How to Spot a 'Work From Home' Scam


“Local mom makes $6,795/month part-time!” How? Easy! Posting links on websites. Helping charities raise money. Signing up friends. And really, it is possible — but then, so is winning the lottery this week.

Follow that ‘mom’ offer (how did they know what town I live in?) and you’ll find yourself on a page that explains how posting carefully crafted links around the Web can enable you to cash in on a cut of thousands of transactions — as an affiliate marketer. That’s not untrue. Get a friend to buy something from Amazon through your links and you can earn a small percentage of the transaction. Of course, to earn $6,795 a month that way, you would need more like 400,000 friends to buy something from Amazon. But click around for a while, and you will ultimately find the real point of the elaborate website: pay $40 a month (or $300 or a year!) and someone will teach you how to get 400,000 paying friends.

With 5% of Americans stuck in part-time jobs they wish were full-time, it’s no surprise that millions of Americans would be interested in work-at-home jobs to supplement their incomes. Stay-at-home-parents, the unemployed struggling in between jobs, small entrepreneurs hoping to get ahead — the potential target for work-at-home advertisements is enormous. That’s why you see the ads EVERYWHERE — all over Google, your email inbox, and even stapled to telephone poles around your town.

Why These Scams Work

Sure, most of these jobs are a scam. The vast majority are. But like all good scams, there’s a reason work-from-home ploys continue to survive — there’s a grain of truth in the offers. Heck, more than a grain of truth. Yes, you can make money working from home. It’s just very, very hard, and not at all lucrative unless you are also a scam participant. But it can be done. And that’s why the scams are so persuasive.

Christine Durst runs the website, where she picks through thousands of scams in an attempt to find legitimate work-from-home jobs. She says for every one real opportunity, there are 60 scams.

Not great odds. Better than winning the lottery. Barely.

What distinguishes a “real” work at home opportunity? That’s easy. Low pay, very hard work, and nothing you would really want to do long-term.

Even the “real” paying jobs often rely on a little sleight of hand. Durst says the most popular offering right now involves link posting.

“The real con comes after you’ve made the initial purchase — usually about $97 — and they call to try to upsell you with expensive and worthless coaching and training programs,” she said. “I’ve met people who have lost thousands of dollars on these schemes.”

Other popular offers involve helping charities raise money. One offer I read said (rather cynically) that fundraising is a $6 billion business.

“We’d like to show you how to start a profitable career in this tremendous industry,” it read. The example offered: get a high school football team to buy $9,000 worth of fundraising product, and you’ll earn $800 in commissions. The ad continues by claiming that one brand new distributor earned “$7,200 by simply making a few phone calls.” Want to find out how? Pay $367 to become a “gold distributor.” (Not only should that make wary of joining a work-at-home program, but it should give you pause before you buy that next fundraising product sold for your local school.)

It’s important to note that these work-from-home propositions aren’t fake — people do make real money working with these kinds of firms. They just aren’t what they seem, and you don’t want to be a sucker. In the end, most of these sites only offer to help you make money the old-fashioned way — by turning your friends into even bigger suckers. Forget selling charity products or products with links. You’ll make real money by selling training memberships to other people you know. In other words, you have to be in on it, too.

Don’t do that. It’s an easy way to lose friends. And in your desperation to finally close a sale and make back some of the money you’ve invested, you just might do something that is misleading or deceptive and end up with a legal problem. Remember, the folks who create these products are very careful and precise in how they word their offers, and often have lawyers keeping them on the right side of the law. You don’t.

So what’s a legitimate work-from-home job? Writing, for one. Plenty of folks make $10 or $20 an hour writing blog posts. That’s hard work. Virtual assistants make about that much, too, doing annoying detail work for professionals like scheduling appointments. Translation services can be mildly lucrative, but you need a pretty specialized skill to do that. There’s even money to be made taking surveys, though we’re really talking pennies.

Tips for Spotting Scams

So how do you spot a scam? Your best rule of thumb is this: Anytime you have to pay money before you make money, you aren’t applying for a real job.

Durst says some ads carry tell-tale signs they are scams. If “work from home” appears in the title of the ad, for example, it’s probably a come-on. So are claims that no experience or resume are required, or ads that provide no job description at all. Finally, the most obvious tip-off of all: bikinis.

“Palm Trees, Mansions, Beaches & Bikinis,” Durst says. “If the ad you’re looking at features palm trees, a mansion and a Ferrari, it’s probably a scam. Successful scammers often bag their prey by dangling enticing things in front of them – much like kidnappers do.”

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Bob Sullivan is author of the New York Times best-sellers Gotcha Capitalism and Stop Getting Ripped Off. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and hundreds of other publications. He has appeared as a consumer advocate and technology expert numerous times on NBC's TODAY show, NBC Nightly News, CNBC, NPR's Marketplace, Terry Gross' Fresh Air, and various other radio and TV outlets. He helped start and wrote there for nearly 20 years, most of it penning the consumer advocacy column The Red Tape Chronicles. See more at