Scams that target job-seekers are nothing new. There’s multi-level marketing schemes, assemble-product-at-home deals, phishing schemes using job applications, not to mention the perfectly legal scam of being exploited by your employer. But the trend toward working from home and the anonymity of the internet have allowed scammers to create more elaborate fake employment situations that can be difficult to spot. It’s been called “jobfishing” — like catfishing but with a job — and recent examples have resulted in people working for months at fake jobs, travelling halfway around the world on their own dime, and throwing away their actual careers based on a fake job offer.
The saga of Madbird
To job seekers, Madbird seemed like a dream opportunity. Led by charismatic CEO Ali Ayad, the “human-centred digital design agency” had attracted impressive executives in its 10 years of existence and its client list included Nike and Toni & Guy.
In 2020, Madbird “hired” more than 50 employees — sales people, designers, supervisors. Everyone was work-from-home, so, with the constant encouragement and motivation of their tireless CEO, salespeople worked on getting new clients, designers designed, and supervisors supervised, all over email and Zoom. But, according to a BBC investigation, it was an elaborate ruse. The company existed only on paper and online. Ayad registered the company in 2020, and just started hiring people with, apparently, no money to pay them, and no clients or jobs. None of the 42 companies listed as clients on Madbird’s site had worked with the company. At least six of its senior employees were nothing more than headshots and resumes stolen from other websites.
The only thing “real” about Madbird were the employees it hired, mostly young job-seekers who agreed to working for the promise of payment after a six-month probationary period.
Ayad’s motivation is murky. Unlike most scammers, he didn’t seem to target money from his employees. He might have started the entire thing as a way of getting an actual company off the ground. Or maybe he liked the boss-guy role so much that he created an entire fake company so his “employees” would think he was an awesome, important guy.
The “Hollywood Con Queen”
For years, beginning around 2018, mostly below-the-line Hollywood types (stuntmen, actors, photographers, location scouts, etc.) were lured to Indonesia with the promise of work on a major film to be released in China. The offers came via out-of-the-blue phone calls from important Hollywood people like Amy Pascal, Deborah Snyder, and Kathleen Kennedy, and would-be employees were told to go to Indonesia and promised they’d be reimbursed for the money they spent on airfare and hotel rooms.
Upon arrival in Jakarta, their contact in L.A. would ask them to go on location scouts for the movie, and they’d pay for a driver who spoke little English to drive them around to various locations in and around the city. This would go on for days, until eventually, the marks would smell a rat and fly home.
Like Madbird, the motivation of the person behind the scam (Hargobind Punjabi Tahilramani, who is currently serving time for various crimes related to it) is murky. He made no profit from the plane tickets or hotel bills, and might have only been doing it for the relatively small fees paid to the driver. Tahilramani impersonated the voices of not only the Hollywood executives that spoke to victims, but also their assistants and anyone else connected with his fake film, both male and female.
The Harvard professorship that never was
When Nidhi Razdan received an offer for a professorship from Harvard University, she was ready to leave her home country for a new life in America. Among the most prominent newscasters in India, Razdan had interviewed for the job by phone, her references were checked, and she signed an employment contract with a salary of $US151,000 ($209,618) a year. But the money never came. When Razdan contacted Harvard, they informed her that there was no job. The entire employment saga was an elaborate ruse conducted online for reasons no one can figure out.
The scam targeted other prominent members of India’s media, too, and its level of sophistication suggests to some that a government intelligence agency must have been involved and the motivation political, but the goals of the scam are ultimately unclear.
“It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen,” Bill Marczak, a senior research fellow at Citizen Lab, told the New York Times. “It’s a huge amount of effort and no payoff that we’ve identified.”
How to avoid being jobfished
While the three examples above are elaborate, somewhat mysterious schemes, most jobfishing scammers are hoping to make a quick buck, either directly through asking you for money, or indirectly, through stealing your identity. Here are a few tips for recognising and avoiding both types of job scams.
Understand how easy it is to fake things online
According to the FTC, scammers advertise on the same job sites legitimate companies use. And even if they don’t, it’s not hard to make a fake one look legitimate online. Based on BBC’s reporting, it seems Madbird was orchestrated by a single person, but they still managed to fake a website, LinkedIn profiles for executives, and even dummy participants in Zoom calls. The Hollywood scammer impersonated well-known Hollywood executives convincingly without even having to make a website. So understand how difficult it can be to spot a fake job.
Check the details
It might be easy to fake things online, but it’s equally easy to miss important details. For instance, in the case of the scam targeting Indian journalists, the scammers’ cell number was from the UAE instead of Boston. And the entire elaborate Madbird thing came crashing down when a single employee looked up the address of the company and found it connected to a residential area instead of a posh London address. So look for things like domain name misspellings, gmail addresses instead of company domain names, and area codes for phone numbers.
If an employment offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true, so watch out for abnormally large salaries, job offers that are way above your qualifications, and job descriptions that promise perks few workplaces deliver. Not only will this help you avoid job scams, you’ll also weed out quite a few legal jobs that use misleading tactics in hiring.
Research the company
Just googling “COMPANY NAME” + “Scam” can save you a ton of heartbreak, even if it’s just avoiding multi-level-marketing scams. Googling would have revealed that Madbird had no mentions on the web — suspicious for a company that said it had been around for a decade. You should also check with sites like Glassdoor to see how a company is described by its employees, and check LinkedIn to make sure executives have the kind of connections you’d expect.
Consider the source
Even though unemployment is at a historically low level, good jobs are difficult to find. It’s a sad fact, maybe, but most decent jobs still come through professional and personal connections instead of out-of-the-blue emails or postings on job boards. So ask yourself, “If this job is so great, why do they have to go to so much trouble to fill it?”
If you’re having misgivings, take it seriously
More than one of the victims of the Hollywood Con Queen interviewed in the Chameleon podcast that details the Hollywood scam reported brushing off feelings of suspicion about their job offers. Don’t do that. If something doesn’t “smell right,” take your suspicion seriously.
They are supposed to pay you
Except in the case of internships that provide compensation in the form of college credits or commission-only sales gigs, businesses pay you to work for them. You should think twice if you’re asked to work with a long, unpaid probation period and if you’re not being paid for training. You should think three times before putting any money into a job, whether it’s purchasing the product you need to sell or paying for travel expenses, an application fee, or most anything else.
Call people back
The people behind both the Hollywood Con Queen scam and the Indian journalist scam both impersonated actual people, so a quick “let me call you back at your office” might have revealed both of these operations as fake. Request that they turn on their camera if you’re using Zoom.
Don’t think it can’t happen to you
Don’t ever think you’re too experienced, smart, or savvy to fall for a scam. Nidhi Razdan was a respected broadcast journalist with decades of experience, and she still got duped.
If you know anyone in the industry related to an employment offer, ask whether they’ve heard of the company or if the job sounds realistic. Most industries are ultimately pretty small, and people talk. If the people who fell for the Hollywood scam had asked around, someone might have pointed out the inconsistency in the scammer’s story. If you don’t know anyone in the field, try posting online. A quick “does this look legit?” post to Reddit’s r/scam board could be all you need.
Report to authorities
If you do get scammed, by a hoax employer or anyone else, it’s understandable that you’d be embarrassed, but you need to report your story to the authorities. You might not get your stolen money back, but at least you can help other people and maybe catch the scammers. So tell the cops, your friends, and social media. The Hollywood scammer was caught and eventually imprisoned because victims went to authorities and shared their stories publicly.
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