Beware of job scams Swindlers preying on unemployed

October 22, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

As layoffs continue throughout the nation and hiring prospects remain poor, a growing number of job-seekers are being victimized by sophisticated employment scams.

Using advertising come-ons, bogus employment companies are inducing job-seekers to send them hundreds of dollars in return for worthless job leads. Thousands of Americans have been swindled by the fast-moving companies, which often vanish before authorities can reach them.

Just ask Wayne and Susan Darney, of Cockeysville, who say they were hoodwinked by a company that played on their hopes that good jobs were available overseas. Such companies "prey on" people's despair about the U.S. job market, said Mrs. Darney, who, with her husband, responded to a Baltimore Sun ad for Universal Placement Inc.

The company charged them $349 to prepare a resume that it promised to send to overseas employers -- sidestepping Maryland laws that forbid upfront fees for job-referral services -- and "sounded very professional," Mrs. Darney said.

But the company's stalling, she said, "drove us nuts. . . . They always said something was coming through: 'Just hold on. We just got another lead.' "

The Darneys finally demanded a refund and filed a complaint with the Florida attorney general's office, which sued Universal for deceptive trade practices last spring. But the Darneys did not get their money back -- the attorney general's office said it has found no money to reimburse the approximately 100 victims who have submitted claims.

Michael Shultz, a spokesman for The Sun, said the newspaper does not print ads that it knows to be fraudulent and will investigate readers' complaints about ads.

Ad salespeople, he said, will not knowingly accept for the Help Wanted section any ad that charges applicants for access to a job. But some of those ads may be placed under other classified-ad headings that list business opportunities.

The number of Americans with stories like the Darneys' is rising. Nearly 56,000 people called Better Business Bureau offices with questions or complaints about employment services last year -- nearly triple the number who called just two years ago.

Last year, the BBB was able to help job-scam victims recover their money only 41 percent of the time -- down from a 51 percent recovery rate in 1990. The average recovery rate for all BBB complaints is 66 percent.

"As the economy gets worse, job scams become more prevalent," said Penny Weis, director of Maryland's BBB. "When you are out of work and starting to get desperate, you will believe far-out claims."

That's what happened to Kevin Nolan. He had just signed a contract to buy a house when he lost his job at an environmental engineering firm.

It was late 1991, and he quickly began to despair. "It seemed like every time I watched the television news, some company was laying off 3,000 people," the 33-year-old Germantown resident recalled. "I needed whatever edge I could get."

Then he saw a Washington Post ad that seemed to promise that edge: For $400, a Florida company would send copies of his resume to thousands of employers with job openings.

Mr. Nolan sent the money, but all he got was swindled. After weeks of badgering the Florida company, he received an error-filled resume and a useless list of corporate addresses, including those of many companies that were not hiring.

Despite his demands for a refund, and complaints filed with the BBB and Florida prosecutors, Mr. Nolan said he never got a penny back. (The Post says it, too, won't run fraudulent ads and will investigate readers' complaints about ads.)

"I was disgusted," said Mr. Nolan, who has since found a job on his own. "They were preying on the most miserable segment of society" -- the unemployed.

Mr. Nolan's case shows why authorities have little success pursuing such scams: Victims are often slow to realize they have been conned.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said that because most scam artists are based outside the state, he usually cannot help Marylanders who are ripped off. Besides, he said, by the time most victims realize they have been cheated, the swindlers have disappeared.

"Mostly we get calls after the horse has left the barn," he said.

Jerry Steiner, a Federal Trade Commission attorney based in San Francisco, said he has had trouble getting refunds for victims because the fast-moving swindlers are finding increasingly devious ways to hide their tracks.

Consider Mr. Steiner's pursuit of the Douglas Co., which was charging people money for access to nonexistent construction jobs.

It took several weeks for FTC investigators to track down the company, because it advertised from a San Francisco address and telephone number but was using call- and mail-forwarding systems. It was actually based in Florida.

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