Don't let ID thieves hijack your job hunt

Scammers increasingly are targeting job seekers; here are 6 ways to protect yourself.

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By Anne Fisher, contributor

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Let's say you've been job hunting for months now, and applied to so many employers you're starting to lose track of them all. One day you get a call from someone in HR at a well-known company. He found your resume on an online job board, thinks it's very impressive, and is looking forward to meeting you, he says. To set up the interview, he asks for your home address, date of birth and Social Security number.

Odds are, you give him the information, even if it seems a bit strange. After all, this person could end up offering you a job, and you don't want to seem difficult to work with. And odds are, you'll never hear from him again, or the company he claimed to represent -- but, within a day or two, he'll have opened half a dozen credit cards in your name, maxed them out, and created an enormous mess it could take you years to straighten out.

Identity-theft experts say this exact scenario is playing out more and more often these days. "Fraudsters getting more sophisticated, and they're taking advantage of a bad situation," observes Jeremy Miller, director of operations at New York City security firm Kroll Fraud Solutions. "They know many job seekers are desperate, and they prey on that."

Nice, huh? As if looking for work weren't tough enough in this economy, here's one more thing to keep in mind: Every three seconds, someone's identity is stolen. Nearly 10 million people in the U.S. had their identities ripped off in 2008, a 47% jump from 2007, making identity theft the fastest-growing crime in America.

"Victims spend an average of 200 hours recovering their identity," says Dianne Cutter, CEO of Asurency, an ID-theft prevention company. That's time taken away from your job hunt and your family, not to mention a huge extra source of stress and anxiety you really do not need right now (or ever).

The good news is, you can take steps to protect yourself from these miscreants. Here are six ways to keep your identity safe while you job hunt:

1. Don't put personal data on your resume. "Some information should never be disclosed on a resume, particularly if you intend to post it online," says Miller. Do not list your date of birth, Social Security number, or home address. Likewise, if any of these, or a driver's license number, is requested on a job application, says Miller: "You might consider writing 'prefer to provide this during the interview.' " Employers don't need to know this information until they're ready to hire you, he notes -- and in fact, asking your age is not legal anyway - and you should be suspicious of anyone who insists you disclose it before then.

2. Proceed cautiously with online job boards. "Not all job-posting sites are created equal," says Miller. "Make sure you review the privacy policy and user terms and agreements before you post your resume." When in doubt about a job site, Miller recommends checking it out with online resources such as the World Privacy Forum's Consumer's Guide to Online Job Sites.

Look for sites whose privacy policies, which are legally binding documents, state that the site won't give or sell your resume or other information about you to third parties. The WPF also recommends checking to see if the site will let you "opt out" of tracking cookies (sometimes called profiling cookies or persistent cookies), which are tiny files some job sites allow advertisers to put on your computer so they can follow you everywhere you go on the Internet. Over time, this allows them to accumulate lots of information about you that you may prefer they didn't have.

3. Know how to spot bogus job ads. "Despite the best screening efforts on the part of job sites, scammers always find a way in," says Miller. You are probably looking at a fake job ad if it offers considerable pay with few or no duties; promises payment of wages in cash; includes no physical address or contact person; and/or requires you to open a new bank account or accept company checks to "test" a wire transfer service.

4. Keep a detailed record of your job search activity. Maintaining good records will not only help you track the progress of your search, it will also provide a paper trail if someone steals your identity. "Record where and when you distribute your resume, maintain lists of contact information for businesses and recruiters or hiring managers you come in contact with, and keep a record of any additional information such as job applications that you've provided to employers," Miller says.

5. Limit the amount of information you post on social networking sites. A recent poll of Facebook users, by consumer research firm NextAdvisor.com, found that 27% listed their full name, date of birth, phone number, and e-mail address on their Facebook profile. An additional 8% revealed all that plus their physical address.

"This type of information is extremely dangerous as it can be used to perpetrate various forms of identity theft," notes the NextAdvisor report. A separate NextAdvisor survey showed that 49% of Facebook users accept some or all friend requests from people they don't know. "As a general rule, we suggest that Facebook users only accept friend requests from people they know or whose identity they can verify by some other means," advises NextAdvisor. Also, adjust your privacy settings so only your friends can see your profile.

LinkedIn, which many job seekers rely on for job leads and recommendations, has posted an official policy on the site that advises users to keep personal data to a minimum and accept invitations "only from people you know and trust well enough to recommend them to others." You can also go to Accounts & Settings on the LinkedIn home page and review your privacy settings. Rather than choosing that your profile be available for viewing by "everyone," Miller suggests allowing only your connections to see it. "Always think before you post," he says. "What many people do not realize is that the more information you reveal online, the greater your chances of having that information fall into the wrong hands." A good rule of thumb, he adds: "If you wouldn't hand it to a stranger on the street, don't post it online."

6. Be proactive. Let's return to the hypothetical phone call above. What should you do if someone contacts you claiming to represent an employer, and asks for detailed personal information? Instead of blurting out the data, politely ask for the person's phone number or e-mail address and say you'll get back to him or her shortly. Then call the company's HR department, ask whether the person works there, and inquire if they customarily request these vital stats when scheduling an interview. Most likely, the answers to both questions will be "no."

Readers, what do you say? Have you ever applied for a job that turned out to be a scam? Has anyone ever attempted to use information you revealed in a job search to steal your identity? Ever run across any "recruiting" tactics that seemed fishy? What's the best way to avoid being scammed? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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