Recognizing scam jobs in Chicago: From job applications to interviews

Recognizing scam jobs in Chicago: From job applications to interviews
Pay attention to more than just the job application to spot scam jobs in Chicago.

I took eight years of Spanish in elementary school, high school and college. But when people ask me am I bilingual and I say "yes," I'm not referring to English and Spanish. I speak "money" fluently.

I subscribe to and devour business magazines and blogs (Kiplinger and Business Insider are my current favorites). I like going to law seminars and business workshops. I don't believe in relying on one form of income, especially with an exorbitant amount of other opportunities. This is why I'm never quite satisfied with just full-time work in Corporate America or freelance work with one client. I always want a backup plan.

But for job seekers of all types (corporate and freelance), scam companies can too easily prey on those who are vulnerable. And too often, you'll look past obvious red alerts. I saw a job posting on LinkedIn week before last that looked like a great way to make additional income.

Lucky me, they responded to my application within 24 hours. Job interviews should be a great learning tool to decide whether you want to work for an organization and potentially create professional development for yourself. Unfortunately, all I learned from this company was how to spot a scam job in Chicago—way later than I should have.

But every company that responds immediately is not a scam.

I can think of at least three full-time, permanent jobs that responded to me and hired me within a week's time. And I worked for those companies for a minimum of two years. However, pay attention to the application. If they're more interested in your personal information than past employment, that may be the first sign that something is a bit different. This application caught my attention because it didn't ask me much about work references.

Pay special attention to both the inside and outside of the building.

I couldn't have been more relieved when I found out the address to this place was near the condo I'd just purchased. That rarely if ever happens, and about 95 percent of the time I've had to purchase a monthly Metra pass or load up on Ventra to travel to work. But when I got to the building, it was in a reasonably busy neighborhood. I noticed graffiti on the door, but as a south side native, that honestly doesn't bother me much. What did bother me was there was no company name on the front door.

Inside, there were couches and chairs leading up to the second floor, a big ping-pong table, several offices and a receptionist's desk. The receptionist had a beautiful, friendly smile and welcomed me there. But I was a bit confused by why the music was blasting so loud from a boombox. A hidden mobile device and a couple of speakers are not only more professional but less gawdy. And while I was filling out an application, a sign fell off the shelf where the radio was. One other interviewee commented on the "bumping" radio, but the receptionist smiled and said, "That happens all the time." In retrospect, her smile reminded me of Betty Gabriel in "Get Out."

Take note of companies bragging about how special you are to be moved to the next round.

The lady who I interviewed with was professional, well-spoken, attractive and seemed like a fun person to work for. I liked her immediately. We even chatted about our favorite dogs. I was sold on how superb this company sounded, especially considering they represented a company I feel extremely passionate about. I got a callback by the end of the day to come in for the second interview. She gushed over how I was one of their top picks and asked if I'd be willing to come in the next day for a full day of orientation. Unpaid.

Be wary of any company that wants you to pay for work or do unpaid training.

This can get a little tricky for interns. While there has been an increase in paid internships and apprenticeships, volunteer work and unpaid internships can still come in handy for your next job search. But beware of a company asking you to do any kind of "work" before you're officially hired. Also, pay attention to applications that ask for your bank routing numbers and/or checking account numbers beforehand. No company needs to know that until you're officially hired. (It gets tricky with freelance companies that more often than not need this information to pay you in their specified time frames. For example, for flat-rate work on Upwork, I get paid every five days after approval of my assignments. For hourly jobs, it's about 10 days later.) But often when hiring managers want you to come in for extended periods, their goal is to see if you fit the culture of the company. Your resume already confirmed you were qualified to do the work.

Pay attention to how permanent the company looks.

The next day when I went in for orientation, I asked to use the restroom. There was no toilet tissue. I went to the receptionist to ask her. She apologized and said they'd just run out. I haven't been a receptionist since 2005, but I know first-hand that keeping supplies in stock is top priority. And when I came in for the orientation, there were a group of about twenty people in a glass office having a stand-up meeting. There's no way in the world any company should have that many people in an office without making sure the bathroom facilities are properly stocked. And there was a Walgreen's directly across the street from this building.

The receptionist said she would run out to get toilet tissue once she got permission to. But then she went back to talking to another applicant—for 30 minutes. Another guy in the lobby offered to go into the men's room to get toilet tissue from there. There was none. There were only paper towels. The receptionist still sat behind the desk, not making any moves. Forty-five minutes later and now dreading that I'd gulped down two mugs of coffee, I told her I'd be back and walked across the street to use the (insanely disgusting) Walgreen's bathroom. When I came back across the street, she greeted me with a cheerful "Welcome back!" Still, she made no move to go outside.

Don't let other employees speak to you in riddles.

Now the skepticism that should've set in the day before is overflowing in my brain now. I'm naturally suspicious of everybody. Blame it on working in journalism and freelancing for law firms for so many years. But sometimes I think I'm overreacting. The training session was set to start. Four applicants were called to meet with several other representatives. We were headed to a workshop to hear them speak to clients about two very well-known clients. I thought it was odd that I was not meeting with the hiring manager first, just random employees.

Then when I asked was this job commission based or salaried, the employee told me, "That's a great question. You have pen and paper, right? When we get to the workshop, I'll explain it all." I asked the same question again. He said, "We can talk about it later." By the time he told our group that we were headed to an el train to go to this workshop, I stopped walking altogether. Usually if you have a follow-up interview at an alternate location, you're given the address ahead of time. You don't all walk as a group to an el stop. I turned to one of the applicants next to me, wished him good luck and politely told the trainer, "Thank you for your time. I'm leaving." The applicant walking alongside me gave me a nod and said, "I'm leaving with you too."

As we both walked away, the second applicant told me he'd been sitting in the lobby looking up "scam jobs" to see if this company was legitimate. And while I did not complete the follow-up interview to confirm it was, all I know for sure is this.

Never work anywhere that doesn't supply toilet tissue.

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