phantom jobs, confidential searches, and job scams

A reader writes:

Can you give some general advice to us desperate job-seekers when answering ads on sites like Craigslist?  As a rule, if a job posting sounds interesting but there is no e-mail contact other than the generic Craigslist one, and if there is no info about the company, I send a quick e-mail saying I am interested, please let me know the company name and a direct e-mail address so I can forward my resume, etc.  Not surprisingly, I do not hear back from over 90 percent I message.  I figure if they are not willing to let me know who they are, I am not going to send a bunch of confidential information about myself, no matter how desperate I am for a job.

I know there are a lot of scams with phantom jobs – at worst, this can be dangerous, at best, this is a big fat waste of time.  I also look out for vague job descriptions, wildly outrageous or weird sounding rates of pay (like “$17.94 to $29.32 per hour”) or repeated similar-sounding postings.  But lately a new one is in the works – I received a response that basically said, “This is a confidential search, and as such, please let me know your phone number and I will contact you with more information that way” and was signed with someone’s first name only.  The  kicker was the email was sent not from some company, but from a hotmail-type account that could have been anybody.

Am I being too careful?  It just struck me as very odd that a legitimate company looking for an employee would not even tell you who they are or how to contact them, while expecting applicants to send them resumes containing names, addresses, phone numbers and work history!  Or is that actually happening these days, and why?

Oh, and can you remind applicants NOT to include Social Security Numbers (USA) or Social Insurance Numbers (Canada) on job applications?  I can’t believe how many people I know who have done this.  These numbers should be guarded like cash – with this information, an unscrupulous company or person could possibly steal your identity.  SSNs and SINs are only to be revealed to employers once you actually have a job, so they can report income to the government.

First, yes, absolutely on not including your Social Security number. There’s no reason — none, zero — to include this on a resume or job application, and yet I still see people do it unsolicited.

As for scams in job ads, there are plenty — and not just in Craigslist. They’re on Monster and the other big job boards too, but Craigslist is cheaper so there are more of them there.

On the other hand, there are also some legitimate companies engaging in hiring practices that look weird at first glance but end up not being scams — just being perpetrated by people who are sort of inept at hiring. Vague job descriptions could certainly fall in that category.

It’s also true that legitimate companies do sometimes engage in confidential searches, where you wouldn’t immediately be told who the employer is for all kind of reasons. Here’s a site that explains the recruiter’s side of it.

But someone using only a first name and a Hotmail account? At best, that’s a seriously unprofessional company. And it certainly looks worse than that. Either way, you probably don’t want to work there.

As for how to deal with these weird maybe-scam/maybe not ads, I’m not sure I’d recommend your tactic of emailing and asking for the company name and a direct email address. If they wanted to share that information, it would be in the ad, so you’re mostly wasting your time by sending those emails (as it sounds like your low rate of response is confirming). I think you’ve got to decide you’ll either apply and wait for more information or not apply at all, but I doubt those emails will do you any good.

If you do apply and you get a response like the one you quoted above (“this is confidential but send me your phone number”), do you really have much to lose by just letting them call you? Your phone number isn’t especially sensitive information, and you can always end the call if it becomes apparent the job is a scam or otherwise uninteresting to you. Plus, if the pitch is ridiculous, that might be fun to hear.

I think your frustration is coming from the fact that you’re engaging halfway when you see these ads. I’d say either apply or don’t apply, but trying to push them to give you more information on your timeline rather than theirs probably isn’t going to be very successful.

Also — Craigslist and its ilk aren’t great sources for job hunting in general. You absolutely can find legitimate jobs there, but they shouldn’t be a main pillar of your job search. Industry-specific sites and publications, networking, blah blah blah. That’s what you really want to focus on.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Stephanie*

    Unsure if this is the case anymore, but the resume format for federal government jobs (and maybe some state government jobs) REQUIRES a SSN and other nutty things like salaries for each job listed on the resume. So this may have something to do with people listing SSNs on resumes. That being said, it’s not really that hard to create multiple resumes.

  2. Wilson Career Solutions*

    Hands down easiest way to detect 99% of Craigslist scams: copy a random piece of text (7-9 words) and paste it into Google in quotes. If the text pops up on many other sites, it’s a most likely a scam. If it doesn’t, it’s probably legit. This has been my experience, anyway. Great post!

    1. SME*

      Unless the company is publically advertising, or is a recruiter, in which case the wording will likely pop up in a lot of places – we use CareerBuilder, Monster, our own website, Craig’s List, we get pulled into Indeed, etc.

