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How to know a job offer isn't a scam: Did a professor really post it? And why the check?

What could be more flattering to a new college grad than spotting an email from a college professor who suddenly has an inside track on a job that seems just perfect?

But not so fast. Unfortunately, you've got to step back these days, no matter how much you need a paycheck, and ask yourself if that professor is really sending you an email. Really? Are you about to make good money? Or lose some?

Crooks who run job scams know how to make anything look convincing. They create the illusion that the check they sent you is real, even though the check shows up long before you work a single day. They gain your trust by impersonating big-name firms or well-known professors. And they know how to use internet or social media ads to promote great – but yes, fake – jobs.

Unfortunately, you might not spot a scam until you've lost hundreds of dollars.

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One of the newer twists involves playing up that college connection.

"We hear about job scams all of the time," said Kati Daffan, assistant director for the Federal Trade Commission's marketing practices division.

"But what we've seen recently is that scammers are using tactics to make their fake jobs look even more realistic. It's particularly difficult to spot these in today's world where many people are looking for jobs online, they're applying for jobs online, they may be interviewing online, and then they may be working remotely."

One newer tactic is to make a very targeted, potentially realistic-looking pitch to an individual or group of people, such as the 2024 graduating class of a particular college or university.

"They may pretend to be a professor and reach out to college students," Daffan said. "Or pretend to be associated with an office of the college."

Much sophisticated online research can be done in advance by scammers to say, perhaps, spot the name of a professor of engineering if they're pitching you a job in manufacturing. Or maybe the professor needs help with some research.

Who wouldn't want to imagine that their work was so impressive in college that their professor noticed and now wants to pass along a tip on a job?

University of Michigan, Oakland University see 'job scams'

"The most common job scams that have been reported to us involve scammers impersonating university faculty or legitimate employers, enticing students with fake internships or remote work opportunities," said Wayne Thibodeau, senior director of the Career and Life Design Center at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

Many times, Thibodeau said, one step in the scheme involves sending a check in advance to the new hire to cover initial technology expenses for setting up a home office. The check is counterfeit. The college student or college grad deposits it but the check doesn't bounce until much later, often after some money has been spent or transferred to scammers for some reason. The consumer often ends up being responsible for any money lost in the scam.

The University of Michigan posted a warning in early May about "highly customized email scams" that target students with internships, jobs and accommodations.

The scammers impersonate actual professors and staff by spoofing their email addresses. And yes, somehow a fake check, perhaps even one that looks like it was issued by the University of Michigan, will come into the picture.

Threat actors tend to target college students particularly aggressively at the end and the beginning of the academic year, according to Sol Bermann, chief information security officer and executive director of information assurance at the University of Michigan.

Campus communities across the country, Bermann said, have seen an uptick in job scams and other scams aimed at students in the past two to three years. Spear phishing emails in the past might try to sound credible by using the name of the president of the university, maybe requesting the recipient buy gift cards for an event, he said. But now, more frequently con artists are misusing the names of faculty members, both well-known and lesser-known academics, when sending malicious emails.

Sometimes, he said, the email might suggest that the professor wants to hire someone to work as a research assistant.

"We've had students lose money along the way," Bermann said.

The No. 1 tip, according to the FTC's Daffan, is to contact the professor or employer directly by calling a phone number that you obtain on your own. You must verify that this job posting is real and that you really are interviewing for that job with that employer.

Unfortunately, it's not safe to assume that you're dealing with a real job offer even if you have an online interview or receive an employee handbook or other types of paperwork. Daffan noted that some con artists even go so far as to send fake paperwork that looks very authentic.

No, she said, this isn't one of those types of scams that you might easily detect by tracking typos in the email.

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"The scammers are getting more sophisticated in presenting themselves as an actual job opportunity," she told the Detroit Free Press in a phone interview.

College students, she said, can be more heavily targeted by employment scams because many are often looking for work, even if it's only a part-time job to make ends meet.

Where to report scams

You can report job scams, and other scams to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov or the Better Business Bureau at BBB.org/ScamTracker. You also can report job scams to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.

Contact personal finance columnist Susan Tompor: stompor@freepress.com. Follow her on X (Twitter) @tompor.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Is this job fake? Why scammers pretend to be professors in job fraud.