Gina Walker is a struggling 23-year-old mother of two living in Bay St. Louis, Miss., an area still recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Her husband wakes up at 3 a.m. every day to work at nearby Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, and gets home 12 hours later. So to help ease her husband's burden, she did something about 65 million Americans are doing every month, according to comScore Media Metrix – she turned to an online job listing site.
While that led to several work-from-home jobs, it also put her squarely in the sights of online crooks running an international con -- a con that every online job seeker should know about.
In Walker's case, she placed a "work wanted" ad at Odesk.com, which helped her find part-time, work-at-home jobs to supplement her husband's income. Typically, she requests $7.78 an hour for remote data entry, virtual assistant work, or customer service.
So it wasn't unusual in April when a man calling himself Justin Hugh Jones contacted her and asked her to be his virtual assistant. Jones said he was doing work for an international fashion marketing firm named Mandi Lennard.
"You are what we'll call our virtual boss," said the man, who called himself dhugh91 in a chat room, according to a transcript provided by Walker. He then described a set of duties meant to make life easier for models and other vendors who travel frequently around the globe.
The headline unemployment in Mississippi is 10.7, even worse than the national rate of 9.7 -- so Walker wasn't about to ignore the opportunity. Still, she had a couple of questions.
First, the man from the marketing firm contacted her directly -- not through the ODesk.com system. And second, she was curious about her actual day-to-day work. Jones (dhugh91 in this transcript) was very interested in her printer, and gave her specific instructions to buy special ink and paper.
dhugh91: like I said you'll need to get some supplies from office max
dhugh91: you said there is one close by
ginawalker911: Yes office max and office depotd
hugh91: let me give you links to the supply
dhugh91: here is a link to the universal ink that you'll need
dhugh91: check it out and let me know
dhugh91: whats your printer's model
dhugh91: Now here is the check paper
Walker had some initial misgivings, and discussed the job at length with her husband. But she was impressed when she did some research on Mandi Lennard. In the end, she accepted.
Jones' initial requests were small. A few days after she "got the job," he asked her for help keeping a French photographer happy.
dhugh91: We just got a request from our contact in South Africa
dhugh91: One of the French photographer requested we got him some Alcohol
dhugh91: for his mini launch
dhugh91: Its called NUVO
ginawalker911: Oh okay
dhugh91: i found some online
dhugh91: so i was wondering if we could send you the funds
dhugh91: and you'll use your credit card in buying them
dhugh91: once you get them
dhugh91: you can now send it to them in South Africa via DHL
ginawalker911: Okay, is there any particular reason why you would like me to send them?
ginawalker911: I don't mind just curious.
dhugh91: No reason
dhugh91: just because i am very busy
dhugh91: and you are my assitant
Then, she received a $50 payment via MoneyGram to pay for the printer supplies. The money arrived without incident, leading Walker to believe that Jones was legitimate.
Soon, the requests turned to money. She was told to visit a local Wal-mart and receive funds at a MoneyGram location, then wire that money using a nearby Western Union kiosk. She was instructed to perform four such transfers in short order, and to keep 10 percent of each transaction to cover her costs. The money arrived from U.S. cities like Atlanta, but she was instructed to send it to a city in South Africa, to a man named Taofeek Olalere.
Then, on May 6, Jones told her to print out a check for $1,300, deposit the money into her own account, and then draw a check off her account and mail it to Taofeek Olalere.
Walker hit a snag, however, when she deposited the money. Her bank told her the funds would be held for seven days, pending a check for fraud.
'There would be felony charges'
A few days later, she received a phone call an irate woman in Atlanta. The initial check was drawn on her account, she said, and when she called the bank to complain a representative gave her Walker's contact information.
"She never heard of this person and never authorized any such check. She said she was contacting the police and there would be felony charges brought against me," a frantic Walker wrote to msnbc.com on May 23. "I don't know what is going to happen and am really scared. I have never been in trouble before, I have no record at all, not even a speeding ticket. I am afraid of going to jail, I have two little girls to take care of, they depend on me."
Walker was caught up in a relatively common "money mule" scheme. Overseas criminals who steal credit card and bank account information have one serious hurdle to overcome before they can make their easy money -- they have to figure out a way to move cash from a U.S. account to an overseas account without raising suspicion. They often do this by involving an unwitting middle man, or money mule, and passing the money through his or her hecking account. It's far less suspicious for Walker to send a $1,200 check to Africa than for a criminal with an African Internet address to request online payment through a bank Web site.
There's nothing new about Internet-based money mule scams -- they've been around for at least 10 years. What's new is a persistent national unemployment rate that's been hovering near double-digits for the past year.
Tabatha Marshall tracks such online scams at a Web site named PhishBucket.org, which is devoted to stopping online employment fraud. She's seen the scams grow more sophisticated and the cover stories more believable, even as the ranks of the unemployed grow more desperate.
"I think of Phishbucket as a barometer of what's going on, and it's getting exponentially worse," she said. Typically, money mules invoke the name of a trusted brand such as Mandi Lennard to give their proposals an air of legitimacy. Her site now catalogs this kind of "brand identity theft" against 2,185 companies. "And I have 2,000 unread e-mails in my inbox I still have to go through," she added.
Online job seekers are particularly vulnerable because they are obliged to publish their e-mail addresses and other personal information about themselves in order to be attractive to prospective employers. That gives scammers plenty of material to work with ("I see you live in Oregon and you're looking to get into the fashion industry. ... We might be a great match!") And e-mail filters or other tools that might help identify scams are useless against many job scam solicitations precisely because virtual job seekers are constantly scanning their inbox -- or even their junk mail folder -- for that one piece of e-mail that might bring good news.
At ODesk, scammers must be a bit more persistent. Users can't see each other's personal information until they "agree to an interview" with each other, according to company spokeswoman Erica Benton. Still, as Walker's case demonstrates, that's hardly an insurmountable hurdle. She believes the scammer got her information after she responded to an ad for a customer service assistant.
Marshall is a member of the Anti-Phishing Working Group, a banking industry trade group that works to fight Web fraud. In a report she prepared for the group(pdf) last fall, she revealed that money mule scams had more than tripled from 2007 to 2009. Meanwhile, other frauds, such as pyramid schemes, reshipping scams or online auction fraud, had remained relatively flat.
Law enforcement authorities have taken notice. The FBI issued a warning about increased money mule activity in November.
Still, that warning was little help to Walker, who was more focused on helping her husband keep food on the table than evaluating global fraud trends.
She spent a couple of hours on the phone with the victim whose checking account funded the fraudulent transfer, and shared all her notes and chat logs.
"She was understanding," Walker said. "I sent her everything right while I was on the phone with her."
She no longer fears prosecution, and Jones has disappeared into the vacuum of the Internet. She figures the episode cost her about $500, despite the "commission" payments. The bad check caused her account to be overdrawn, and she was forced to pay about $150 in overdraft charges. She's also out money she spent on a new printer and other supplies Jones directed her to buy.
Now she's back to looking for $7.78-per-hour data entry jobs online, but with a renewed sense of caution about virtual job hunting.
"It's just important that you do a lot of research before you sign up with anyone," she said. "Make sure you check them out."
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
ODesk offered three tips for online job seekers:
* Never pay up front for the privilege of working
* Never go outside the system to arrange for payment (this is similar to advice that eBay gives its users)
* If possible, avoid giving personal information