  3. Aubrey*

    2 comments (unrelated to each other)

    I might have to disagree on inquiring for more information via email – if this is a shady Craigslist scam, even sending your email address along is like saying, “please spam me in the future with your free Viagra products.” The company should at LEAST have a general email address of THEIR OWN that preserves both anonymity and legitimacy.

    Second, I’ve seen legitimate (non-government) companies ask for a social security number in order to proceed with an online application. It seriously would not let me proceed without it. So I didn’t. And now I’m happily hired elsewhere, with my identity intact.

    @ WilsonCareerSolutions – thanks for the tip! That’s not a bad idea.

    1. Natalie*

      In my experience, the typical job scammer on Craigslist doesn’t want your email address. They’re usually trying to get you to run a credit report through their site so they can charge you for it. I have never tried myself, but I assume it’s also common to try and stick a recurring charge on a credit card.

      That said, it couldn’t hurt to have a separate email address for job hunting. If the spam gets too much, you can always drop the address.

  4. Samie*

    I’ve noticed this trend about Craigslist as well. I’ve applied to some jobs there, but I kind of half do it myself. ESPECIALLY with Admin Assistant jobs, and they tend to have a high rate of scams (as well as sales and any ‘online’ jobs). When I say I half do it, basically, if there isn’t a company name or something like that and the post is short, I send them a copy-pasted cover letter (it’s a nice cover letter, but it’s not a great one, and not tailor-fitted). I HAVE gotten legitimate responses from this, but I also got about 70-90% spam (or nothing).

    On the other hand, I have found that outside of these categories, you have better chances. Like in food/hospitality, I’ve gotten interviews from those ads, and know people who have gotten jobs from Craigslist.
    A lot of new or small companies use Craigslist, which is one of the biggest reasons that they might not include a Company name or company email, which can be a bad move or a great move for you.

    Though I do agree with Allison, I wouldn’t use it for your main job search website. I actually like It’s limited by keywords, but it collects job listings in your area from other websites and you search by keyword and location.

  5. Mike C.*

    The weird hourly wages you speak of are the sign that the company expresses pay in a weekly/monthly/yearly rate, and then broke it down by the average number of hours you’d be working during that period.

    A yearly salary of $30,000 comes out to something odd like $14.42/hour. Either that, or the wages increase with the rate of inflation or the local minimum wage. So no need to be put off by that!

    1. Anonymous J*

      That was my thought, too. Sounded sort of like a government job. They frequently post their salaries that way, as well.

      I definitely am not deterred by that type of thing. In fact, it gives it a little more weight in my estimation.

  6. Angela*

    I have to say I’m guilty of job searching on craiglist. I was searching for admin jobs, and I find almost all job postings never! never include which company they are. But I did got quite couple interview offers, and they are legitimate company. The downside to that is often I don’t know which version of resume I sent in when the employer contact.

    1. Jamie*

      I got my job on Craig’s List about three years ago – and there was no company name listed. It was my first and only time on Craig’s List so I didn’t think twice about sending in my resume. I did get company info when they called to schedule a phone interview.

      I use Craig’s List now for posting positions, and while I do list the name of the company I use their address forward deal for email. They strongly recommend not posting an actual email due to spam harvests – and as IT the last thing I need is more spam hitting my email server.

      I’m not shilling for them, there are certainly valid concerns, but there are also legitimate job opportunities.

      It was actually Career Builder where I applied (and again this was years ago) to what I thought was a legitimate job and was called by someone discussing something in my field – and I was so excited as I’m kind of in a specific niche of IT with a side of finance. I show up for the interview and it wasn’t an interview at all, but a mass recruiting seminar for to sell financial services. Talk about a scam…it was over three years ago and I’m still pissed that I was conned into getting dressed up and driving 45 minutes for a live infomercial.

  7. Job Seeker*

    I got this advice a while back, and it’s what I use: Set up an email account for your job search ONLY. Until you receive information back from a real live company with (hopefully) a real live job opening, you won’t be tossing your person information “out there” so much. And have a special resume to send with your job seeker email address as your name, perhaps your city and state, but no other personal information. Refer to your previous employers as “Company A”, “Company B”, etc. with NO other identifying information. Don’t put in the name of the university you graduated from, or the year. Again, when you get a response back from a real live employer, THEN you have your regular resume ready for them.

    Sincerely, (even this is a phone email address)

  8. Job Seeker*

    Sorry, that last line should say “phony email address”. I was looking at my telephone when I typed my comment.

