Employment scams exploit the inexperienced
By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer
One day, I asked my father about the first job he ever had. The answer I got was pretty shocking. For eight hours a day, he stood sweating in front of an open furnace, shoveling piles of wastepaper into the flames. He got two 10-minute coffee breaks, and an unpaid half-hour lunch break per day. He lost so much weight doing this job that his boss gave him a bottle of salt pills to help him get through the day without passing out. It was, by all accounts, a wretched job that no one would want to do—but at the very least, his employer was honest about the conditions of the work.
We live in an instantaneous society where life moves at a breakneck pace. Being unemployed for even a short time is often untenable, especially in a city with Vancouver’s extravagant living expenses. People need work, but there are more people than there are jobs available. So what’s a financially stressed, unemployed, recent college graduate with limited qualifications to do? We look to the Internet, of course, where everything must be true like on Craigslist, Kijiji. Job offers abound, but how can we know if the job being offered is legitimate?
Historically, many online job ads have targeted recent or aspiring immigrants, often in the form of poorly worded “hotel scams” offering work in international hotels while requesting advance payments from the applicants in order to pay for work visas. Today, the growing number of graduates in need of work has opened up a new target demographic to aspiring con artists the world over.
Consider the fact that on March 18, YVR.ca—the official website of the Vancouver Airport—released a public warning regarding an employment scam: “The fraud scheme sends individuals letters in the mail informing them they are the successful candidate of a (fake) job posting at Vancouver Airport Authority. Individuals are then asked to send their personal documents,” said the Vancouver Airport Authorities on the webpage. These victims were contacted by their banks within days because their credit cards had been hijacked.
There is a seemingly infinite number of false or misleading ads out there, and it’s not always easy to tell the real opportunities from the fakes until after you’ve been defrauded. Thieves can impersonate anyone with little fear of reprisal because they operate from foreign countries and can kill their fake webpages instantly if they think they’re being tracked. Getting INTERPOL involved is useless, because the scammer will be on to their tenth next con before authorities even have their first meeting about what to do. The victims are usually disadvantaged: sick, injured, on welfare, unemployed, students in debt, or residents of low socioeconomic areas. For them, desperation overrides common sense. This style of employment crime is relatively heinous—the financial equivalent of kicking someone while they’re down.
The signs are there if you know what to look for. A general rule of thumb to follow is the trite but true “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” When you find a job that offers an enticing amount of money for purely nominal work, be sure to use that wonderful computing machine of yours to find out if people are typically paid that much for stuffing envelopes. Speaking of which, jobs that require you to buy your own materials are probably best avoided.
No experience necessary, no application necessary, and if they’re ready to hire you instantly, no questions asked; you should probably ask yourself why they’d be willing to do so. If the employment agent distances themselves from you—insisting on Skype interviews, or perhaps using a non-company email address (Yahoo, Gmail, and like)—that’s another big red flag. Something’s fishy if you’re required to give up personal information such as your social insurance number, address, date of birth, or credit card number. And if you’re being asked to advance any sort of fee under the guise of out-of-pocket or travel expenses, you should know it’s a scam. Real employers will never ask you to pay for a job.
Now, let’s assume you’ve applied for a job because it passed the above criteria. You should be safe, right? Unfortunately, many legal establishments get away with sub-standard—even atrocious—treatment of their staff, so you must remain skeptical. The first thing you must ascertain is whether you are an employee or an independent contractor, as this will determine your rights. According to the Ministry of Labour’s Employment Standards Act (ESA), employees are entitled by law to have “minimum standards of wages and working conditions in most workplaces in British Columbia.” Some employers will avoid paying you minimum wage by commissioning you as an independent contractor, which exempts you from ESAcoverage. This is technically legal, but scummy as hell and exploited too often by the same people who’ll turn around and ask you to pay for the gas. This mostly happens in the lower end of the private sector—it’s less likely to happen if you work in the public sector, since working for public organizations (Government of Canada, Armed Forces, RCMP, airlines, Canada Revenue Agency) usually makes you an employee despite your compensation plan. Public entities are under heavy scrutiny and typically meet or exceed minimum standards, but that doesn’t keep them from being impersonated.
This isn’t to say that all independent contractor’s work is poorly paid; this type of work is often ideal for a busy student who doesn’t have the luxury of working full-time. However, it’s commonplace to find exaggerated claims about earning power—particularly in commission-based work. Lack of disclosure often puts people in a bad position. For example, a contractor has to pay their own benefits such as Worker’s Comp, Canada Pension Plan (CPP), and employment insurance premiums. As an independent, you’re obligated to pay 10 per cent of your net earnings into the CPP when you file your tax return. Contractors usually won’t receive vacation or overtime pay or be included in company health and life insurance plans. Arguably, a $10.25 minimum wage with these basic benefits equals $15 an hour of contractor wage with no benefits—perhaps much more, if the company has a good dental, medical, and benefits plan.
The overriding point is that an independent contractor is really independent. They set the job parameters, not the person who hired them to fulfill the contract. If you hire someone to fix your roof, they’re not your employee. The roofing company is their employer. In turn, they might be an independent contractor. If they, for example, provide all the materials and arrangements to do the job, then the company who contacted you is merely the sales arm of the deal. By law, an employer must have an employee fill out a TD1 tax form when hired. If you haven’t filled one out, or your employer won’t take one from you, you are an independent contractor and you need to understand exactly what your responsibilities are.
Another thing to be examined are the postings found in online jobsites like the Government of Canada Job Bank, BCjobs, Monster, and Workopolis. For the most part, their moderators screen out all the outright rip-offs. However, there are still piles of time-wasting jobs that, while being strictly speaking “legal,” offer nothing but utterly meaningless verbiage to describe the requirements and conditions of the job. If you find a prospective job that has been posted to Job Bank half a dozen times in a day, often for weeks (serial job advertisements) that’s a pretty good sign that no one keeps said job for long. These legal rip-offs generally thrive by continuously churning out new entrants, since the pay and the work are often dismal.
I’m not trying to frighten people off the Internet or warn them away from internships. Everyone’s got to build a resumé however they can, and sometimes you have to “stoke the furnace” to get by. These minimum wage jobs might be boring and have no future for advancement, but they are easy to get, serve an economic purpose, and at least disclose their intentions. A talented scammer, on the other hand, knows that every year there are fresh batches of post-secondary graduates ready to do every last thing to please their potential employers. Always remember that you have a right to know exactly what you’re getting into; you must trust your gut if you feel your employers are not forthcoming. Take nothing at face value. Do your research, and don’t let people who exploit the anonymity of this affluent age exploit you, too.
If you or anyone you know has ever been the victim of an employment scam, go to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre website to report your situation to the authorities and to educate yourself further on the other types of scams circulating the Internet.