6 Ways to Spot Work-at-Home Job Scams

Photo: HowardLake

I’ve been working from home for over three years now. While I haven’t paid a penny for online programs designed to teach you how to work from home (or that promise to help you get rich quick), I can smell them from a mile away. Many of the letters I get from Wise Bread readers inquire about specific work-from-home programs, and while I don’t have experience with any of them, it’s usually possible to tell at a glance if they are legitimate. Examples of programs that get asked about most often include those that promise money from being a billing processor, internet sales specialist, or blogger. (See also: 3 Sources for Freelance Work at Home Jobs)

In addition to perusing this fantastic collection of tips for finding legitimate work at home opportunities, here are my suggestions for spotting the scams.

You receive unsolicited information about the program

Whether you get it in your email box or as an invitation through your favorite social networking site, if you have never signed up for more information or didn’t receive the offer from a friend you know, it’s unlikely that the offer is “real.” Legitimate marketers usually get info from mailing lists that you have opted into or signed up for specifically, and emails should always follow CAN-SPAM rules that require their subscribers to opt-in to email newsletters. If something pops up in your email that doesn’t ring a bell, you can most likely delete it.

Common scams that come to you through email include scams like this payment processing job. They usually have misspellings in the message of the email or have a subject line with random characters or capitalization to help get the message through email spam filters.

The program landing page has bold promises and even bolder highlighting

I know that many of my blogging friends offer legit programs, ebooks, and offers via landing pages. In fact, much money has been made by teaching well-meaning business people how to create the perfect landing page. That being said, the scammers almost always show a landing page with red, blue, pink, or yellow highlighted text; photos of past customers holding up wads of cash; testimonials that seem too good to be true; and the like. If you see an offer with a gaudy landing page that just doesn’t seem right, leave.

Other warning signs that a program won't be worth the investment include:

  • Images and logos of legitimate news sites that appear to convey they endorse the plan. Look carefully: The wording usually says "ads seen on" — not "as seen on."
  • The photos of customers are stock photos or headshots of models purchased from a commercial site.
  • The low-cost trial period is very brief (often as short as three days). After that, the charge is high — $100 or more — giving you little time to cancel if you are not satisfied.

The offer is limited in the number of customers and time to act

"Hurry now, this offer is going fast!" How many times have you heard this in commercials, offering to only allow the special promotion to a select number of customers? While this is a common tactic designed to get people to buy — today — without giving them a chance to listen to their instincts, it can also be a sign of a subpar product (one that wouldn’t pass the sniff test if given more time to be investigated).

Many of the work-at-home job scams out there also rely on this type of predatory emotional manipulation. It will sometimes invoke a fake number of "original" available program spots, which is usually crossed out and replaced with a "new" number. It is designed to put pressure on buyers to make them feel like the product will not be available much longer. It is also a weak way to do business.

Google searches turn up bad news, again and again

Some programs are the same programs, cleverly disguised as something new. A quick Google search of a few of the programs a reader recently asked me about alerted me to the fact that the same scammer has been operating for years, changing the name of the program every so often to cleverly stay under the radar. As more and more work-at-home sites, bloggers, and forums got wind of how bad the opportunity was, the scammer would go into hiding again, only to pop up with a rebranded opportunity for a new batch of victims.

If you can catch a work-at-home opportunity being discussed online, take the feedback with a grain of salt. It is possible that the program didn’t work because the person wasn’t qualified to take advantage of it (see the next section below). If you do hear about multiple or unauthorized credit card charges, sneaky sales tactics, or a complete lack of delivery on the promised product, however, run!

The opportunity requires no skills, knowledge, or effort

Common sense would tell you that if you don’t have the skills or patience to complete a business task, you might not do well at that particular business. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that many of the job scams appeal to people who wouldn’t be qualified to run an at-home business — and they have little chance of succeeding in this (or any other) home business endeavor.

I agree that most anyone can learn a task. Many can also perform that task, unsupervised, day after day until a profit comes in. A few can also take this money and reinvest it wisely into their business — all the while balancing family and other obligations to form a romantic work-at-home picture.

In a typical sales pitch, these job scams place the romantic picture far before the work required to achieve results. That’s why they are so appealing. If a home business program swears that it will be effortless, it’s likely not legit. (Even larceny — the most lucrative career I know of — takes effort.)

No one else has succeeded

Most work-at-home opportunities pony up plenty of testimonials from what seem like real people. But do you know any of them personally? And could you track them down to ask them questions if you wanted to?

Franchises and other ground-floor opportunities offer potential investors access to others in the business, because they understand that a significant amount of money and time will be put into the business. Online opportunities aren’t so forthcoming, and the legit ones should point you in the direction of real customers who are willing to share their stories. (You wouldn’t care about the rave reviews on the backs of new books if they were all from people you had never heard of, or worse yet, cartoon characters, would you?)

