Scam artists capitalize on job-seekers' despair Victims are swindled out of hundreds in fees paid to elusive referral firms

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Seeking an edge

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, and scam artists are devious.

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.

And the company was listed as belonging to Hazel Douglas. But in vestigators discovered that the real Hazel Douglas had nothing to do with the company. The woman who was running it had somehow got hold of Ms. Douglas' personal information and had forged a driver's license, Mr. Steiner said.

Last spring, just as the investigators had teased out the company's real address from a tangled skein of post offices and fake identities, the operators closed the company and disappeared.

"We still don't know the true identity" or the whereabouts of the woman who ran Douglas, Mr. Steiner said. But at least that company, which had collected about $300 apiece from more than 250 job-seekers, stopped luring new victims.

"These people are evil and nasty," Mr. Steiner said. Many victims of the Douglas Co., having been told that they had been hired for overseas jobs, "got married, sold homes and gave up a lot" to take the jobs, he said.

Because of complaints like the Darneys' about slow action, Ron Gunzberger, a Florida prosecutor who has worked on the Universal case, said his office now prefers to take faster, informal actions to shut down employment scams.

In the past two months, he said, his investigators have raided and shut down seven unscrupulous employment agencies in Dade County by checking for other violations, such as operating without a telemarketing license. Because South Florida is one of the hotbeds of telemarketing scams, the closures there have cut complaints nationwide, he said.

Clever methods

Some of those companies were unsophisticated. They made offers that should have struck anyone as too good to be true -- like jobs in Aruba paying room, board and $70,000 a year, tax-free.

But others were clever. One company, for example, asked victims to pay by credit card. The company would then use victims' names and credit-card numbers to pay for newspaper ads luring yet more victims, he said.

Another outfit, apparently suffering from an education inferiority complex -- and possibly a conscience -- charged people with college degrees $150 more than those with less education.

That company would also turn away people with more than three children.

Although Florida's recent moves seem to have shut down most job scams in Dade County, Mr. Gunzberger fears that the rip-off artists will be back soon. As investigators catch on to one fraud, the swindlers move on to another, he said.

For example, most of the job scammers have given up on the overseas-job idea; the seven companies he helped shut down in recent weeks focused on construction jobs.

"They are gone for a little while," he said. "But in a few months, there may be a whole new batch again."

AVOIDING SCAMS

If you're looking for a job, and someone offers help -- for a fee -- beware.

It is a violation of Maryland law for any agency to charge job-seekers upfront for employment referrals. But companies may take their fee out of your first paycheck or charge your employer.

The Federal Trade Commission offers this advice to job-hunters:

* Beware of any employment ad directing you to phone a 900 number for information.

* Beware of any company that makes extravagant promises, like guaranteeing a job.

* Before sending any money, check with local consumer protection agencies, attorneys general offices and Better Business Bureaus to see whether complaints have been lodged against the agency.

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