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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

False Promises: Unraveling the Labyrinth of Fake Jobs and Online Universities

online university bait-n-switch, part 2In my previous post, I talked about getting bushwhacked by an online university promoter in the middle of what I'd been told was a job interview. Not long after, the “online university that's right for me,” Capella University, started hounding me with daily recruitment calls and spamming my inbox. I figured I'd dodged a bullet by not signing on with Capella and their insidious financing options. What I didn't realize was that I'm walking around in a war zone with a target painted across my chest.

While media pundits argue back and forth about whether or not this is a recession, the rest of us are living in this economy and it doesn't look good. Costs are rising, jobs are scarce, and those of us who took equity loans against our houses are starting to feel cold breath on the backs of our necks. I've been looking for work for a few months now, and it's starting to feel like my full time job is sorting the real opportunities from the scam artists trying to make a quick buck off my desperation.

The worst of these parasitic, for-profit outfits are the online universities. It's not that they plaster their ads all over craigslist.org, monster.com and every other site that hungry job-seekers frequent. That's what advertisers do. No, the thing that separates them from other businesses that just want to make a buck are these proxy sites they use to draw you in, sites with names like “Career Network” and “The Career Selection,” when all these sites seem to be doing is foisting their partner companies on you.

It starts as soon as you find the job ad. You get diverted to careernetwork.com or one of its similarly named, carefully disguised sister-sites. You fill out a job application that seems real enough (and may, in fact, be forwarded to a prospective employer, though why any legitimate employer would pepper their application with questions like, “Would you like information on how to increase your credit score?” is hard to figure). Then you get hit with the first innocuous question:

We value and support higher education. If you would like information about educational opportunities in your field, choose below.
I would like to receive information about higher-education opportunities.
I do not feel I would benefit from educational opportunities at this time.


In this economy, the difference between getting the job and getting left in the cold will come down to who has the most impressive resume. If you don't have a college degree and you're out there, trying to make ends meet, you know most employers place a premium on applicants with a degree. All the best jobs require an Associate's Degree or a Bachelor's from a four-year school, and if you have a degree, like me, and are still struggling to find something that pays, you're thinking about how much easier it would be if you'd stayed in school for your Master's Degree. The first time someone asked me if I consider higher education if I could afford it, I answered honestly, and you saw how that turned out.

This time I checked the second box. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll apply to Grad School the old-fashioned way and beg the Stafford Loan people for money if I can't make it with my BA. I submitted my information, sans educational opportunities, and started on the next page of the application. Along with the standard employability questions (“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”, “Do you have a valid driver's license?”), I was also asked more troubling questions like how I would rate my credit score, followed by the question I mentioned earlier, asking whether I wanted to learn how to increase my credit score. It seemed like every third question on the application was trying to get me to bite on some other service or advertising partner, including yet another offer to find out more about higher education opportunities. I answered no to all the fishing questions, except the last, which was an offer to tell me about other jobs that matched my resume.

In just a few hours, I received this email:
Dear Christopher,

I recently noticed the credentials listed on your electronic resume. I believe you might be a solid candidate for a Family Interviewer opening I seek to fill. Your previous experience with education is outstanding. I would like to invite you to apply for this job. Below you can find some basic information regarding the opportunity.

Family Interviewer

Excellent Income with long term career growth

An ideal candidate will have exceptional verbal skills, along with dedication to the job. To view a detailed description of the job and to apply online, please click the link below. If your browser does not allow you to click the link, you may copy and paste it into your browser. The link will take you to an informative Web page with requirements and compensation packages.

http://thecareer-selection.com/

Our human resources department will go over your application and contact you within 24 to 48 hours. When they contact you, please be prepared to schedule an initial interview.

Best Regards,
Brittany Harmon
Sr. Recruiter, HR Division


I was incredibly excited. After leaving my information on a handful of these online employment sites, finally here was a tangible result. But then I started wondering why I had to apply for the job if they already had my electronic resume. Was it some sort of standard formality? I didn't want to chance losing the job, so I clicked on the link. I'd been horribly disappointed when one of the applications I filled out earlier turned out to be a front for Career Network, who scammed me the first time and got me onto Capella University's Do-Call-and-Stalk list. This was a different website, with an entirely different look surrounding the ad-copy for the job. Maybe this one was for real.

