Monster.com warns of ID theft

Responding to a growing problem, online job site Monster.com is warning new and existing users about phony job listings that are being used to steal personal information from job seekers.

The company has posted a warning on its Web site that read, in part:

"Regrettably, from time to time, false job listings are listed online and used to illegally collect personal information from unsuspecting job seekers."

The message goes on to warn users not to provide prospective employers with any information that is not pertinent to the job opening. Social security numbers, credit card numbers and personal information not related to one's work history should not be disclosed, the message said. (See http://help.monster.com/besafe.)

That Web page was posted approximately four months ago, according to Kevin Mullins, a spokesman for Monster.com.

Monster.com also sent a copy of the message to each of its active users in an e-mail message on Thursday, according to Mullins.

In addition, an e-mail message greeting new Monster.com users also contains a warning to "always be safe when searching for a job." A link to the company's statement regarding identity theft is also provided.

Thursday's e-mail was not prompted by a particular incident or warning, according to Mullins.

"It's all part of the our BeSafe campaign to educate users about the problem (of identity theft), which is an extremely rare problem. It's just a general reminder," Mullins said.

Online job hunting message boards such as Monster.com, a subsidiary of TMP Worldwide Inc., and Careerbuilder.com have come under scrutiny in the past for poorly protecting the personal information of those who post resumes on the sites.

In a letter by the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Timothy J. Muris dated Feb. 19, the government agency was asked to take action on a number of abuses including:

-- the sale of job-seeker e-mail addresses, registration data and job seeker resumes

-- the resale of resumes and resume information to employers, bogus recruiters, and startup job sites

The letter's authors, including Pam Dixon, a research fellow with the Denver-based Privacy Foundation, recommended that the FTC look in to reforming, and even regulating the job search industry to better protect the privacy of job searchers.

"I think the Monster.com notice was welcome, but long overdue," Dixon said in a phone interview. "I've been getting e-mail from job seekers for the past year on this issue."

Dixon ascribes the increase, in part, to the passage of the USA Patriot Act of 2001.

That act, an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, mandates that companies in a variety of industries verify the identity of prospective employees and customers, confirming that they are not members of known terrorist organizations.

The increased use of background checks as a part of normal job application procedures has provided a convenient way for scam artists to pry sensitive information such as social security numbers and bank account numbers out of job seekers, Dixon said.

Often criminals represent themselves as employees of reputable and well-known companies to mask their true identity. Phone interviews are frequently followed by professional-looking forms that collect the victim's information for the "background check."

Typically, victims don't even find out about the scam until a month or more after the information has been provided, when checks bounce or credit limits have been exceeded, at which point "it's a hideous problem," according to Dixon.

Mullins said that he has not noticed any increase in the number of complaints about identity theft.

"It's just part of doing business on the Internet," Mullins said.

Monster.com competitor Careerbuilder.com said that it had already taken measures to protect the privacy of its users.

The company's Web site offers tips to job seekers to protect themselves, according to company spokeswoman Jennifer Sullivan.

That list of tips, which is almost identical to the list provided by Monster.com, has been posted on the Careerbuilder.com site at least since December, Sullivan said. (See http://www.careerbuilder.com/JobSeeker/Info/Privacy.htm.)

In addition, Careerbuilder.com offers a number of different posting options, from those offering low security and high visibility, to anonymous and private posting options that prevent personal contact information from being disclosed or retrieved using searches, Sullivan said.

Careerbuilder.com is owned jointly by Gannett Co. Inc., Knight Ridder Inc. and Tribune Company.

Sullivan was not aware of any complaints about identity theft resulting from a bogus job posting on Careerbuilder.com, but didn't rule out that such thefts might have occurred.

In addition to its posted warning, Careerbuilder is looking in to additional measures to protect job seekers, Sullivan said.

No information on those measures was available, however, and Sullivan could not provide information on when they might be available to Careerbuilder.com customers.

Nevertheless, Dixon took issue with Monster.com and Careerbuilder.com's recommendations that their customers not provide their social security number to employers.

"Employers are frequently asking for (social security numbers) to perform background checks, and it's not going to stop," Dixon said.

Instead of steering their users away from providing their social security numbers, online job sites should encourage job seekers to work harder to validate their prospective employers.

Candidates should call the company to verify that the person they've been dealing with works there and that the telephone number, e-mail address and postal addresses they've been provided with match the company's, Dixon said.

Mullins said that Monster.com verifies the legitimacy of "the vast majority" of companies advertising on its Web site, but that job seekers should contact the company if a job posting has raised their suspicion.

The fact that Monster.com and Careerbuilder.com posted a nearly identical list of tips for protecting their users' privacy was also troubling, according to Dixon.

"It's good that they have privacy policies, but I find it troubling that the policies are nearly identical when the sites have different technologies and structures that users interact with, " Dixon said.

Monster.com developed its own list of tips and was "out in front" on the issue, posting the list in November, according to Mullins.

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