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The home worker who says... Beware online job scams

There's no such thing as an easy buck -- and jobs on the internet are no exception, writes John Hearne

It looks for all the world like an ordinary news site. Across the top, it says: 'Online Career Journal', and there's a banner with what looks like a series of news links: finance, economy, media . . . there's even a market tracker where stock and bond prices tick up and down.

The headline is the attention grabber. 'Work at home mum makes €5,240 a month and you won't believe how she does it!'

We're told about 'Melissa Johnson from Dublin' and how she makes more than five grand working no more than 18 hours a week. But as you read down through the text, you never actually find out what it is that Melissa does to earn all this money. We're told that she filled out a short form, paid a €1.50 activation fee and within four weeks was making €3,000 a month.

You'll run into these ads all over the internet these days. They give every appearance of being genuine news features. Scroll down through the page and you'll find a comments section full of enthusiastic endorsements from others who've made out like bandits.

But keep on scrolling, all the way to the bottom of the page and the terms and conditions reveal bitter truth.

'The story depicted on this site and the person depicted in the story are not real . . . the results portrayed in the story and in the comments are illustrative, and may not be the results that you achieve with these products.'

After a little more searching, it turns out that Melissa isn't only a 'Dublin mum'.

On another site peppered with UK branding and references, she's from London. On another she's a New Yorker. On another, she's from Sydney.

If you click on any of the links on the site, you'll be taken to the sign-up screen, where you fill in your email and phone details. The screen then tells you that it's searching for placements in your area.

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After a few seconds' nail-biting wait, you'll get a congratulatory screen and more promises of huge returns.

But now the hard sell kicks in. If you don't sign up within 10 minutes -- there's a clock ticking steadily down -- your 'position' could be given to somebody else.

They still don't tell you what you'll be doing, but when you click through, you discover you'll have to pay $24.97 to get started at whatever it is.

Talk to consumer advocates about deals like this and they'll all say the same thing. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Talk to people who really do work from home and they'll all say five grand? In 18 hours a week? Yeah right.

Laura Haugh runs mumtrepreneurclub.ie, a network of stay-at-home entrepreneurs.

She points out that for many mothers, the arrival of child number two tends to trigger the dilemma. Do I stay in work just to pay the huge childcare costs, or do I pack it in and find some way of boosting the family income at home?

"Finding part-time work that fits within school hours isn't easy," she says, "and with a young baby, you're looking to do something that can be done from home when they're napping, or in the evenings."

There are no quick fixes, she points out. The effort required to come up with a small business idea itself is phenomenal, and that's only the beginning of it.

"There is a huge amount of effort involved. You've got to establish your brand and your website and you've got to network to build up a client base . . . the list goes on and on."

While there's no evidence to suggest that the Melissa Johnson site is a scam, consumer and unemployed advocates strongly disapprove of their sales methods.

With more than 440,000 people out of work, there's a large cohort of highly vulnerable people out there.

'You see it, you think great," says Brid O'Brien of the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed. "You think, I could do that and I could manage other responsibilities and earn a few bob, but then it doesn't materialise . . . that's very disheartening for people.

"We would advise people to carry out as much research as they can before they hand over any money or personal details to unknown websites," says Caroline Curneen of the European Consumer Centre.

"If anyone wants any assistance in trying to establish if it is genuine or not, we're certainly happy to help."

Meanwhile, John Shine of the National Consumer Agency says that consumers need to be especially wary of working-from-home scams, which often become more common when unemployment rates rise.

"'Work at home' adverts might seem attractive, especially if you have recently been made unemployed, you can't work outside your home, or your situation has changed and you need more income.

"Some offers are straightforward and genuine but many of these schemes are scams."

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