Staying Safe as a Virtual Assistant: How to Spot a Scam

It seems like everyone knows someone who’s been scammed online. I’ve definitely seen my share of job scams! They’re a dime a dozen when you first start searching for clients online.

Scams don’t need to ruin your online experience if you know what to look out for. Scammers are clever sometimes, but you can stay one step ahead of them and weed out the fakes from the legitimate job postings.

Here are some of the most common online job scams I’ve seen:

The gift card scam

One of the most common and notorious scams is the gift card scam.

The scammer advertises an online job at a decent hourly rate, and might even go through the trouble of an interview process! Although the interview will probably be conducted over text messages, and it may seem rushed or just odd in general.

Next thing you know, the “employer” is asking you to buy gift cards for their clients, at YOUR expense.

You can buy gift cards online nowadays, so you should be wondering why they need you to go to a physical store and buy them. Of course they’ll just steal the codes for the gift cards, spend the money themselves and never pay you back for it.

In general, never do any purchasing for clients on your own dime, unless you’ve worked with them a long time and know that they’ll compensate you for it. If you need to buy something to set it up for a client (for example web hosting if you design websites), make sure you charge them in advance for it.

If you’ve only known somebody for a day and they’re already asking you to run out and buy things for them, that’s a giant red flag.

Paying by check

Often scammers promise you they’ll send a check, but it never arrives. Or they send a fake check that either bounces right away – or later after you’ve already spent it. In the meantime, they ask you to pay for things out of your own pocket. That’s always a bad idea! (You should never have to spend money to get or do a job!)

One variation of this is asking you to purchase all kinds of office equipment, saying they’ll send you a check for it later.

Personally I don’t see why checks should be used at all anymore in the year 2022! Some businesses still do, but they’re so slow to arrive in the mail. And they can bounce when the person paying doesn’t have enough funds in their account. When they do, the bank charges you a fee for it.

Even aside from the possibility of being scammed, checks are a pain in the butt. It makes so much more sense to use payment processors like Paypal or Stripe. They’re fast, easy, and harder to abuse. Or you can invoice your clients through your accounting software.

Money laundering and re-shipping scams

These are the most insidious scams, because they can get you into a lot of trouble on top of wasting your time and money.

In the case of money laundering, the scammer does send you money, but they ask you to forward part of your paycheck to someone else. It really doesn’t make sense – there’s no reason the scammer can’t just pay both people themselves!

They use you to launder money, and make you an accessory to the crime. (Money laundering is when you send money different places to try to conceal where it came from.)

Or they hire you to receive, repackage and re-ship items. Unfortunately these items were probably stolen, or purchased online using stolen credit cards (or gift cards!) Again, they offer to pay you the shipping fees you spent by check, but the check bounces. That’s why it’s important to make sure your clients’ payments have cleared before spending anything on their behalf.

It’s almost always best to avoid online “jobs” where you re-package and re-ship items.

Ads on Facebook Marketplace

If a client hires you to post ads on Marketplace for them using your personal Facebook account (or a new Facebook account you create), it’s a scam.

They’ve most likely already been banned by Facebook from posting their own scam ads, so they need to use your account instead. (And get you banned as well.)

If a client is legitimate, they can post ads through their own official Facebook page. They don’t need to use yours.

Multi-level Marketing

While this isn’t a strictly online business problem, it’s still worth mentioning here.

Multi level marketing is when you get paid to recruit other people to sell products. Often you get paid a commission for recruiting them, and even a commission on the products they sell.

Investopedia says MLM’s can be a legitimate marketing strategy, and they aren’t illegal, but a lot of people consider them sketchy.

A pyramid scheme is a bit similar, but illegal. That’s where you need to buy a significant amount of product before you can start selling it.

The business model isn’t really to sell the product to customers – it’s to sell you a bunch of junk that you’re now stuck with!

Training Scams

In this scam, a company tells you to pay for their training course to get the job they’re advertising. Unfortunately this exists in the traditional job market too, not just online!

The “job” either turns out to be super short term, or it doesn’t exist at all.

