illegitimate ads; some post warnings on virtually every page of their site and on every e-mail they send.
Still, con artists have seized on the willing, and often, vulnerable populations that frequent job sites to mine for fresh victims. For years, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise have been moved out of the country by U.S. residents who fall for fake "postal forwarding" jobs, says U.S. Postal Inspector Barry Mew. Working as some kind of finance manager, accepting checks and other payments and transferring funds overseas, is just the latest incarnation of the scam, Dixon says.
All the sites say they take steps to verify job posters, and quickly remove fraudulent ads. CareerBuilder, for example, says it has a dedicated team of quality control specialists who monitor job postings.
But that's not enough, Dixon says, because the fraudulent ads keep re-appearing on various job sites. The ad Bobbie Jean answered, for example, first appeared in August, and is still popping up on job sites all over the Internet. And there have been at least a dozen other victims.
Dixon says a man in Dallas, Texas, lost his job at a bank after responding to the same job posting. Four other victims had money stolen out of their personal bank accounts when the con artists simply stole their identities after convincing them to divulge their account numbers.
The advertisements vary slightly; in one version, the company name is listed as Macrocommerce Intersales. In another, UMAB. In still another, UNK Electronics.
Dixon says the patterns of job postings show a highly organized effort to perpetuate the scam. In a study released last week, she traced the job listing as it appeared in over 100 Internet locations. The first appearance was apparently last July, at PickAJob. Later, it appeared on Careerspan.com in Dallas, New York, and Sacramento. It then systematically appeared all over the country -- from Miami to Seattle. Despite the slight variations, Dixon was critical of the various job sites' inability to keep the ads off their services.
"Job sites have to provide a way job seekers can make a real accurate determination about how safe the site is how can job seeker make a decision about how good the process is," she says. "This job ad has really been collecting victims left and right."
CareerBuilder spokeswoman Jennifer Sullivan says the firm is willing to help Bobbie Jean's attorney clear her name, and has complied with requests to compile information about the incident.
"This is an issue we take very seriously, and we're giving our full attention to the issues involved," she says.
But in the meantime, Bobbie Jean is still unemployed, and facing even more challenging prospects than ever.
"She has a pending felony theft case, who's going to hire (her)?" Goldstein, her attorney, says. "She lost her house now because she couldn't make payments. She is living with family. ... You have to wonder what are the duties of the job sites in terms of policing their own ads."
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