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Roland Ismael had been job hunting for a few months with little success when he received his first job offer. It came by e-mail from a contact representing a Japanese electronic products company. The position was for Ismael to collect overdue funds from Canadian clients, deposit cheques into his personal account then forward the funds to the firm.

Mr. Ismael would receive a salary of US$5,000 per month, along with a 5 per cent commission on all the funds remitted. The work-from-home job sounded too good to be true. It turns out it was.

After he deposited a cheque for $9,681.20 from a supposed client, his bank account was frozen for fraudulent activity. His contact at the electronics company, who had previously been quick to reply to e-mails, stopped responding.

“I was devastated,” he recalls.

Mr. Ismael is just one of many job-seeking Canadians that have become victims of employment scams. Mr. Ismael waited for the cheque to cash before remitting so he wasn’t out any money. But hundreds of others who did send funds are out of pocket. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, 518 victims of employment fraud reported a total loss of $5.5-million in 2018.

Jeff Thomson, senior intelligence analyst with the RCMP and manager of fraud prevention at the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, says that “financial agent” job scams are on the rise. “People are signing up for these jobs and processing payments on behalf of a company,” Mr. Thomson explains. “The victim’s job is going to be to receive payments, take that money out and convert it to bitcoins to send it back to the company.”

These employment scams often use job titles such as administrative assistant, accountant and payment processor. “What they’re doing is recruiting money mules,” Mr. Thomson says. “They use you to funnel money out of victims they’re already dealing with, or their compromised bank accounts, so that they’re insulating themselves from the fraud. The money is passing through an unknown or unwitting victim’s account.”

Mr. Thomson says that only 1 to 5 per cent of all frauds are reported, so the real number of losses are upward of $500-million. Mr. Thomson cautions job hunters to be vigilant about where they post their information and to be wary of unsolicited messages offering employment. When it comes to job responsibilities, “Ninety-nine per cent of legitimate employers will not ask you to accept money into your personal bank account,” he says.

Amelia Merrick, director of career exploration and education at the University of Toronto, assists university students with their job searches and has become increasingly concerned about the prevalence of job scams.

She points to the emergence of new financial technologies like cryptocurrency fuelling new fraud. Earlier this year, a Memorial University student lost over $5,000 in an employment scam involving the purchase of bitcoin on behalf of a company. From her experience, the schemes are “becoming more complex … and we’re seeing a greater frequency of them annually,” she says.

Ms. Merrick believes the proliferation of the gig economy has made students more vulnerable to frauds. But it’s not just students that fall prey. The increase in remote employment and work-from-home jobs has also made it easier for fraudsters from anywhere in the world to lure in new victims eager for a paycheque. “We are in a precarious climate of work,” Ms. Merrick says.

The University of Toronto website has developed a fraudulent job postings guide for those concerned about job scams. “When you’re applying for a job, don’t send money, don’t send your passport and don’t deposit any cheques,” Ms. Merrick advises. Applicants should also be going through an interview process, whether in-person or over Skype, prior to a role being offered along with conducting their own research to verify the legitimacy of the company.

“Make sure that the company’s website is legitimate and make sure that their address is legitimate,” she says, which could be as easy as looking up the address up on Google Maps. “Check out their LinkedIn profile, make sure that those things all add up.” Small details like carefully checking an e-mail address from a supposedly established organization for typos could be a tipoff to a fraudster impersonating a legitimate company. The Memorial University student later realized their e-mails were going to “Aventtics.com” instead of “Aventics.com,” which is an established company.

Once or twice a year, Ms. Merrick assists a student who has lost funds from a fraudulent job. She advises these students to report the incident to police while Mr. Thomson also encourages victims to submit information to his office, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, to assist with investigations. “The e-mail addresses, telephone numbers, names – everything you have might be a missing piece of the puzzle,” says Mr. Thomson. His office can also alert internet service providers, banks and telephone companies when certain accounts are being used for fraud. However, the chances of victims recouping lost funds is low, which is why vigilance is necessary for job hunters to protect themselves.

Since his encounter with the fake company, Mr. Ismael has his guard up. He has received other questionable job offers for positions like “blockchain manager.” “It has something to do with investing, which already sounds fishy,” he says.

In retrospect, Mr. Ismael recognizes the red flags that popped up. While Mr. Ismael didn’t recall applying for a job with the company, he did have his resume uploaded to multiple websites such as Monster and assumed that was how the company had acquired his contact information. Mr. Ismael did not go through an interview process or speak over the phone with anyone from the company. At the time, he believes his desperation for a job and a source of income is what blinded him.

“The bills were piling up,” he says. But now, “I will not trust people that reach out to me any more.”

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