Or you may still be competing for the job with other people who took the training course – you’re not guaranteed to get it after the training.

The idea is more to get you to pay for the training than to hire you!

You should NOT have to pay money to work with a client! It’s fine if a client wants to train you on their processes – that’s normal at the beginning of a working relationship. But you wouldn’t have to pay for it.

Non-Paying clients

I’m listing this under scams because in my opinion, it totally is a scam! The job itself may be legitimate but the client tells you they “might” pay you if they’re happy with your work. Or they ask for an unpaid trial period.

Many new freelancers deal with clients like this in the beginning before they work up the nerve to say no! It should be obvious that these clients have no intention of paying you at all, and they just want free work. Not only will they not pay but they’ll insult your work to try to justify it. No fun all around!

If you have any doubts that the client may not pay, make sure to get an up front deposit, and don’t release the final work to them until they pay the invoice. In industries like design and photography, it’s common to send a low quality, watermarked screenshot as proof of work for this reason.

How to avoid scam jobs

  • Get to know clients on social media before working with them, or find clients through your network.
  • If you have a website, let potential clients sign up through your inquiry form. This will automatically rule out anyone who isn’t serious about working with you.
  • Hop on an audio or video call with your potential client to make sure they’re “real”. It’s easy to fake an address, business name or photo, but it’s hard to fake a video!
  • Never do any shopping for a client on your own dime, especially if you just met them.

If you offer services like travel bookings and online shopping, there are a few ways to handle purchasing for your clients. You could find products for them online and send them the links you found where they can purchase the items themselves.

Facebook and other online job boards are particularly full of scammers! That’s why I always recommend creating your own website so that serious clients can contact you.

When you start your own business – rather than applying to these online job ads – you’ll find people treating you more like a business person. In general, the relationship is more equal than an employer-employee arrangement.

Even aside from avoiding scams, you have a lot more control over the process that way. You can charge what you like, send new inquiries questionnaires to make sure they’re serious about working with you, and require payment up front – rather than just hoping you’ll get paid when you’re finished!

Related: Steps to Becoming a Virtual Assistant: The 2022 In-Depth Guide

How to spot a scammer

Some job postings don’t seem like they’re written by a human at all, or they have major spelling mistakes, so those ones are easy to spot.

There are some smart scammers too, though!

Some create social profiles that look legitimate, with family photos (that they stole from someone else!), and even have friends and followers.

Or they hack a real social profile and take it over to promote their scam.

I’ve seen scam ads on Facebook mention a legitimate business to make it seem like they own it. So make sure you thoroughly scope out potential employers or clients.

These are some dead giveaways that it’s probably a scam:

  • They quickly want to move your conversation to a different messaging app where you can’t report them, like Telegram.
  • They don’t want to hop on video or voice chat with you.
  • They write you a novel about themselves before you’ve had any back-and-forth conversation.
  • Often they claim to have some kind of background or disability that prevents them from communicating with you over video (it has to be over text!) and makes you feel bad for them.
  • They have a brand new social media account with few pictures and posts. Typically businesses that are ready to hire will already have established social media accounts.
  • They don’t have a company e-mail address (though many small businesses still use a Gmail address, so consider the other factors as well) and aren’t messaging you through an official social media account.
  • They want to control and lead the conversation and don’t like you asking too many questions.

If the job sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

  • The pay and benefits sound amazing but there’s no actual description of the tasks you’ll be doing.
  • They offer you an awesome sounding job without any interview process at all.
  • They ask for personal details like your banking and identity details. (Never give out your social security number online!)
  • They try to rush you through an “interview” process.
  • They want you to pay for something before they’ve even paid you.

Conclusion

It probably seems like there are tons of online job scams – and there are! But after you get used to working online, you’ll be able to spot them with no trouble! If in doubt, always send the job posting to a few friends (especially ones who are used to working online) and double check with them. Trust your intuition – if it seems fishy and you just get a “bad feeling” about it, move on!

Have you ever fallen victim to an online job scam? Do you have any advice for avoiding them? Let me know in the comments!