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Searching for a job is challenging enough in a recession. Job seekers who are eager to reply to any hint of a paying gig must also avoid online scammers and identity thieves who are targeting them.

The Better Business Bureau found that 73% of job seekers reported using online sources for help in 2007, compared to 66% in 2005. And that number is estimated to be higher now. But while there are certainly a number of good jobs to be found on sites like (Stock Quote: MWW) and other job search sites, there are also pitfalls when it comes to online job hunting.

“There has been a significant upturn in job-related scams online as we see a downturn in the economy,” says Craig Butterworth, media specialist for the National White Collar Crime Center, which tracks online scams and reports findings to the F.B.I. “People are trying to make ends meet, so even when they get a job offer or see a listing that seems fishy, they try to rationalize it. But as the saying goes, sometimes when something seems too good to be true, it usually is.”

Here are some tips from the experts on how to avoid being scammed.

1. Beware of Immediate Offers
Butterworth says to never respond to an unsolicited job offer you receive through email. No matter how legitimate the request appears to be, companies will never offer a job on the spot without first getting to know you. Butterworth says the most common emailed job offers involve re-shipping, envelope stuffing and “secret shopper” opportunities. Many of these offers are created by scammers who want to access your personal information.

Look into the company you’re dealing with.

“Ascertain whether the employer has a brick and mortar presence,” Butterworth says. “Every company has some type of physical office or headquarters. If they don’t, it should raise an immediate red flag.”

And while having a web site is a good way for a company to claim legitimacy, experts warn that there are a number of bogus sites out there that forge company logos and ties to larger existing companies in order to create an atmosphere of legitimacy. If there is no phone number or physical address listed on the website, you might be dealing with a scam.

2. Never Pay Money Up Front in Order to Work
Experts say a sure-sign of a scam is a job that requires you to pay money upfront.

“You should never have to pay to work,” says Butterworth. “It works the other way around.”

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Butterworth says fake employers often ask you to pay a “start-up fee” to access information and a start-up “kit.” You then receive a letter in the mail saying that your work agreement is terminated. The money you paid for the so-called start-up fee? Gone.

The Better Business Bureau says to also beware of jobs that use Western Union (Stock Quote: WU) or Money Gram (Stock Quote: MGI) as their main source of payment. Scammers can often hide behind anonymous accounts and wire you checks that turn out to be bogus.

3. Guard Your Personal Information
A legitimate job listing will never ask for your personal information over email or through a web site. This info includes your social security number, credit card and debit card numbers, bank account information and your tax ID. Volunteering that information could make you vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.

Some jobs promise to send you a check by directly depositing the money into your bank account. But you should never give out your account information online, especially to someone you’ve never met in person.

4. Always Ask to Meet in Employers Person

The internet can be a great job-finding tool and there are many legitimate opportunities out there. But you never want to sign on to something without first speaking to a representative over the phone or, better yet, arranging an interview in person. If the company is unable to provide a face-to-face meeting or a contact person for you to speak with, you’re probably best off looking for work elsewhere.

Above all, do your due diligence and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If your suspicions are set off, it’s best not to proceed.

“A lot of people are desperate to find work and they’re not being as cautious as they otherwise might be,” Butterworth says. “But it’s important to cross your Ts and dot your Is to make sure you don’t set the stage for identity theft, or end up being scammed.”

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