Anatomy of a Job Scam

I almost got caught up in a job scam recently. The funny thing is, this isn’t the first time, and it was pretty similar to what happened to me years ago.

I’ll go through the whole story, and along the way I’ll point out the things that seemed suspicious. Hopefully this will help people avoid this type of scam.

I had recently gotten laid off, so while I was updating my résumé I expected to get job-related e-mails.

This was one of them:

From: Kevin Nicholas <[redacted]>
Subject: CALJOBS

I'm Kevin Nicholas from [redacted]. Your resume was seen on CalJob APPLICATION, and we feel you would be an asset performing Online Data Entry (Work from Home position). Reply if interested for the job details. Starting pay is $30.00/hr.

Kevin Nicholas,

(CalJOBS is California’s state-run job site, and workers in the state are required to post a résumé there to receive unemployment benefits.)

Suspicious: This person was contacting me about a position that doesn’t align with my experience. This could mean that a scammer is sending out lots of e-mails to everyone they can find, hoping someone will take the bait. On the other hand, it could be someone who needs to fill a temporary position that doesn’t require specialized skills.

Mildly suspicious: The e-mail address was a Hotmail address, not a company e-mail address. Legitimate businesses often have company e-mail addresses that match their website, although this isn’t universal. Small- and medium-sized businesses in particular may not have them, so a Hotmail or Gmail address isn’t automatically a scam.

Mildly suspicious: The subject had just the name of the job site, not the position or company name. In my experience, legitimate job opportunities mention the position in the subject line, and the subject lines in the previous job scams I experienced were generic.

At this point it seemed somewhat suspicious, but I figured I’d reply just to see if I could get some sort of temporary job:

From: Philip Chung <>
Subject: Re: CALJOBS

Hi, Kevin.

Thanks for your e-mail. This sounds like a good opportunity and I'd be interested in further details. Could you send a job description, including day-to-day responsibilities and working hours?

Thank you,
Philip Chung

Kevin replied:

From: Kevin Nicholas <[redacted]>
Subject: Re: CALJOBS

Read through, Let me know when you are Done and Willing to Proceed

[job description]

Kevin Nicholas,

To avoid making this too long, I won’t include the full job description here. At first glance the job description seemed pretty standard, with reasonable responsibilities, hours and pay, and information about a training program.

Suspicious: The job description didn’t match what I would expect from a work-from-home position:

  • One of the responsibilities was to “load machines with required input or output media such as paper, cards, disks, tape or Braille media.” Excuse me? Are they going to ship me a bunch of physical media so I can record the contents? Since the initial e-mail said “online data entry,” I’d expect to receive documents electronically.
  • The equipment list included a bunch of office equipment, including a fax machine. Again, this is a work-from-home position, so the office equipment needed to work with physical documents shouldn’t be necessary. Also, I wonder how they’re going to get a fax machine working when I don’t have a landline.

It seems like this job description was just ripped from some generic template description somewhere. (In fact, when I searched for that job responsibility I mentioned before, I found it word for word as part of an occupation description from O*NET. Pretty much all the other responsibilities matched as well.)

This is the point where I started getting seriously suspicious, but I thought I’d keep going to see where it led.

I replied:

From: Philip Chung <>
Subject: Re: CALJOBS


The description seems reasonable and I'm willing to take the position. Since I have some prior planned engagements, I'd be ready to start on [date], although I am available to continue discussing the position and making the necessary arrangements.

(That last part was actually true; it wasn’t a stalling tactic or anything like that. If this somehow did turn out to be a legitimate job opportunity I figured I should be upfront about when I could start.)

Kevin replied:

From: Kevin Nicholas <[redacted]>
Subject: CALJOBS


You have been selected for our online Screening Interview on Microsoft Teams on [date]. 08:00am PST or Anytime you want.

Download Microsoft Teams from your Phone Mobile App store and sign up for a teams account using your Phone number or email and send an invite using this link; [redacted]

This is the first step to proceeding further.

Alright, an interview! Well, 8 AM was a little early, but I had to get up early that day anyway so I took it.

