There have always been work-at-home scams, and they’ve always targeted certain groups.

Stay-at-home mothers, the elderly, disabled and undereducated job seekers face difficulties navigating the traditional job market. Working from home saves on costs for clothing, gasoline, lunches and childcare. The current economic climate is especially hard on those groups, and the Internet makes it very easy to reach out to them.

Christine Durst, co-founder of Staffcentrix, screens up to 5,000 online job offers every week and rates them on her Web site. According to Durst, for every 55 offers for work-at-home jobs on the Internet, 54 are scams.

Such scams prey on desperate, vulnerable people.

The latest scams include mystery shopping and rebate processing. Mystery shopping can be a legitimate job, for which shoppers are paid to visit a business and evaluate service by filling out a report. There are real mystery shopping companies, and most of them belong to the Mystery Shopping Professionals Association. You can visit the MSPA’s Web site to see which companies are members.

Scammers, on the other hand, require fees to apply, or may ask for a check to be deposited. Part of that money is wired back to them and you keep the rest as payment. You’re told to evaluate customer service when you send the wire. But the problem is that the check is a complex fake and, eventually, will bounce, leaving the depositor holding the bag.

Rebate processing is advertised as a job for which you enter data from handwritten rebate forms into a database. We’ve all sent in rebate forms, and they are, indeed, handwritten, so it sounds legitimate. According to Durst, it was the top scam of 2008. When you apply you pay about $200, but what you receive is an opportunity to sell products or services for a commission. If you don’t sell anything, you can’t even make that $200 back.

The oldest work-at-home scam is envelope stuffing, which originated during the Great Depression. Basically, money is sent up front to get started, and then you are to be paid so much per envelope. What you receive is information on how to sucker other people into sending you money to get started with stuffing envelopes – a scam that recruits scammers.

Pyramid scams are big online. A chain e-mail asks you to send money to people at the top of the list and add your name to the bottom before sending the chain e-mail to more people. The claim is that, eventually, you will receive lots of money. The lists are manipulated, however, so that only those who originally appear at the top ever make any money. Remember that you can be prosecuted for participating because pyramid scams are illegal.

Craft assembly jobs promise to pay assemblers per toy or craft item created. You purchase a starter kit and, once the pieces are assembled and returned, you’ll learn that your assembly does not meet specifications. In fact, you never will meet the specifications because the company really is in the business of selling the starter kits and you’re left with no market for the assembled pieces.

Medical billing work-at-home scams also have been around for years. Here, you purchase software and a list of potential clients. The software is overpriced and the list is worthless. There are some other variations on this scam: Sometimes you are invited to attend a seminar at a hotel, where you are required to buy software and computers, and attend expensive training sessions. The practice involves a lot of pressure, but sounds wonderful to someone who is desperate to make some money.

I’ve seen a similar scam for which a retiree travelled out of state, spent tens of thousands of dollars for software and training and never made any money, despite some real effort. That training was in starting a consulting business to help people in mortgage foreclosure keep their homes.

Scammers are infinitely creative. Just remember this: You never should have to pay to get a job. Unbelievable offers are scams. You can always consult the Better Business Bureau to check out a company’s status.

What if you really do want to work at home? Is it hopeless? My suggestion is to apply for specific jobs for which you are qualified and which can be done at home. As part of the interview process, inquire about working from home. It’s time-consuming, but you won’t have to weed out any scams.

How many employers advertise their openings based on where you report to work? None. They advertise by job title or qualifications.

By Gina Bliss
The Daily Record of Rochester (Rochester, NY)

Gina Bliss, CPA, CFE, is a senior manager at Rotenberg & Co. LLP, Certified Public Accountants and Business Consultants, who specializes in internal audit, fraud audit and forensic accounting.