Sitting at her laptop hunting for a part-time job, University of California, Davis student Isra Sebiaa spotted an "office help" ad that sounded incredibly appealing.
Posted by an "international business consultant" in Davis, the would-be employer was frequently overseas and needed help running errands, paying bills, mailing packages and doing shopping. The pay: $150 a week for 10 hours of work, plus mileage and expenses.
"It sounded perfect," recalls Sebiaa, a senior majoring in political science. She immediately applied online, sending her resume, a crisp cover letter and a request for a face-to-face interview.
To Sebiaa's delight, she was "hired" instantly. And that's when the job description suddenly became something very different.
Her unseen boss, supposedly in Sweden meeting clients, emailed Sebiaa's first assignment: She'd receive a $1,100 check, to be deposited into her own account. After deducting $150 as the first week's "pay," she was to wire the remainder to an address in the Philippines.
"As soon as she told me that, I knew it was like things I've read about Craigslist scams," said the 21-year-old. "It smelled really fishy."
Officially known as a "payment-transfer" or Nigerian-check scheme, it's a familiar scam that has seduced many adult job seekers for years. Now it's trickling down to college kids.
"We've had about 10 this fall alone," said Marci Kirk Holland, manager of the UC Davis Internship and Career Center.
At California State University in Sacramento, a "handful" of phony ads have popped up in recent years, said university Career Center Director Beth Merritt Miller.
The ruses vary. In some cases, students are told they're hired, then informed that the "boss" has taken ill on vacation and needs funds wired to his account. The students are assured that they'll be reimbursed, plus expenses.
In most cases, students get suspicious and refuse to participate. But not always.
Recently, another student reported to UC Davis authorities that she'd lost $2,000, after her "employer" -- supposedly stricken with a heart attack -- asked her to deposit two money orders and send the proceeds to a Philippines address. The money orders proved fraudulent, and now she's on the hook to pay back the bank.
At a time when college costs are accelerating and part-time hiring is stuck, this type of online scam is particularly troubling.
"Students are having a hard enough time finding a job and are among the last who should be victimized. It's a tragedy when anyone trying to find a job becomes a victim," said Sylvia Kundig, an attorney in the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's San Francisco office.
Last year, foreign money and counterfeit check scams were among the FTC's top 12 consumer complaints. "It's a perennial scam," said FTC spokeswoman Monica Vaca.
Campus career officials at UC Davis and CSUS say they work hard to vet the hundreds of ads that appear daily on their own websites. The bad ones, they note, represent a very small slice of the daily postings; fewer than a dozen among 3,000 current listings at UC Davis, for instance.
Most of the ads that slip through, they say, are those sent via NACElink, an online job-posting service that provides access to national companies that want to reach students on multiple college campuses. Efforts to reach a NACElink representative were unsuccessful.
After a few phony ads first appeared on the CSUS online job board, Miller said, her staff ramped up its vetting process of the site's 500 to 1,000 daily postings. If something doesn't add up, they check business licenses or ask the employer to provide verification.
But the FTC and others say the online perpetrators are hard to trace and shut down.
How to avoid getting scammed? When an unseen, online employer makes a tantalizing job offer, use common sense and do some Internet digging.
It's easy for a con artist's company to have a website, or even be incorporated. "That's not a badge of legitimacy," said the FTC's Kundig. "You have to dig below that. ... Google (GOOG) (the company and person's name) and look for complaints. Do some research."
Anyone who's encountered an online job scam, even if no money was lost, should file an online complaint with the FTC (www.ftc.gov). "Filling out that form is our first step in trying to put somebody out of business," said Kundig.
(Contact Claudia Buck at firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)