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Dream Job or Scam?
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is
Danielle Chambers
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Back in 2008, I had delusions about turning 18, the same delusions most teenagers have. I was going to go to college, get a job, move into my own place, and live the adult life I envisioned without any help at all from parents.

After all, amazing things were happening: A black man had a real chance of becoming president. Anything seemed possible. I was convinced I’d be able to make it on my own.

But in September of 2008 the stock market crashed and the world fell into a recession. As the economy tanked, I saw my hopes of college start to crash and burn. Even with financial aid, I knew I’d need to work in order to afford college. I had to find a job, and it seemed to be getting harder and harder for teens like me to find one.

Lessons From My First Job

Finding jobs has always been difficult for teens, but after the recession hit, it became almost impossible. And when teenagers are desperate for a job, they are the perfect victims for a scam. I started noticing how many jobs were posted on the Internet and around the city promising a lot of money fast.

Lucky for me, I’d already been there and done that. I got my very first job when I was 15. The newspaper job listing said, “No experience necessary, start as soon as possible, make $3,000 to $5,000 a week to help save the planet.” My eyes got wide with anticipation of the amount of money that I could be making—and I’d be helping the earth, too!

I went to the interview. I had no resume and no experience in anything besides school. A heavy-set, hippie-looking white woman named Kathy came out and started to tell me about all the dangers to the environment, and how their organization was trying to help stop carbon emissions and change the world.

Kathy said my position would be as a canvasser, which meant I would be going from door to door asking people to donate to their organization. I sat there nervously as she asked, “Where are you from?” and, “How did you hear about this organization?” I was so nervous, I answered her in a whisper. Kathy went easy on me, though, and before I knew it I was filling out tax forms.

Soon I, along with a dozen other fresh-faced high school and college kids, was participating in an icebreaker. “What’s the name of the first movie you ever saw?” I liked it; the other kids were fun. And who knew there were so many cute boys into saving the environment?

For a Good Cause?

The fun didn’t last. During our first day “in the field,” we each had a partner who showed us the ropes. We went from door to door and got every response imaginable: Some people cursed us out, others called the cops, and I was called a con artist right to my face. In the July heat with the rays of the sun beaming down on my skin and my hair frizzy from the humidity, I thought, “What the hell am I doing here?”

Sometimes people were nice and donated $5 or $10. That’s when I learned what the word “commission” meant. I only got paid 30 percent of what people contributed to the organization. The first day I got no money and my partner made all the money and claimed it as his. I did the math. Thirty percent of nothing is...nothing.

The next day we got into vans and they drove us all the way past the Bronx and into a wealthy community called Bronxville. I was in the middle of the suburbs all alone with no cell phone and no one to help me. I had no choice but to canvass, so that’s what I did. But I was in a panic. In the blazing heat I prayed for some cool air. Then I looked up and clouds gathered and rain fell hard. I ran around trying to find a dry spot to dry the five-dollar bills people had donated.

I was the only black person in the entire neighborhood, and people looked at me like I was crazy. I felt so alone. My hair got wet, and my foot was bleeding from a piece of glass that got stuck in my brand new flats. I was exhausted. Later on that day a supervisor came to inspect me and see if I was doing OK. He looked at me soaking wet and upset, then got back in the car and left me out in the rain. He told me it was for a good cause. I quit the next day.

image by Freddy Bruce

Sketchy Job #2

More recently, I was job hunting on the Internet and came across a website advertising jobs for teens. I thought, “I’m a teen and I need a job, so why not give it a try?” I filled out an application online and just 10 minutes later, I received a call to come in for an interview the next day at 7 p.m. I thought to myself, “7 p.m.? That’s really late for an interview.” But I was desperate for a job, so I went.

I arrived early and saw a room filled with high school and college-aged kids trying to get some money. I was already disappointed. They wouldn’t tell me what position I was applying for. It felt like a scam.

A young black man in a green shirt seemed to be in charge. He didn’t look older than 25, and he played the role of the stern and serious boss. A woman in her 40s was applying for the job; she didn’t seem to belong in that room with a bunch of teens. She must have really needed a job.

The stern guy in the green shirt looked at her and said, “The interview is over for you, Miss,” and asked her to leave. As I sat there I saw a plain brown desk with nothing on it. One of the three men who greeted me as I walked in was sitting at the edge telling jokes and trying to make everybody come out of their shells. Then the boss man in the lime green shirt came out and finally started to explain the product we would be selling: knives.

Still Skeptical

I sat there like I was in the audience of an infomercial, hearing the oohs and ahhs of the future knife salespeople. “This is complete crap,” I thought. I was so annoyed. The boss man took out a rope and showed us how a regular knife worked (not well). Then he pulled out his company knife and showed how the knife cut through the rope without any struggle. Everyone was elated. I was still skeptical.

The whole knife demonstration scene was weird enough, but I knew for sure it was a scam when they told me that each individual knife set cost $149, and that we would have to either buy our own set and then sell it, or borrow one from them. It was like they were asking me to pay to get a job.

When I left they said they would call me within 48 hours to tell me if I had got the job. They didn’t call me the first day and I was relieved, but on the second day they called. I told them I wasn’t interested.

I was alarmed about how many scams were directed toward young people just finding their way in the world. After that I became very suspicious of job offers that seem too good to be true and people who seem to want your money more than your hard work.

A Job Should Be a Stepping Stone

Many schemes target young people, but being vigilant and smart can save you from a scam. The number one sign that it’s a scam job is if they ask for money up front. If anybody asks me for money, I run in the opposite direction.

Commission is trickier because it’s not always a scam, but it may be false advertising. Sometimes a help-wanted ad or post will promise up to $3,000 a week, but most of the time your actual commission depends on how much you make for the company or organization. In any case, making a decent paycheck can be difficult if you’re only working for commission.

I am looking for a job again, but this time I’m being careful. I want a job that will help me build a good resume. I’ve learned that job-hunting doesn’t just mean convincing an employer that you’ve got something to offer them, but deciding whether it’s a place that’s going to treat you fairly and help you get the skills and references you need to move on to something bigger and better.

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(FCYU-2010-10-38)

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