Mike Wolfe thought he had found his dream job. According to the ad he'd spotted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he could be a customer-service manager for a luxury cruise line. In return for training a staff of 100 employees, he'd be traveling to exotic ports-of-call -- and receiving a substantial amount of compensation.
Wolfe, 45, of Etna, had worked as a restaurant manager for Lucca Restaurant, in Oakland, and as a wine critic for the Pittsburgh Food Guide. The job listing, which appeared along with a local phone number in the P-G's Aug. 17 classifieds, sounded like it was "right up his alley."
But for Wolfe, it turned out to be a blind alley. And he was lucky to avoid being mugged in it.
Wolfe says he called the phone number and got a recording, which vaguely described a position for an Italian cruise line that was setting up shop in the area. "After I ... heard a little more about the job, I got excited," Wolfe says. "They called me later that day and asked me a little bit about myself. After about three minutes, the guy said he thought I'd be perfect for the job and said another representative would call me back the next morning."
The original caller told him he needed to fly out to Seattle, Wash. for the actual interview -- and that Wolfe was responsible for paying half of his airfare upfront. Wolfe was told to send $268 via Western Union to an account in Florida to cover half his airfare to Seattle.
"This is when I pretty much knew it was a scam," Wolfe says. "After being interviewed by two separate people, and neither interview lasted longer than three minutes, I thought it strange that they spent 11 minutes explaining how to fill out a Western Union form." Up until then, he says, "I just assumed the classifieds were legitimate."
That can be a dubious assumption, say consumer-protection experts.
"This is one of the lowest forms of the scam where they will ask you to pay an upfront fee in exchange for a flight to a job interview, which doesn't exist," says Neil Maxwell-Keys, co-author of Get a Cruise Ship Job. "No genuine cruise-line company or agency would book a flight to an interview on your behalf and then ask you to pay for it."
"We are always seeing new variations on the same old scams," says Jacqueline Dizdul, spokesperson for the Office of Public Affairs at the Federal Trade Commission. "Wire frauds and job scams have been around for a while, but the details keep changing."
Traditionally, scammers have asked victims to pay for uniforms, background checks, training and work visas. However, the bottom line is the same; they still want people to pay upfront, Dizdul says. While Dizdul would not release statistics, she did say these types of scams have been on the rise in recently.
Dizdul advised job seekers to double-check the authenticity of any job claim. "You can use independent sources to verify if what you are finding in the classifieds is on the up and up," she says. "Try to independently confirm names, street addresses and telephone numbers."
Newspapers themselves recommend approaching their ads with caution. Lorraine Cardinale, recruitment advertising manager at the Post-Gazette says there are safeguards to avoid frauds, but none of them are foolproof.
"We're not the police," Cardinale says. "We have to operate on good faith. But there are things that tip us off and we're able to prevent this. This is something we want to avoid. It's also a big loss for us." While the newspaper was paid for the advertisement, scam ads could seriously damage the newspaper's reputation with both customers and readers.
Cardinale says people should exercise caution and confirm as much about a company as possible. She says the account for this company is no longer active because the paper pulled it.
"If the billing information is legitimate, we typically don't find out until somebody reports it," she says.
"You should never pay for a job. If anyone ever asks for money upfront, it's definitely a scam," Cardinale adds.
As for Wolfe, he's still looking for work, but he is at least a bit wiser for the experience. "They almost got me," Wolfe says. "I really need a job, and this seemed like my opportunity to have a great job.
"I don't want to sound cliché ... but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."