Mildly suspicious: The bit about the interview being “anytime you want” seems pretty nonchalant. I wouldn’t expect them to be available for an interview all day.

I sent a message on Teams:

Philip Chung: Good morning. I know I have an interview scheduled regarding a data entry operator position. Would this be through text, voice, or video?

And Kevin responded:

Your interview will be conducted live on here through secure PPTP encrypted text chat. Do you understand?

Suspicious: According to a quick search online, PPTP is an old protocol used for VPNs, which is now considered insecure. I seriously doubt this was the encryption being used, and I suspect this was just technobabble to try to convince people that the interview was legitimate.

Suspicious: The interview was through text only. Every legitimate job opportunity in my experience has had at least one conversation over voice or video call, and all of the previous scams were through text only. I recognize there may be legitimate reasons to conduct a conversation through text, but the dichotomy is striking.

The interview questions seemed reasonable, and I answered honestly.

The end of the interview was when things started to get hairy:

Philip Chung: Do you have any more questions for me?

Kevin Nicholas: You are required to hold online, while we see if you are committed and qualified for this job, as that will determine your consideration stand.

Kevin Nicholas: I need you to stand by and not stay far away from the device you are logged on.

Philip Chung: Sorry, I just wanted to know when I could ask some questions of my own.

Kevin Nicholas: Just so you know I’ll only be available for about 15-30 more minutes.

Kevin Nicholas: Your consideration status is currently available on my desk. Are you ready to know your stand?

Philip Chung: Yes

Suspicious: I didn’t get an opportunity to ask questions of my own, and I had a lot of them. A job interview is (or should be) a place for a candidate to interview an employer as well.

Kevin Nicholas: After a brief review of your skills, experience, qualifications, and your response to the interview questions, Your Knowledge, Skills, and Experience:(Under Valuable Assets)

Consideration Certification: (Confirmed Qualified).

Kevin Nicholas: CONGRATULATION!!!

[Redacted] is pleased to offer you the position of an online Data Entry Clerk, due to your level of experience and communication skills, the company has decided to give you a chance to work for the company. We trust that your knowledge, skills, and experience will be among our most valuable assets.

Highly suspicious: This is where I was sure this was a scam. The acceptance right at the end of the interview was a hallmark of the previous job scams I’ve encountered. I’ve been hired fairly quickly for jobs in the past, but even those took a day or two for a formal offer. To me it seemed pretty clear that they didn’t let me ask my own questions because they just wanted to go through the scam as quickly as possible.

I decided to continue playing along out of curiosity:

Philip Chung: Thank you very much! I’d appreciate if you could send a formal offer letter via e-mail with details such as start date, pay, and a summary of benefits, and I’ll look it over.

Kevin Nicholas: Here’s the hiring form link to fill so an employee profile can be generated for you, and also for your employment letter to be drafted;[redacted]

I reported the form to the site.

Now this is where it gets weird:

Philip Chung: I notice that the form includes references as a required field. Again, I’d need some time to contact my former colleagues, depending on how much information you plan to ask from them.

Kevin Nicholas: Just their name and number.

Philip Chung: I’m sorry, I’m not sure you understand my concern. If you plan to call them I’d need to get their permission and let them know what to expect.

Kevin Nicholas: Okay then.

Kevin Nicholas: Let me know once you are done with the form.

Philip Chung: Okay. Of course I can’t complete the form right away since the references are required.

Kevin Nicholas: Okay, you can fill it now and when you get it you will send it here later.

Philip Chung: Hm, I’m not sure what that means. It’s an online form. Do you want me to just fill it out on my computer keep it there before sending? Can it be saved like that?

Kevin Nicholas: Send it over once you are done with it.

Kevin Nicholas: Once you send it over that’s when will can continue with the interview.

I decided to end it there. Even if this was somehow a legitimate job opportunity, this whole mess regarding the references made it a no-go.

As I’ve pointed out, there were lots of suspicious things about this supposed opportunity, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they still follow a similar pattern after all these years. I hope this helps you recognize a potential job scam if you are ever targeted.

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Philip Chung
Philip Chung
Software Developer