Joe Epstein’s heart did a little flip-flop when he opened an e-mail from a staffing firm that promised a portal to a new job.

“When you’re in this situation, it really picks you up,” said Epstein, 58. Nearly a year after being laid off from his job as an information technology sales rep, he finds himself in a job search for the first time in a quarter-century.

As Epstein learned in the resulting telephone conversation, an ailing economy can bring out the worst in people: Companies that prey on the unemployed in their struggle to find work.

Epstein said a “very nice, very positive” woman representing the staffing firm plucked his resume from a job search engine and promised that her company could brush up his resume, provide interview tips and give him access to exclusive job listings.

The price _ $4,000.

Epstein turned it down, as well as subsequent follow-up pitches from the firm.

“Once you give them your credit card, you’re up a creek,” said the Brentwood, Mo., resident.
Consumer protection advocates say his reasoning is dead-on. In 2007, the Consumer Protection Agency received almost 6,000 complaints about headhunters and employment and placement agencies. And that was two years before the economy threw an estimated 3.6 million Americans out of work.

“There’s always people out there willing to take advantage of people’s misery,” said Chris Thetford, director of communications for the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. “I’ve never met anyone who had to pay to get a legitimate job.”

Nationally, authorities are finding examples of job scammers and taking action. For example, the Federal Trade Commission filed a federal court complaint in November against a Georgia firm that was charging $120 to $140 for materials it claimed would help applicants pass a U.S. Postal Service qualifying exam.

In early 2008, the Ohio attorney general fined a personnel service for enticing clients to pay $389 for a connection to nonexistent jobs.

Jeannette Hoss of East Carondelet, Ill., has been on the receiving end of similar pitches since starting her job hunt in December. She estimates she has e-mailed her resume in response to Craigslist.com ads nearly a 100 times trying to land a position in health insurance, human resources or other fields.

Of those inquiries, Hoss, 30, estimates fully a third have triggered automatic responses that amount to little more than spam.

Other respondents have sent job applications embedded with requests for money or other personal information.
One company offered to set Hoss up with her own resume-writing service. Another provided suggestions on how to establish a phony e-mail address.

Given the economic climate, consumer advocates say, the allegations of bogus or exploitative employment opportunities starting to trickle in have the potential to turn into a torrent.
“We definitely expect to see more people falling for job-hunting scams with the economy being what it is,” said Travis Ford, a spokesman for the Missouri attorney general’s office.

In 2007, 5,925 Americans contacted the U.S. Consumer Protection Agency, a division of the Federal Trade Commission, with complaints about employment agencies and job counseling.
That figure represented less than 1 percent of the complaints the agency received about fraudulent business opportunities and work-from-home schemes, said spokesman Mitchell Katz.

As Epstein learned, the schemes often involve a firm requesting a fee in exchange for career advice along with access to employment opportunities inaccessible to the general public.
The request for upfront money, experts say, is the first red flag.

In almost every instance, consumer advocates contend, the “exclusive” job listings that illegitimate staffing firms share with clients are available to anyone with access to the Internet.

Moreover, they say, employment-seekers are often presented with lists of jobs for which they are unqualified or in faraway locales that would require them to relocate.

“What they’re trying to do is put a round peg in a square hole and charge you to do it,” said Epstein.

Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune