What to know about work-from-home scams

Is that new job opportunity too good to be true? Find out what’s at stake and what to do if you fall for a work-from-home scam.

For many people, the idea of making easy money from the comfort of their home is the ultimate dream. And especially when times are tough, a work-from-home opportunity can seem like a lifeline. There are legitimate ways to earn money working from home, but there are plenty of scams out there too. 

“If the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is,” says Capital One fraud investigator Greg Marrett. Instead of making money, he says, you’re likely to end up wasting time—or worse, cash. Here, Marrett shares his insights to help you tell the scams from the real opportunities.

The risks of work-from-home scams

Marrett has been fighting organized fraud attacks on behalf of Capital One and its customers for 24 years. From old-school fraud to the latest coronavirus-related scams, he’s seen it all. 

“Work-from-home scams are such a bad situation,” Marrett says. “Often, the people involved know something isn’t right at the beginning, but they kind of go along with it.” 

He adds that it gets harder for people to back out the more time or money they invest. They often tell themselves that if they just keep going a little longer, everything will turn out OK. But Marrett says that rarely happens. 

On top of that, Marrett says work-from-home fraud can impact more than just finances. There could be an emotional cost from being embarrassed or stressed. He’s even known some fraud victims to be in fear of physical harm. 

“And the kicker is, if they’re a victim once, the chances of them being a victim again are astronomical,” Marrett says. That’s because criminals will often circle back later and try to trick victims with a different scam. 

Types of work-from-home scams

There are lots of different work-from-home scams. Here are four of the most common:

1. Reshipping or repackaging scams

“What you’re told is that you’re going to receive packages of products at home,” Marrett says. “All you’ve got to do is take them out of their box, put them in another box, label it and ship it somewhere else.” 

Marrett says the products involved are often electronics, but they can be anything with a high resale value. Sometimes the scammer uses a stolen credit card to buy the product and then has it sent to you. Other times you’ll be asked to pay up front and promised you’ll be reimbursed. 

Items can often be passed through several reshippers before finally ending up with the fraudster. It’s all “smoke and mirrors,” Marrett says. “They’re just trying to avoid detection.” 

Once the scammer receives the item, they’ll resell it to make their money—and you’ll likely never get paid or reimbursed.

2. Mystery shopping scams

Legitimate mystery shoppers are often hired to test a store’s customer service or overall experience. The shopper is usually reimbursed. In addition, they often receive payment for the work or they can keep the product. 

In a scam scenario, you might be sent a fraudulently obtained credit or debit card to make purchases or be asked to use your own, Marrett says. You might then be asked to send the purchased items somewhere else, possibly to a reshipper. The items end up with a fraudster, and you end up footing the bill.

Another mystery shopping scenario involves cash advances. Marrett says those really drive him crazy. 

“They tell you they work for a bank,” he says. “You’re asked to do a cash advance at the bank and wire them the money. They say they’ll pay you back and add a small percentage on top, but they never do.”

3. Envelope-stuffing scams

Envelope-stuffing scams evolved from what’s known as 419 fraud. But you don’t receive the letter. You send it.

The letters promise a share of the writer’s financial fortune if the person receiving the letter sends money or information in advance. 

For example, “There’s a prince who just found out you’re related,” Marrett says, “or he’s found tens of millions of dollars that were hidden during the Gulf War that were all dyed with a special black dye. And he says he’ll share this fortune with you if you help pay for the chemicals that it’s going to take to remove the dye.”

These letters used to come directly from fraudsters in Nigeria. But Marrett says that law enforcement got better at intercepting the mail. So now they’re being sent from within the United States—and that’s where you come in.

“The bad guy sends you the letter and 10,000 names and addresses, and you take the letter and mail it out,” Marrett says. “And you’re told you’re going to get paid for that.”

4. Data entry scams

This type of work-from-home scam often results from phishing, a data breach or some other type of identity fraud. The personal information that’s stolen is sent to you. This normally includes details like names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth and addresses.

You’re hired on the understanding that you’re submitting customer applications for credit cards and bank loans on behalf of the bank, Marrett says. “You’re hired to work five or six hours a day and you’re paid by the application.”

By the time the fraud is detected, Marrett says, the scammer has the credit cards you applied for. Or they’ve been passed on to a mystery shopper or a reshipper, and the scammer has disappeared. 

“And odds are,” Marrett says, “you’re never going to get paid.”

What to do if you’ve been affected by a work-from-home scam

By the time you realize something’s wrong, Marrett says, your “employer” might have already disappeared. 

If you suspect you’ve fallen for a work-from-home scam, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. The agency also suggests you notify the attorney general in your state. Or if the company’s located in a different state, notify that state’s attorney general instead.

If you found the job through an advertisement, you might also want to alert the publication or outlet it came from. And if you used your credit or debit card or gave the scammer any personal information, alerting your bank might help prevent you from losing any more money.

It’s also a good idea to learn how to spot credit card fraud and how to protect yourself from fraudsters.

Ways to avoid work-from-home scams

The types of work-from-home scams are varied. But Marrett says it takes just a few standard steps to avoid falling for one.

His biggest advice is to start with research. “Search on the internet. I’d want to see their website—something that proves they’re real,” he advises. Marrett adds that if your contact doesn’t use a company-specific email address, that can be a sign they aren’t legitimate.

He also suggests being confident that your employer is for real before you ship anything overseas or give out personal information such as your driver’s license or Social Security numbers. And he advises asking a trusted friend or family member for their take. 

“What might make 100% sense to you might sound really suspicious to someone else,” Marrett says. “You’ve got to be prepared to ask the questions and talk about it.”

Additionally, Marrett says Capital One often refers affected customers to organizations like the Better Business Bureau and AARP to help them check out companies and get more tips and resources.

Finally, Marrett says, you just need to be honest with yourself about the opportunity: “If what they’re offering seems to outweigh your level of effort and experience—if they’re telling you you’re going to work from home and make $50 an hour—something’s probably not right.”

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