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KARE 11 Investigates: Work-At-Home scam risks during COVID-19 crisis

Thieves are using online job offers to steal personal information – and to lure people into counterfeit check schemes.

ELK RIVER, Minnesota — When she spotted a post about a ‘Work-at-Home’ job on her community Facebook group in central Minnesota, Tracy Bluemke says she jumped at the chance.

“I thought that it might be really a perfect fit working from home,” she told KARE 11.

Turns out, it’s an example of how online thieves are rolling out old scams to target people stuck at home – and often out of work – during the coronavirus crisis.

“Employment scams for the last two years have been the riskiest. And that’s pre-COVID,” said Bao Vang, Communications Director for the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota & North Dakota.

Tracy says the job posting claimed it was for a data entry position with a nationally known company. It said she could do the work remotely with a flexible schedule. And it promised to pay $15 an hour for up to 45 hours a week.

It seemed ideal for somebody already stuck at home.

Credit: KARE 11
At first, Tracy Bluemke thought the Work-At-Home job seemed perfect.

“I’m unemployed, I’m desperate, I want to work,” Tracy said.

In other words, she was a perfect target for scammers.

Interview by text message 

 When she asked for more information, Tracy was told she needed to download “WhatsApp” – a cellphone messaging service especially popular overseas.

“To be honest, I assumed it would be like a video chat interview – and it wasn’t. It was actually an interview basically via text,” she recalled.

Experts say that’s a red flag.  

Scammers based overseas often use text messages and emails instead of phone calls or video chats because it can conceal suspicious foreign accents.

Her job interview by text began with a few basic questions about her work experience, but Tracy says the online interviewer quickly started asking for her personal information.

Credit: KARE 11
Tracy was told her job interview would be done by the WhatsApp message service popular overseas.

She was asked to name her cell phone service, provide a copy of her driver’s license, even tell which bank she used.

“They sent me a form actually requesting all of my account information, my security password.” Tracy said. “I mean I knew at this point this was all fraud.”

Identity thieves often use fake job applications to try to steal your personal information. Fortunately, Tracy didn’t fall for it.

Sending you money

If she would have signed up, the thieves behind the same scam apparently had another trick up their sleeve.

During the online interview they promised Tracy they would be paying for the computer equipment she’d need to do the job.

But there was a catch.

“In order for you to do the job at home, they would be giving me a brand new laptop, this equipment,” Tracy recalled. “Sending me funds, and then I had to purchase this equipment through an approved vendor.”

What’s more, the text message said she’d have to do it quickly. “The fund for the procurement of equipment shall not be left dormant in an employee account for more than 24 hours,” the message explained.

That’s another red flag.

Experts say if someone claims to be sending you money that you’re supposed to forward to someone else, they are probably sending you a counterfeit check.

Credit: KARE 11
Bao Vang says the BBB is warning about fake check and job scams.

The Better Business Bureau has been warning about fake check scams for years.

If you deposit the check in your account, quickly withdraw it, and forward the money to someone else, you will be left holding the bag a few days later when the check bounces.

Thieves using hacked accounts.

So, who’s behind it all?

It’s hard to tell because thieves often hide behind accounts they’ve already hacked.

When KARE 11 called the Texas phone number linked to the WhatsApp job interview, we were told his account had been hacked.

“I’ve been trying to find out who’s been using my number,” a man told us. “I’m not doing no job offers.”

And what about the original Facebook post Tracy saw here in Minnesota?

When KARE 11 contacted the young woman who appeared to have posted the group message on Facebook, she said her account had been hacked, too.

The bottom line: beware of ‘Work-At-Home’ job offers even when they look like they’re coming from a neighbor.

How to protect yourself

There’s plenty of advice online about how to spot fake ‘Work-At-Home’ scams.

The Federal Trade Commission has posted information here:  https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/pass-it-on/work-at-home-scams

The Better Business Bureau’s “Scam Tracker” keeps a running list of various reported scams here: https://www.bbb.org/scamtracker/

If you think you may have been a victim of an identity theft scam, the federal government has prepared a checklist of things you need to do to protect yourself and limit the damage. Find it here:  https://www.identitytheft.gov/

And if you want to report an online scam – and give authorities the details they need to help track down the thieves – the FBI has set up the Internet Crimes Complaint Center. You can file a report here: https://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx

If you have a suggestion, or want to blow the whistle on government fraud, waste, or corruption, email us at: 

investigations@kare11.com

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