Businessman wearing a mask in an office
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Fake recruiters are catfishing desperate job-seekers, seducing them with the promise of a high-paying job before stealing their money and identity. We recently posed as a gullible recruit and let a scammer sucker us so we could learn their tricks.

Fake Recruiters Are Impersonating Real People

Here’s why this scam is so smart: Fake recruiters are impersonating legitimate people at real companies. When the person contacts you, everything appears real—a real company with a real website and a real person’s name and photo that appears in that company’s directory of employees. The scammer links you to the company’s real website and a real LinkedIn profile that seems to match the person to whom you’re talking.

But it’s a trick. The person you’re talking to isn’t who they claim to be. You’re talking to a scammer pretending to be a real employee.

Here’s How the Scam Starts

Google Hangouts conversation showing an work from home job offer.
Photos and names have been blurred to protect victims of identity theft.

Fake job recruiters don’t just contact you out of nowhere. These scammers contact people who’ve posted resumes online looking for a job. The scammer offers a sweet work-from-home job, which could be very tempting to someone who’s having trouble finding work. The scammer poses as a “recruiter” for a real company, so it kind of makes sense that the email isn’t from the company’s regular email accounts.

We know someone who was contacted by one of these scammers, so we sent over a fake resume to see how they’d try to take advantage of an eager job seeker.

The “recruiter” was happy to get our fake resume and quickly directed us to talk to someone on Google Hangouts—in text chat and not video chat, of course. With a quick bit of internet sleuthing, we discovered the person’s name and profile picture matched a real person on the company’s website and LinkedIn. The person even directed us to that company’s website so we could “familiarize ourselves with the company.”

That company—which we’ve contacted, but won’t name here—is also a victim of the scam. This particular company is the perfect mark, as we had great difficulties reaching someone at the company to warn them they were part of this elaborate scam. A victim of the scam wouldn’t quickly be able to check that the company wasn’t hiring through Google Hangouts, either.

A Job Interview With a Real Fake Person

Google Hangouts conversation showing open positions.

Our naive young job seeker (let’s call him John) couldn’t believe his luck! The company offered John a variety of positions from Customer Service and Data Entry Clerk to Accounting Executive. Despite his resume with a background in IT, he applied for a customer service position. We provided different information than we used on the resume—the scammer obviously hadn’t bothered to read it.

The interview just kept getting better and better. The job is a work from home position that paid $40 an hour—full time with benefits! The only drawback was that that the training period only paid $20 an hour—oh, and that the whole thing was a scam.

We were totally on board at this point—well, for the sake of the exercise—but the scammer actually apologized for looking scammy:

i (sic) would like to apprise to (sic) you that we are sorry about our unseemly approach if this interview conducting method is unprofessional to you or if you are new to all this, but i (sic) believe the world is always advancing so it is important to stay on top of things as change is inevitable.

Sounds legit to us!

John’s multi-hour interview began with questions about job history, career goals, what bank he uses, and how long he’d been with the bank. Completely standard questions that you’d expect in any job interview, right? John’s answers to these questions were somehow “scored,” and he netted a score of 86.23%.

Our intrepid young job seeker had mixed feelings at this point. On the one hand, he clearly aced that interview and deserved no less than 96%—with 4 points taken off for refusing to provide job references. On the other hand, he’d already received a promotion! After all, he applied for customer service and now had a position in Project Management.

Google Hangouts stating employee has been "hired" for scam.
We’re surprised the scammer didn’t want our W-4 right away, as that would have been a great way to get a social security number.

The Interview Was Coming From Nigeria

John was now hired at this totally legitimate company and ready to begin work! To move forward, John would need to sign an employee offer letter, provide a picture of his passport, and send the IMEI and serial number of his smartphone. That sent us into a scramble—while preparing to be duped, we didn’t anticipate a request for a passport or an IMEI number. Identification makes some amount of sense, but why would any job need an IMEI number?

Google Hangouts chat describing apps required for training.

According to our perfectly trustworthy and legitimate interviewer, the company would use the phone’s IMEI to install training apps on John’s phone. But the company was also going to give John a new “Apple Laptop” to run programs like Microsoft Office XP 2012, which isn’t a real program and probably wouldn’t run on Macs if it was.

Luckily, John’s new workplace was very understanding and willing to wait for John to retrieve his passport from his parents, giving us time to whip one up. In the meantime, John sent them the offer letter—with a slight addition. We sent the message via a link that tracked the IP address of the person who opened it and crossed our fingers, hoping the scammer wouldn’t notice. And fortunately, they didn’t!

Much to the shock of nobody ever, instead of showing an IP address from the U.S., our recruiter seemed to be speaking to us from Nigeria.

This could just be the first hop of some VPN to disguise the scammer’s real address, but it’s clear they aren’t a legitimate company in the U.S., which they claimed to be.