Then, I saw it down at the bottom of the page, that same question about whether I wanted to know more about higher education opportunities. I couldn't escape these people wherever I went looking for work. Then I filled out the rest of the application, dodged even more suspicious questions that would have sent my personal information to even more advertising partners, but I was in for a nasty surprise. After I submitted the application, the site shed its false window dressing and revealed itself as Career Network. I wasn't submitting a new application, I was navigating the same advertisement-saturated employment maze that I'd already been through. The job offer was just one more attempt to get me to say yes to online education and whatever other products they could push on me.

So far, I had applied for a teaching assistant position at a private school, a legal clerk position, and the intriguing but probably BS position of “Family Interviewer,” with all three leading me on a wild goose chase through Career Network and their partners in the online university industry. I was tired of this nonsense and wanted some answers. Was Career Network even a real employment company, or were all of these job ads the cruelest kind of spam imaginable?

Judge for yourself. In 2001, Career Network was cited by the Federal Trade Commission in an ongoing investigation of employment corporations exploiting unemployed workers with false job postings that promised government jobs. From www.ftc.gov:

The Federal Trade Commission today announced five law enforcement actions against nine companies and seven individuals promising jobs with the federal or state government or the U.S. Postal Service. Through classified ads, telephone pitches, Internet advertising and training school seminars, the companies misled consumers into paying $45 - $80 for practice exams and application forms.

[...]

Career Network, Inc., and its principals, Walter Turulis and Kathleen Key. Complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division, on January 3, 2001. On January 3, 2001, the court granted the FTC's request for a temporary restraining order, asset freeze, and appointment of a temporary receiver. On January 9, 2001, the court entered stipulated preliminary injunction, continuing the terms of the TRO. Civil Action No: 2:01-CV-001-JM; FTC Staff Contact: Gregory A. Ashe, Bureau of Consumer Protection, 202-326-3719.


Seven years later, Career Network seems to have made a remarkable comeback from its receivership, either by starting over or selling its name to a new company in the career-making business. If they were ripping off people in 2001, who's to say they aren't running a new scam now, one that borders close enough to legality that they can operate with impunity and continue posting false job leads that hand unsuspecting applicants into the hands of online universities who offer the perfect solution to their job woes: a fully-financed college education.

The lengths to which these online universities will go to acquire new students and the money that they'll generate borders on the absurd. They must be paying a small fortune to Career Network, hiding their hooks in every job application on not one but two pages of the application, and that's not the only place where they go trolling for fresh fish.

The owners of this blog informed me that Allied University, an online university, recently contacted them with the following offer:

Hi, we are willing to sponsor specific content, online degree post on your blog.

We, advertiser will create content and you will only need to post it.

Please let me know details about your terms of service and handles payment.


I can think of no better advertisement for the quality of an online university education than that.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

How Safe is Your Car? Getting Bullied into Unneccessary Repairs by a National Auto Repair Chain

MechanicUnscrupulous mechanics have been ripping off naive customers long enough that it's almost a cliché, something you take for granted when you're dealing with a national chain like Just Brakes, but small-time operators aren't the only mechanics who deserve an unsavory reputation. If my experience with the hustlers at Just Brakes is any indication, it may be that the last honest mechanics are the small, family-owned outfits and that corporations with slogans like, "At Just Brakes, We Really Do Care!" should offer their customers a complimentary bottle of water, considering what they expect you to swallow.

I went to Just Brakes because I saw an ad that offered new brakes for $89.99, and a friend said that was a pretty good deal. I know next to nothing about cars, and my brakes had been squeaking for a while, so, advertisement in hand, I took a drive down to the nearest Just Brakes shop to see how quickly they could take a look at my beaten-down Chevy. All but one of the shop's bays were empty, so the counter man took my keys and said to have a seat. While I was waiting, I marveled at just how many people Just Brakes paid to work the counter. At first, it looked like just the one, but two more neatly dressed men with “Sales Associate” tags showed up to loiter behind the counter. These weren't bored mechanics, and it set me wondering why the place employed as many people behind the counter as they did in their garage.

About ten minutes later, a grim-faced mechanic came to the office and asked if I was the one who brought in the Chevy. Together with the sales associate who took my information down when I first arrived, they ushered me into the garage to explain just how screwed up my car really was. The counter man took out a little clipboard and started jotting down every thing the mechanic said, while the mechanic focused on visual aids, like the sheet where he'd written down the measurements for my brake pads. He talked fast, and I lost track of the names of parts and systems right after calipers and rotors. The only thing I heard really clearly, before they started talking price, was when he showed me the range of numbers my brakes should have matched, the “safe” measurements, and I thought it was odd that what he wrote down for my brakes seemed to fall into the “safe” range, only he didn't say that my brakes were safe. He said everything from the brake pads all the way to the ruptured shocks would need to be replaced.

