As unemployment has increased, so too has the number of job search scams identity theft rings are perpetrating against desperate job seekers.
"We have seen a large proliferation of these scams over the past six to nine months because of the employment situation," says Lyn Chitow Oaks, chief marketing officer of TrustedID, which provides identity-theft protection services to individuals, families and businesses.
She notes that identity thieves are targeting job seekers because they're vulnerable and willing to share personal information as part of the job search process.
Two types of job search scams are most common, according to Oaks. One is a phishing scam, where identity theft perpetrators e-mail would-be victims to tell them about potential jobs and opportunities to make extra money. The e-mails direct recipients to websites that identity thieves have created specifically for gathering personal information, just as if it were a job application, says Oaks.
These fake applications request all the information job seekers would expect to provide, such as their name, address and phone number, as well as for information they may not expect to offer so early in the process, she adds, such as their Social Security number, permission to conduct a background check and bank account information.
"They tell you they need your bank account information so they can make sure your check can be direct deposited," she says, adding that they'll sometimes go so far as to say that they'll place money in your account and then remove it just to make sure it works.
"By allowing them to place money in your account and remove it, you let your bank know that this 'employer' can take money out of your account, and that's how they wipe out people's bank accounts," says Oaks. Never mind the fact that you'll never receive any information about any job from one of these e-mails.
Oaks adds that the identity thieves buy e-mail addresses from legitimate businesses who don't realize they're selling people's information to the Internet black market.
In the second scam, identity thieves pose as employers on legitimate job search sites. They post a generic job that would appeal to a large number of people, Oaks says, and in the course of talking to applicants, they ask for personal information.
"There are identity thieves all over valid and existing job search websites who are posing as employers," she says.
How to Protect Yourself
Oaks' advice to job seekers is simple: Be wary of the information you're sharing and at which point in the hiring process you're sharing it. Here are six specific tips:
1. Never share your bank account information up front. Legitimate employers don't need to access your bank account until you become an employee, says Oaks. If they ask for it as part of the application process, it's a warning sign that this "employer" may be up to no good.
2. Never share your Social Security number up front. Legitimate employers will ask for your Social Security number only when they're serious about making a job offer (e.g., after they've interviewed you) and need to conduct a background check, or after you've accepted their offer and they need your Social Security number for tax purposes, says Oaks. Identity thieves will find sneaky ways to ask for your Social Security number up front. Don't fall for their ploys.
3. Never agree to a background check up front. "Until you know you're a candidate for a position, it's not necessary for an employer to do a background check," says Oaks, adding that the only exception may be the government. "They need your Social Security number to complete a background check," she says, "and if you give them the opportunity to do that, they'll learn all kinds of personal information."
4. Research potential employers. If you're unsure whether a potential employer you've found on a job search site is legitimate, Oaks says to find out whether the business has a physical address and to check with the Better Business Bureau in the state where the business is allegedly located to make sure they're licensed.
5. Consider sharing less information on your resume. Many people include their phone numbers and mailing addresses on their resumes, and indeed, employers like to know job applicants' area codes and Zip codes because they sometimes screen candidates based on that information. But if you're wary of identity theft, you may want to include only an e-mail address, at least during initial stages with prospective employers, says Oaks. She also recommends creating a unique e-mail address for your job search. "If employers are interested in you," she says, "they'll contact you."
6. Opt out. When you sign up for e-mail newsletters and offers from legitimate businesses, opt out of receiving offers from their third-party business partners. That can cut down on the amount of spam e-mail you receive and decrease the chances of your personal information ending up on the black market.
Oaks says she hasn't seen any sign of these job search scams abating, but she expects that as the holiday season approaches, identity thieves will shift their tactics to target bargain shoppers.
"We'll see some shift to that, then we'll see it come back [to job search scams]," she says. "As long as job seekers are willing to share information, identity thieves will be happy to take it."