Please Ship Us a $1449 Smartphone

Nevermind the scammer’s IP address though, because John had a new problem! His training couldn’t start because his phone was incompatible with the training apps. They “won’t remotely install.” And there’s only one phone that will do. An “iPhone Max with the largest hard drive and latest iOS.” Nothing less will do.

Sensing his newfound job was in danger, John felt immediate relief when the recruiter offered a suggestion. John could provide the username, password, and security questions to his cellular carrier’s online portal. John’s awesome new company would log in for him, order that expensive new smartphone, and pay for it with company funds. Isn’t that nice? Just what you’d expect from a legitimate company!

Google hangouts chat asking for login credentials for cell phone carrier portal.

But John was already a step ahead; his brother just happened to have an iPhone XS Max with 512 GB hard drive. He didn’t want it because, uh, reasons. The recruiter said this would be perfect. John just needed to ship that $1449 smartphone to the company so its technicians could install those training apps. As we all know, iPhone apps are incredibly challenging to work with, so of course, John was willing to ship the phone.

The recruiter helpfully sent a FedEx label, and it’s at this point that John, through the magic of Google, got his first look at his new workplace’s headquarters.

A very small house with with three windows, no second story, and a carport.
The address where we’re supposed to ship the phone points to this random house.

Well, that doesn’t look like a large company headquarters. Maybe the offices are underground? Some digging into the address revealed that a trustee currently owns this house, so likely it’s vacant. That’s the perfect target for this scam. The scammer can watch for the package to arrive and scoop it up without fear of a homeowner intercepting it. They even asked John for a picture of the box so they’d know what to look for.

Of course, we never sent the package. Several days later, the scammer is still asking for it. John insists he sent the package, but his new employer doesn’t believe him. The scammer said John never sent it and he knows—but that’s okay, he forgives John. He knows John will soon “do the right thing” and mail him an expensive smartphone so he can begin his well-paying work from home.

Identity Theft, Fake-Check Scams, and More

In this particular scenario, the scammers were after phones. They wanted to break into your cellular carrier account, order expensive smartphones to another address under your name, and swipe the phones. You pay for the phones, of course.

That’s bad enough, but this could have gone a different way. By offering you a job, the scammers have a logical reason for requesting your name, address, phone number, signature, social security number, and a picture of your passport.

With all that information, they could easily steal your identity. Forget breaking into your existing accounts—with that information, they could open new credit card accounts and do other nasty things. Heck, Facebook now bars foreign nationals from placing political ads in the United States, so a scammer could use your personal information to pose as a US citizen and buy any ads they like.

The scammer could use this whole job interview process to begin a more traditional check-forwarding scam where they send you bad checks, too. You deposit the checks at your bank before initiating a wire transfer and forwarding the money—but those checks bounce, and you’re out the money.

Watch Out For These Red Flags

Google Hangouts chat with apology for conducting interviews through chat
Even the scam artist knows an interview shouldn’t use Google hangouts.

If you’re reading How-To Geek, you might know these things already. But it’s possible you have friends and family who don’t so talk with them. Let them know the red flags. A few simple rules go a long way:

Companies don’t hire through Google Hangouts or text messaging. If someone contacts you about a job through Google Hangouts, don’t rely on their methods of contact to proceed. Find a way to approach the company directly, through a phone number on its website or better yet in person, and confirm the job interview.

U.S.-based HR recruiters are most likely going to speak excellent English. Throughout my contact with this scammer, I noticed they spoke English at a competent level. But their spelling was frequently wrong, they often left out important words, or incorrectly used common phrases and idioms. Their language capability didn’t match up to the profile of the person I found on LinkedIn. It’s entirely possible that an HR company might hire someone who learned English as a second language, so this isn’t a hard and fast rule. But it should ring a warning bell for you.

No company should ask for your login credentials for a website they don’t control, whether that be a bank, a cell phone carrier, or anything else—especially any site that holds your money or your credit cards.

Legitimate companies won’t ask you to pay anything to start a job. Your employer pays you; you don’t pay your employer. Never pay a new employer for the privilege of working or “deposit a company check” to your personal account and forward funds. It’s a trap.

Finally, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably isn’t true. A work from home job in customer service that pays $40 an hour is far too good to be true. Look into similar positions at similar companies. Does the position make sense? Does the pay make sense? Ask these sort of questions.

Interested in more scam investigations? Here’s how we played along with one of those “tech support” scammers.

RELATED: The "Tech Support" Scammers Called HTG (So We Had Fun with Them)

How to Report Fake Employment Scams

We reported this scam to the FTC. If you ever encounter a scam like this, you should do the same. Head to the FTC’s Complaint Assist website, which will walk you through reporting fraudulent job offers and other related scams. If you’re not in the USA, your government probably has a similar agency to which you should report these types of scams.

Because the scammer contacted us through Google Hangouts, we also reported this scam to Google. Unfortunately, several days later, the scammer still appeared online on Google Hangouts. We’re disappointed Google isn’t promptly acting on reports of fraud on its platform.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code.
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