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Scammers Are Targeting Online Job Seekers Amid Coronavirus Crisis

CHICAGO (CBS) -- In the past three weeks, more than a half million people in Illinois have joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Many are sheltering in place at home - turning to the internet to find work during this pandemic.

But as CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman discovered every job offer online may not be what it appears. Scammers are also going online and finding vulnerable people to rip off.

"They are more sophisticated than ever, and that is just unconscionable," said Chris O'Reilly.

He learned that the hard way, after he was laid off from his job as a website writer Last month.

"It was really tough," O'Reilly said.

So he went to the job site called Upwork, which says it uses "multiple means to verify that freelancers and agencies are who they say."

"The job that I found – the headline said urgent need for a medical proofreader, O'Reilly said. "Being that I was in need of an urgent position, those words grabbed me right away."

As instructed, he completed an application, sent his résumé, and participated in an online job interview. He was thrilled to get back a job offer and contract bearing a logo for Sanofi, a pharmaceutical company, offering him $50,000 a year.

"For a proofreading, writing, editing position –that's like liquid gold right now," O'Reilly said.

He knew Sanofi had been in the news lately because the company makes a drug for malaria that researchers are studying as a possible COVID-19 treatment.

"I was eager to get going hopefully to make a difference in communicating reliable information for how to help people dealing with COVID-19," O'Reilly said.

But first, he was told to buy computer equipment for the job by depositing a $3,000 check supposedly from Sanofi in his bank account to pay for it.

"It was extremely legitimate looking," O'Reilly said.

It was so convincing, the scammers talked O'Reilly into providing them his personal financial information before the bank learned the check was counterfeit.

"Bottom line, it turned out they had already emptied your bank account and gotten the money?" Zekman asked.

"Yes," O'Reilly said. "It was a scam."

Now Steve Bernas, the head of the Chicago Better Business Bureau, says complaints about such scams are increasing.

"Especially now because of the COVID-19 outbreak," Bernas said. "There are millions that are in unemployment lines right now and they are all looking for a source of income. Of course this is a dream come true for the scammer."

And it's a nightmare for victims like O'Reilly.

"By federal law, the bank has to clear the funds in three days, but they have up to 30 days to determine a check is fraudulent or counterfeit," Bernas said. "And they come back to you and you have to repay those funds."

And that's exactly what happened to O'Reilly

So for the promise of a $50,000-a-year job, O'Reilly wound up in the hole for $3,000 and no job.

"This has been one of the most traumatic days of my life," O'Reilly said.

And it should have been one of the happiest, arranging his marriage in July.

"It's a giant gut punch to us" O'Reilly said, "because we need all the money we can get,"

A spokeswoman for Upwork said the company has extra security precautions with staff on duty 24/7 to monitor for fraudulent activities. But job seekers have to stay on the platform for all of their communications and negotiations with a company to take advantage of it.

The spokeswoman said both O'Reilly and whomever he was dealing with did not follow that instruction. But the company has now suspended the person who posted job from the jobsite.

To protect yourself the BBB says you should always check to make sure the company listed as posting the job really has an opening.

You should also look out if they ask for your social security number, your mothers maiden name or your banking.

"All this information they can use to steal your identity," Bernas said.

And alarm bells should go off if they send you a check to deposit and buy something, then ask you to send all or some of it back.

"You have to do your homework; your due diligence," Bernas said. "Otherwise, you'll be duped," Bernas said.

CBS 2 is committing to Working For Chicago, connecting you every day with the information you or a loved one might need about the jobs market, and helping you remove roadblocks to getting back to work.

We'll keep uncovering information every day to help this community get back to work, until the job crisis passes. CBS 2 has several helpful items right here on our website, including a look at specific companies that are hiring, and information from the state about the best way to get through to file for unemployment benefits in the meantime.

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