  9. Natalie*

    If it’s any consolation, the “flag help” forum of Craigslist is full of people who’s job ad was flagged off because it didn’t list a company name or pay. Lots of job seekers have noticed this phenomenon and are equally unhappy about it.

  10. Shawn*

    Our company has recently experienced scammers taking legit job postings from our company board and posting them on CL, asking applicants to reply to their anonymous email address. We’ve had people call and ask for folks who don’t work here (about jobs they’ve “applied” for) and even one showed up for a non-existent interview. Almost every new job we post gets on CL as a fake post at this point. They look relatively real (our company name is included), minus any sort of formatting. We flag them, which sometimes gets them taken off, but there is nothing we can do to stop it. Frustrating for us and candidates.

      1. Jamie*

        That’s what I was wondering…they can’t be hijacking applicants as way to try to scam a placement fee, can they?

        Otherwise unless they are sending these people pre-interview applications demanding socials and credit info?

        Job hunting sucks and it’s just unconscionable that people out there are taking advantage of the situation.

        Sometimes I really hate people.

      2. Anonymous*

        Some variant of

        Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war

        would seem most likely (although the perpetrator might view their actions are merely hunting with modest warrant).

        To the parent poster: have you tried replying yourself (as a fake applicant), and then started tracking email headers (or better, embedding image bugs in HTML emails).

      3. Natalie*

        The popular scam is affiliate marketing – the scammer tells you they love your resume and you’d be a great fit for the position. Can you come in for an interview on Friday? Make sure you run your credit and bring the report!

        The link is a credit-check site that doesn’t provide anything better than what you get through, but does cost money.

  11. Shawn*

    I imagine they are getting these applicants to disclose personal info and then selling it elsewhere (or stealing directly from the person). I haven’t tried directly “applying” to one of these jobs, but will do that now to see what happens (interesting idea).

  12. ImpassionedPlatypi*

    Wow… I’ve been using Craig’s List as my primary job search board for the last year or so and haven’t really had any problems with scams or the like. If the ad itself looks fishy, I just don’t apply. But by “fishy” I don’t mean anything specific like using the anonymous email instead of providing one, or not listing a company name. Yes, those things are a little annoying (especially for those of us who are on unemployment and need to give our “contacts” each week to get our benefits), but they’re understandable. No, I’m talking about that “too good to be true” feeling when you read the ad, or when the ad feels more like a really heavy, sleazy used car dealership sales pitch.

    Actually, that’s why I prefer Craig’s List to boards like Monster. All the ads on Monster just seem so… I don’t know, overdone? They seem like a marketing department got together and said, “How can we make this crappy job seem as appealing as possible?” Which just ends up making the job seem completely unappealing. Whereas on Craig’s List, yea you have the sift through that stuff, but there also seem to be more ads that are just an HR person or hiring manager explaining what they need in a way that is appealing to normal human beings. And by normal human beings, I mean people who get pissed off when someone tries to hard sell something to them.

    And it doesn’t hurt that I have never, ever been contacted through Monster by anyone except temp agencies. Craig’s List, on the other hand, has gotten me maybe one or two temp places and then a bunch of actual hiring companies. I chalk my year of job searching up more to the poor job market than to my using Craig’s List to find jobs. Especially since I’m due to start a position I found on Craig’s List on Monday.

  13. Phyr*

    Most of the responses I get from craigs list are to do credit check or no responses. Otherwise I get more spam and the rare recruiter that doesn’t read my cover letter. I am not a fan of craigs list. :-(

  14. De Minimis*

    Out of all the job boards, I’ve had the most success with Craigslist as far as getting actual interviews. Quite a few of these have been from answering ads that gave no contact info, no name of company, etc.

    I’ve found that in each of those cases, the ads were from small companies [like small accounting firms with only a handful of staff]
    who most likely didn’t give contact info because the ton of phone calls that would likely result would inhibit their ability to conduct business.

    I’ve had a few scam attempts, but not many. You can usually spot the scam ads—having you respond to a yahoo e-mail or offering a salary that is way above normal for the market. Another way to spot scams is to check the Craigslist for other parts of the country.
    Many times the same scam ads will be posted in multiple locations.

  15. anonymous*

    Back when I was anxiously trying to advance myself, early in my career, companies would lure people in the door for interviews under false pretenses. It’s nothing new.

    You’re in “career slot 1” but have been flustered, your employer is holding you back. So you answer an ad for “seeking people in career slot 1, who want to do “career-slot-next-step-up”.

