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Sunday, February 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Help-wanted pitch may have surprise curve

Seattle Times business reporter

Some ad advice


How can you tell a legitimate job ad from one that leads you to an unwanted sales pitch, an expensive training program or a fee-based service? Consumer advocates offer this advice:

Real companies


explain what the nature of the job is. "If they won't answer your questions on the phone, ask yourself, is this somebody you want to do business with?" said Bob Lipson, assistant attorney general for Washington.

Real jobs


demand skills commensurate with pay. "If you can make $2,000 a month part-time, you would earn $25 an hour," says Rosalind Mays Welch, author of "The Real Deal on Telecommuting." "When have you ever come across an entry-level position that pays $25 an hour?"

Real employers


rarely publish pay ranges. Except for government jobs, most companies omit salary information in help-wanted ads. Those advertising non-jobs use it as a lure.

Real ads


don't guarantee jobs. If it's an ad from an employment agency, watch out for words like "guaranteed placement" or "hidden job market." Chances are it's from an agency that charges job seekers an up-front fee, often for job listings that are already public.

After months of unemployment, the help-wanted section is like a bar at 2 a.m. — and advertisements shouting "NO EXP. NEC.!!" "Earn $100,000!!!" and other implausible promises can look pretty good.

Yet, as some job seekers have found, the more breathy, persuasive or vague the ad, the less likely it involves a standard opening.

These are not scams, since most mainstream newspapers and Internet job boards reject advertisements for phony home-based businesses, pyramid schemes and other business "opportunities" that prey on the jobless.

But they're not what they appear to be, either.

Some are placed to lure job seekers to "interviews" that turn out to be hours-long sales pitches to recruit people to sell vitamin supplements or kitchen knives to friends and family.

Others are from employment agencies advertising job types rather than specific openings in hopes of getting job hunters to pay a fee to access a so-called hidden high-paying job market.

And some are for legitimate openings once-removed. You can apply but you'll need some training first, and it'll cost you.

Jeff Bray discovered this when he answered an ad for an auto-sales jobs paying up to six figures, no experience necessary.

The 29-year-old Marysville man had lost his job as a restaurant manager two months earlier. He'd never considered the car business and wouldn't have given the ad a second glance if it hadn't included the magic words "join our training program."

"When you're looking for work and you haven't received any offers, anything's pretty appealing."

So he showed up at a car dealership in Lynnwood thinking he'd be interviewing with a sales manager.

Instead, he and about 20 other candidates were guided to a nearby Best Western, where they sat through a training course that lasted all day.

Bray said the coordinator told him he had the potential to be a good salesman, but that if he wanted to continue with the three-day training, he'd have to pay a $589 tuition fee.

"I was like, $600, that's a lot of money," Bray said, "especially when the majority of us are unemployed."

The interviewer suggested Bray come back the next day and the two could work out the finances.

"I was so ticked I just ended up walking out the door."

Signs of encouragement

Thomas Lopez, 29, a former communications director for a software company, had a similar experience when he went for an interview at a Kirkland dealership.

After failing to get responses from local technology companies, he was encouraged by the attention, even though he had no experience or interest in that work.

By the middle of a daylong orientation, Lopez and about 10 other hopefuls learned this "opportunity" would cost them about $600 — a detail not mentioned in the ad.

"There were a lot of guys who were laid-off engineers who disappeared around lunchtime," said Lopez. He stayed for the rest of the day but did not return for the paid portion of the training.

Bray and Lopez may not have been so miffed if they had known their "interview" was a pitch to attend a paid training course. Then again, both said if they had known, they wouldn't have shown up in the first place.

New Jersey-based AutoMax Sales Training and Consulting, which placed the ad and trains inexperienced job seekers on behalf of local car dealerships, figured as much. That's why it omits any mention of a tuition fee when recruiting participants.

"The challenge would be that, essentially, no one would respond," said Ernie Kasprowicz, national sales director for AutoMax. "We've tried that before."

Candidates are more apt to sign up for training once they realize the value, he said, and dealerships will often reimburse new hires for the cost. Still, completing the training does not guarantee a job.

Missing vs. misleading

Bob Lipson, an assistant attorney general for Washington, said pitches that omit important facts, such as fees, could be considered misleading or deceptive and a violation of the state's consumer-protection laws.

"There's nothing wrong with requiring someone to go through training and pay for it," he said. "It's a question of when do they have an obligation to tell that? Clearly the earlier, the better."

In AutoMax's case, applicants are told early the first day of the training seminar, Kasprowicz said. (Bray said he didn't learn about the tuition fee until several hours had passed.)

AutoMax is a member in good standing of the Better Business Bureau and has had no complaints filed against it with the state Attorney General's Office.

While some advertisements get desperate job hunters in the door for a sales pitch, they can also create an angry backlash.

Consider Vector Marketing, a national company that recruits college students to sell Cutco knives door-to-door or though sales demonstrations similar to Tupperware parties.

Vector advertises in newspapers and on fliers on campus bulletin boards, but its ads rarely explain the nature of the work.

Sales job, but not in store

Matt Barnes from Gig Harbor believed he was misled last summer when he applied for what he thought was a $12.50-an-hour sales job. The company would not specify the nature of the job, but Barnes assumed it was in a retail store.

When he showed up for an interview, he and a few dozen other people found themselves stuck in a half-day presentation on how to become independent sales reps for Cutco.

The $12.50 was not an hourly wage but payment for each sales demonstration, conservatively estimated to take about an hour.

Barnes, then a 19-year-old student at Central Washington University, half-heartedly signed up for unpaid training to become a Cutco Cutlery sales representative but he had no plans to attend the courses. "I never showed up, and they never contacted me."

Other students have felt similarly duped by Vector's practices, including not explaining the nature of the work before job candidates arrive at the "interview," asking for an up-front deposit for a sample cutlery kit, and requiring contractors to attend weekly meetings without pay.

Payback time via Net

While job seekers' discontent in the past may have been contained to word of mouth on campuses, it's now aired on the Internet.

The Complaint Station, a Web site where consumers can post their beefs, has logged more than 4,200 complaints against Cutco Cutlery and Vector Marketing. David Ferris, a college student at Columbia University in New York, was so disturbed by Vector's recruiting practices and his own experience that he started SAVE, Students Against Vector Exploitation.

The loosely affiliated organization collects members who share their rants on a Yahoo! newsgroup, which has led to several stories in college newspapers.

"We hope to reform the company," Ferris said. "Basically, force them to adopt a policy of honesty and openness and good ethics."

The bad press had at least one regional manager wincing. Brad Britton, who oversees Vector's Western territory, which includes Washington, said the company has been improving its practices but that some locations have been slower to catch up than others.

"I will tell you that we are actively pursuing total transparency," he said. "We will be completely above reproach in all aspects of recruiting and in sales."

Indeed, Vector's recent newspaper ads in Seattle refer to the rate as a "base appointment," rather than an hourly wage.

The experience taught Barnes a lesson in caveat emptor. When he responded to another help-wanted ad and the receptionist suggested he come down for an interview that day, he demanded information from the manager.

"I was like, I want to know exactly what I'd be doing." It turned out to be a telemarketing job.

Barnes canceled his appointment.

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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