“How much are we looking at?” the sales associate asked, eyes on his clipboard.

“This much work, probably a thousand or more.”

It felt like the bottom had dropped out of my stomach. I didn't have anywhere near that amount in my checking account. I probably could have bought another car for a thousand dollars. Instead of saying that, I told them I couldn't afford the repairs.

The sales associate nodded compassionately. “What do you think? Is there anything we can do for him? I mean, man's got to get his car fixed. We can't let him keep driving around in a car that's not safe. How much can we shave off that?”

I watched the mechanic's eyes and suddenly I understood exactly what was going on. This was a routine, rehearsed, performed, perfected. There were three people working the counter because it was a two-man job. First, the mechanic bombards you with a list of brake problems, ticking them off so quickly you don't have time to examine the evidence. Then his partner, the man with the clipboard, backs him up and asks for a number that's way too high. The mechanic obliges. Then they conveniently cut the price, so it looks like you're getting a bargain.

My bargain was still going to run more than $600, so I told him again I just couldn't afford it. I didn't tell him I thought I was being scammed and just wanted out. That's when the salesman with the clipboard got in my face, angry and aggressive, and asked me why I was wasting his time. “Why'd you come here and waste my time if you haven't got any money?” I said I had the money for the brake replacement they advertised, but not for almost a thousand dollars worth of work. He kept the pressure on. “You understand, this car is unsafe. If I let you out of here with this car, you're going to be driving around in an unsafe vehicle. I can't just give you new brakes if the rest of the car is unsafe. You feel me?” I explained again that I couldn't afford the repairs and he backed off. They had me wait out front and drove the car out to me a few minutes later, emphasizing again that the car was unsafe and that if I had a credit card or something I could use, someone who could loan me the money, it was in my best interests to get the repairs done because they couldn't be held responsible if I drove off in an unsafe car.

Hammering me over and over again with how unsafe the car was achieved the desired effect. I went straight to a local mechanic, Bob Clarke, who'd been doing my oil changes for years. I figured if the brake problems were real, my mechanic wouldn't try a two-man con job just to sell me on the repairs. Mr. Clarke looked the car over himself and came back a little while later with a funny look on his face. “What exactly's wrong with it, Chris?” I told him as much as I could remember from the laundry list of problems Just Brakes had described, and Mr. Clarke said there was nothing wrong with the brakes, the car, anything. He couldn't in good conscience charge me for anything except cleaning the brake pads, which wasn't even necessary, he said. One thing he did notice that troubled him, however, was that the radiator cap had gone missing. When I said how I'd been treated at Just Brakes and how angry the salesman had been when I didn't authorize the repairs, Mr. Clarke said he'd seen just this sort of thing before. An unscrupulous mechanic will do a minor bit of sabotage, like stealing a radiator cap, so that the car will seem fine for a while... and then, dramatically, go bad. He suggested before I go calling the dealer for a replacement, that I call Just Brakes. “Just see what they say when you mention that the cap is missing. Most people wouldn't have noticed a thing like that until the damage was already done.”

I did just what Bob Clarke suggested, and as luck would have it, it was my sales guy who answered the phone. I asked if he remembered me stopping in earlier in the day. He did. His tone was very neutral. I said that when I checked under my hood, my radiator cap seemed to be missing. Long pause. He said to come right back and they'd take care of it. As soon as he saw me pull up in front of the Just Brakes garage, he was already walking outside with a replacement radiator cap in hand, still mint in the plastic bag. He handed it to me, said nothing, and walked back inside.

Not only did these hustlers try to con me into hundreds of dollars in repairs that I didn't really need, they tried to set me up for engine problems by snatching my radiator cap. Maybe it was a simple mistake, and in their haste to get rid of me when I couldn't pay for their fake repairs, the mechanic forgot to put it back. That would have explained why they gave me a new one, no questions asked, but why give me a whole new radiator cap? What happened to my actual cap? And how many other people were rooked into paying for ridiculously expensive repairs because they were bullied into thinking their cars were unsafe?

I've read up on Just Brakes since then, and I am not the first person to be hustled by them, nor will I be the last. At least one former manager from the company has come forward and exposed the company's sleazy tactics and dozens of customers have reported them to the Better Business Bureau and online consumer sites like RipOffReport.com. If you see one of their ads, no matter how promising the bargain, steer clear or you may find yourself driving an “unsafe” vehicle, too.

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