Side hustles have become the only way for the underemployed to survive. But it also renders them vulnerable to predatory con artists.
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Job scams aren’t new. Before the pandemic, work-from-home scams could be regularly found in newspapers, on fliers, and on the internet. But online schemes that prey on unemployed people have greatly increased since the pandemic’s onset in March 2020.
Online forums, social media, and job boards are now a fixture of the search process. Even before the novel coronavirus, roughly 70 percent of job seekers used online job sites such as Indeed, Monster, and Craigslist in order to find work. Scammers have capitalized on this traffic by posting false or misleading listings using sophisticated methods that often elude content moderation.
For workers who were used to precarious employment, a job that promised predictable, decent wages and safe working conditions—in other words, a good job—seemed like a dream come true.
In many ways, the rise of scam jobs is simply the logical outcropping of a growing individualization of responsibility and risk that has become especially prevalent in the United States. Beginning in the 1970s, this “risk shift” has led to an insecurity culture, in which workers participate in a “one-way honor system,” continuing to put forth their best effort and “moving on” without a fuss to the next “opportunity.” As a result, workers increasingly find themselves engaged in precarious work, which includes temporary, contract-based work and involuntary part-time work that is often insecure, provides limited economic and social benefits, and is covered by few labor law or regulatory protections. Additionally, workers in the U.S. often take an individualized approach to navigating periods of unemployment, which has negative consequences for worker stress and anxiety.
As the standard employment relationship has deteriorated and the insecurity culture has expanded, workers constantly compete for jobs in a “spot market” that resembles a trading floor and, since the early 2000s, increasingly utilizes online platforms for job matching. Labor historian Louis Hyman argues that the expansion of Craigslist in the late 1990s led the migration of job advertisements from newspapers to the internet and paved the way for platforms like Upwork and TaskRabbit to connect consumers and job seekers through one-off labor transactions.
While workers generally tried to protect themselves from job scams by disengaging from the scammer, ongoing worker protective measures also affected job-seeking efforts. Some workers simply applied for more jobs, arguing that it was a numbers game. However, for most workers, the sheer ubiquity of fraudulent job listings meant that they continually ran the risk of being ensnared in one, and this affected their willingness to continue job searching.
During the pandemic, job scams grew exponentially, transforming from an occasional hassle that workers may experience to a growing problem that is also increasingly experienced by college-educated workers. The scammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their strategies by including real company names and logos, and by advertising on reputable job boards, in an effort to ensnare the unsuspecting.
For one worker, it wasn’t enough to simply detect the scam—she also wanted to fight back. Rachel, a 32-year-old white woman, was an unemployed ice cream shop worker and TaskRabbit assistant. Although she wasn’t actively job searching, she had left her TaskRabbit app on, set to full availability since “work’s been slow for everyone.” When she received a task request to “organize a business plan,” it quickly caught her attention.
“From the very beginning, I needed to know more about the task. That’s very common, that people just write a tiny, little description, can’t be bothered. You’re obviously very busy if you’re hiring someone to just do a little bit of work for you,” she said. “He needed help doing a business plan, developing an idea around mask fashion, and then his next text was ‘Need a woman’s finesse.’ As soon as he said ‘woman,’ I knew it was … I’m not an idiot.”
She asked how long the task would take. “The client said, ‘Probably a few hours. As a thank-you, I can do some online shopping for you,’” Rachel recounted, before explaining, “That’s the common thing that happens online with, I don’t know, I guess cam girls, and they’ll have an Amazon list. I’m very out-of-the-loop with this stuff, but it’s the oldest profession. Things haven’t changed that much. Just the intensity this guy really wanted me to get to his apartment was alarming. It was very alarming.”
Describing herself as a big fan of Chris Hansen’s To Catch a Predator, a reality television show about undercover sting operations targeting potential sexual predators, Rachel accepted the gig.
“He wanted me to come to his apartment, asking me if I liked some lingerie very quickly into the conversation. The job was that he needed just a female’s advice for his mask that his company was designing … I was like, “I feel like I know the limits to what I can do and not do,” and accepted the job and did what I normally would do with a job, played it a little bit more innocent. We were texting right away. He asked me if I could not come to do the job tomorrow, it was around maybe 7:00 or 8:00, if I could go there tonight. He would get me an Uber.”
She demurred, insisting that she could get her own Uber and asking for $150 via Venmo up front. “I felt like a cam girl, like I was trying to think like that,” she explained. Money in hand, along with screenshots of the conversation, she reported the client to TaskRabbit, forwarding the content of the messages for good measure.
For the forgotten jobless, the lack of access to the status of “officially unemployed” can lead to job search desperation, increasing the likelihood that they will be exposed to job scams. But even officially unemployed workers run the risk of encountering scam jobs as they juggle the competing demands of polyemployment and the restrictions of unemployment assistance.
When the only “employers” that seem to be hiring are the scammers, an unemployed worker’s job search can become all that more demoralizing. Even more depressing is when the elements of a good job—such as a secure income and hours and job training—elements that used to be much more prevalent for earlier generations— become signs that a specific job is “too good to be true.” Unsurprisingly, some workers simply admitted defeat, taking a break from their job search with the logic that maybe they would have more luck in the future—an activity that could backfire, since the longer workers remained unemployed, the less likely they were to return to a comparable position and pay. Additionally, the internalization of risk and the need to be alert for possible scams could cause applicants to shy away from legitimate jobs out of fear that the job poster might be attempting to steal their identity or information, or to otherwise ensnare the unwary.
Excerpted and adapted from Side Hustle Safety Net: How Vulnerable Workers Survive Precarious Times by Alexandrea J. Ravenelle, published by University of California Press. © 2023 by Alexandrea J. Ravenelle.
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