It's also very important that consumers read the fine print at the bottom of these offers. Common legalese that you should be on alert for includes:

  • Earnings disclaimers: These should include warnings that the level of success will depend on time devoted to the program, your own ideas, techniques used to build business, your own financial situation, and skill level.
  • Income-claim warnings: These will convey that testimonial results are not likely to be your own. They should also tell you that the people and images are not of the actual people who have used the program, and there should be a note that some individuals who invest in the program will make little or no money at all.

Bottom Line

Working from home takes research, hard work, some capital, and the desire to see success. This may mean working at 2 a.m. when your newborn has colic, skipping that night out with friends to do inventory, and sending notice after notice to late-paying clients. It’s not a glamorous life, but those who do it usually love it. Before you play into the next best thing, ask a home-worker what to expect, and avoid anything that seems counter to reality.

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Guest's picture

Its a shame that so many scams like this are out there. They're designed simply for somebody to make a quick, easy buck, and have no value outside of that. It really takes away from legitimate opportunities that have the potential to benefit many more people.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Yes, it is a shame! Unfortunately, as long as people keep paying for these fake opportunities, they will never go away. I'm hoping this helps some people to be alerted to them and at least get them to ask for advice if they aren't sure.

Guest's picture

GREAT advice! I'd also add that when you're searching Google, you'll find the scammy stuff faster if you search for the company or person's name and the word "complaint" or something similar at the same time. I also like badbusinessbureau.com to check on any business that seems like a scam.

As someone who has worked form home for over a year, I can honestly tell people that legitimate telecommuting opportunities do exist. For my first year, I worked for a software company in their client services department, and now I'm working for a website (FlexJobs.com) that actually helps job seekers find legitimate work-from-home opportunities by hand-screening jobs and weeding out the scams.

If you're looking for a work-from-home position, be vigilant and never take a company at its word. If you do your research and learn to spot language like "limitless earning potential" and websites that seem to only discuss career opportunities, but say nothing about what they actually DO as a company, you can certainly find legitimate telecommuting jobs.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks for your comments! I actually paid for a Flexjobs subscription awhile back and find it to be a great tool for browsing real work at home job opportunities. I recommend it if you don't want to scour all the Craigslist and online job boards yourself.

Guest's picture

This is a great collection of the tips to spot such earn easy money by working at home scams. To me, the biggest tell-tale sign is always the bad English. And if things really look too good to be true, it probably is, but if I am curious enough, I always Google to cross-check any complains online. I guess as long as there are easy money to be made from careless people, there will continue to be such work from home scams around. So just be vigilant.

Linsey Knerl's picture

That's also a good point. I avoided mentioning it because it could be misinterpreted as being biased against non-English speakers, but it can be a tip-off to investigate an opportunity further. I have had some very dear colleagues who are legit create some very bad websites (some with broken English). It's been an opportunity for me to consult with them on how to revamp their sites to be more credible, however.

Thanks for the comment!

Brooke Kaelin's picture

I've worked from home full time for five years. I've never tried Flex Jobs, but I've found Google to be an invaluable tool for weeding out scams - that's great advice. I also use iGoogle to pick up feeds from places like CraigsList and my other favorite job sites so that I can look for new listings quickly. I have them set up on a home page rather than the feed reader.

Great places that list real work at home jobs include:

About Freelance Writing
Freelance Writing Gigs
Media Bistro
Funds for Writers
and, for government job options, Usa Jobs.gov

Not every opportunity is on the up-and-up at these places, but higher percentages of them are and it means wasting less time trying to find legitimate work.

This is a great article Linsey, you're spot-on about the best way to spot a scam. My indicator has always been that if it costs me money (instead of paying me money) then it isn't legitimate.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I can agree with EVERY one of your points, Brooke! I use all of those resources, and wouldn't pay for any programs that are geared toward working from home. The only exceptions would be if you don't have time to look for your own jobs (although your feed idea rocks). When I first started out, I had all the time in the world to look for jobs, but now, I'd rather spend that time with my family or building my business in other ways. A small subscription fee to a legitimate newsletter or site that pre-qualifies all the listings is worth $3-10 a month, in my opinion. (I have also paid for the Media Bistro site membership for a few years in a row, now, too. I enjoy the premium forum discussions and the listings for how to pitch editors.)

Thanks for your comments!!

Guest's picture

If it sounds too good to be true, then run! There are no truly easy ways to make money, at least when getting started, and if there were then some "expert" wouldn't be selling their secrets for $19.99!

Linsey Knerl's picture

You said it! ;)