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Last Updated: Friday, 24 October, 2003, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Q&A: Online jobs scam
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A new kind of scam is tempting internet users in the UK with the promise of commissions on money transfers for an overseas company.

But in fact they will be laundering cash stolen from others' bank accounts and credit cards. BBC News Online explains the background.

Haven't we heard all this before?

You may well have heard of the string of internet-based cons that almost anyone with an e-mail account is likely to have seen.

Fake lotteries that offer a million dolllars as long as a few thousand dollars is paid in "taxes".

Or the ubiquitous 419 scheme beloved of West Africa fraudsters, which offers a sizable slice of tens of millions of dollars "left" in a bank account by a dead dictator - but leads to massive losses and sometimes physical threats.

And most recently the "phishing" scam, in which e-mails apparently from your bank or building society ask you to go to a website - fake, of course, but cleverly mocked up to look like the real thing - and enter bank or credit card details.

But this one is something new. Rather than rip off the mark, it aims to use him or her as a conduit for getting hold of the proceeds of other crimes, not least the phishing scam itself.

And it even offers payment for doing so.

So what do I look out for?

Whether in spam e-mails or - sometimes - in adverts on entirely genuine job search websites, people are being offered the chance to make hundreds of pounds a week by acting as an "agent" for a foreign company.

It might seem an attractive concept for people such as students and the unemployed, who may have a bank account and are in urgent need of extra cash.

All they have to do is agree to set up a new bank account into which they will receive money on behalf of a firm which supposedly has yet to set up offices in the UK.

Then they send it overseas through a money transfer agent.

In return, they are told they can keep a cut of the funds. One example seen by News Online suggests 7%.

They must, of course, supply their personal and bank details to the company - which in fact is a front for crooks in Eastern Europe where some countries, particularly Romania, have become notorious for computer crime.

But why are the fraudsters paying out real money?

They're giving a small slice away, to be sure.

But by money laundering standards, 7% is a pretty good deal.

Far from being payment for legitimate goods (it is sometimes claimed that plasma TVs are the commodity being sold), the transfers are in fact money stolen from other people's bank accounts.

The very people, in fact, who incautiously entered their bank details in the phishing con or have fallen foul of another method of fraud.

Since it is impossible to move money overseas simply by using online banking, the scammers need an intermediary to do the hard work.

And when the police come calling, the "agents" are left with the legal liability.

Not only that, but they have given away their own bank details, address and other information to the fraudsters.

Everything a crook needs to commit identity theft elsewhere - or sell on for use in someone else's criminal activities.

Have people really fallen for this?

Everyone thinks they know there's no such thing as a free lunch.

But con artists the world over trade on the fact that that there's always a proportion of people who think that they alone can spot the one genuine opportunity among the millions of rip-offs.

The methods used by the tricksters can be very convincing to unsuspecting consumers.

For example, in a number of recent cases of phishing, the fake site's graphics and design were very close to the real thing.

Only the web address at the top of the browser window may give the game away - and not everyone checks that.

The sites are hosted on computers in Eastern Europe and the US, and are shut down as soon as they have been used.

So what can I do to avoid it?

The simple answer remains the same with all internet scams.

If it sounds like money for nothing, it's almost certainly bogus.

The clever bit in this scam is the cash incentive - the money from the agency.

But is a few hundred pounds really worth becoming a money launderer?

While the police in the UK's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) are going after the fraudsters themselves, it's much easier for them to track the agent in the UK.

Guess who's going to get arrested first.

So never click through links on official-sounding emails. Use the same discretion you'd use in the real world when dealing with the online environment.

Check for obvious spelling and grammar errors. Direct translations from Eastern European languages often miss out words like "the," for instance.

And above all remember the basic rule. If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

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