    You go over and interview – and learn that the higher slot is not available. When you say “well, you haven’t given me any incentive to leave…” they will then counter with the old “take the job and write your own ticket once you’re in here.” Yeah, right.

    I’ve also had to deal with the low-ball offers, and the “you can write your own ticket” hokum.

  16. SME*

    Regarding the Craig’s List discussion, I think it’s important to note that its usefulness will vary GREATLY depending on where you are located. If you’re in a major city, it’s easy to find jobs, places to live, even friends on CL. Smaller places, not so much. Just be smart about it!

  17. Anonymous J*

    I avoid Craig’s List for everything. I don’t use it at all, for anything. I’m glad there are people out there who find CL useful, but I just don’t like it for a lot of reasons.

    I tend to do exactly what AAM has suggested: I stick to industry-specific job boards, and I also use my local newspapers. Since I currently have a job (even though I hate the job,) I can take my time and be choosy. I feel for those who don’t have that option.

  18. Daniel G*

    With the unemployment rate so high, it’s an excellent opportunity for individuals to take advantage of desperate people. For the past 2 years, I get at least one call a week with the following routine:

    recruiter “I’m with abc and there is an excellent contract position with xyz we think you would be a great fit for. Prior to an interview, we need you to fill out some paperwork.”

    99.9% of the time the paperwork is for a background check. They want a social, drivers license, addresses for the past 7 years, etc. This is paperwork the recruiters supposedly need prior to submitting the applicant.

    No recruiter or company needs that information prior to an interview and/or an offer of employment. Background checks cost money; financially it makes no sense that a recruiter would ask for that information prior to an interview and offer of employment. A lot of these people are catching on. Lately I’ve been given the explanation that I will be an employee of the firm and when/if opportunities arise they feel I am suited for, I will be submitted for the position. They just need me to fill out half a dozen forms first.
    It’s a bullshit scam and identity theft. With the exception of government/state jobs, that information is not needed prior to an interview or even meeting the recruiter/hr rep face to face. Prior to an offer of employment, they need nothing more than a name, resume and contact method.

  19. Shawn*

    not sure why i’m updating this since no one will see it, but it looks like our situation is similar to what Daniel G mentioned. i applied to their fake job posting and received this email (from

    Dear Applicant,

    Thank you for showing interest in this position.

    I am a placement specialist for the Screening Portal. We are hired by small and large companies to place them with qualified applicants in your area.

    Our client forwarded us your response from the ad for this position. After reviewing this, they are interested in moving forward with you to gain further information about you regarding this position. Our client is a little short on time, as the position is currently vacant. We want to move forward as soon as possible. Please complete our simple questionnaire through our secure portal as preparation. Once you have submitted this, we will be in touch within 3-5 days. Please note that we may contact you via phone after your initial information is received. The questionnaire takes less than 5 minutes.

    The secure portal is here:

    Your Personal Application ID is*: 453222

    *Application codes are only good for 24 hours.

    Best Regards,
    HR Department
    Screening Portal

    it looks like their website is down now or was changed. anyway, i couldn’t actually log in because i didn’t get the email and do it within 24 hours (i used an email address i never ever check). not sure if they are running and/or charging people for a background check (more likely) or collecting resumes/info to try to match people to positions elsewhere (less likely), but either way it’s crappy.

  20. katie*

    i actively look on craigslist every day, and i share everyone’s frustration. to avoid these “applications” taking up too much time, i created a brief all-in-one cover letter that can be quickly changed into what you need it to be. i also attach a shortened version of my resume, and always make note that if the employer wishes to proceed, i would be more than happy to send my full resume, etc. i know, it’s terrible to send a ‘all in 1″ cover letter to employers, but if you are advertising on craigslist, give only very brief info, no company name… what are we supposed to do, right? 90% of the time i get spam replies, and although i thought i figured out how to identify spam postings.. they got better. they actually now have reasonable sounding salary info, and a crips job description. at times, the replies even come from legit looking email addresses.

    out of all my applications, i only received 5-7 responses.. one of which was legit. and i actually had an interview with that company!

    be careful on craigslist!!

  21. Anonymous*

    I don’t know if anyone else encounter this, but I’ve applied for positions in a company directly in the website. There are a few companies, even well known ones, that would ask for a SS#. And every time I see that question I ended my application process. I don’t understand why companies now would require a SS# during the application process.

    If anyone else had seen the same thing or if anyone else knows why companies do this, please let me know. B/c SS# is very private info.

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