Online Jobs: How to Dodge Scams and Time-Wasters

Laura McMullen
By Laura McMullen 
Edited by Rick VanderKnyff

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At best, online jobs let you make money without requiring you to commute or even wear pants. At worst, these gigs trick you into giving up money and personal information. And, somewhere between these extremes, online work can waste your time.

Learn how to spot scams and fruitless assignments when searching for online jobs or receiving convenient — if mysterious — opportunities in your inbox.

Recognize scams

Be wary of job posts that include any of the following red flags:

You’re promised exclusive government listings. The Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau websites caution against posts that offer special access to certain federal government jobs or guarantee placement for a fee. Information for all available federal positions is public and free at

The employer is too eager to hire you. Even if you’re a qualified candidate, the BBB suggests avoiding employers that offer you a job on the spot, without an interview. Similarly, question employers advertising that no skills are required for the job, says Nick Loper, head of Side Hustle Nation, a blog and community of entrepreneurs. “Because, realistically, what employer wants that?” he says.

It demands your credit card or bank account information. Ostensibly, the company wants this information to run a credit check or set up direct deposit. It could also steal your money.

The company overpays you. Here’s a common scheme, according to the BBB: With your banking information, the fraudulent employer “accidentally” overpays you with a fake check. Then it requests that you deposit the check and wire the difference to the company. As the BBB says on its website, “No legitimate job would ever overpay an employee and ask for money to be wired elsewhere.”

You must pay upfront. The FTC warns against employers and placement firms that require you to shell out for training, certification, inventory or other expenses in return for a gig. That job may never happen. Asking for money upfront is bad enough. If the employer specifically requests the payment via wire transfer, prepaid debit card or gift card, run.

The gig just doesn’t feel right. “One of the biggest things job seekers should pay attention to when searching for online jobs is their gut,” says Brie Weiler Reynolds, a senior career specialist at the job website FlexJobs, which offers telecommuting, freelance, part-time and flexible work opportunities. Many of the people she’s talked to who have been scammed said they felt uneasy about the job at some point but continued anyway. Reynolds speculates that people persist with these gigs because they desperately need work or trust that good things will happen to them.

“But if something doesn't sit right with you, listen to that feeling, pay attention to that instinct,” she says. “It's either time to do more research or to walk away, but don't just keep going along and hoping for the best.”

Know your worth

So, you’ve waded through the fraudulent job ads and found a trustworthy employer that pays. That doesn’t necessarily mean the opportunity is worth your time. Learn how that compensation translates into an hourly rate. For example, if you earn a certain amount for each task, how many of them would you complete in an hour? Then determine the value of your time and effort to see how this new opportunity compares. Here’s how:

Do the math. Calculate your hourly rate from your most recent, pre-tax annual salary, Reynolds suggests. Divide those earnings by the number of working hours in a year.

Say you earned $35,000 before taxes. For this example, we’ll divide that salary by 2,087 hours, which is the figure the federal government uses to determine its employees’ hourly rates. Your hourly rate would be $16.77 ($35,000/2,087 = $16.77). Then hike up that $16.77 by 20% to 30% to account for business expenses, tax obligations and other costs related to freelancing, Reynolds says. With an additional 20%, your rate is about $20 per hour.

Research the market. Learning what workers similar to you earn helps ensure you’ll be paid a comparable rate. “Figure out what salary or pay rates clients and employers are offering for skills or professions like yours,” Reynolds says. “Searching the internet, scrutinizing job ads, polling colleagues, asking LinkedIn groups for assistance and contacting professional organizations in your industry can help in determining your worth in the market.”

Once you’ve found an online job opportunity with a reputable company and competitive pay, you’re ready to earn a paycheck in your pajamas.

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