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Find a Freelance Job Without the Scam

In January 2012, a woman in Kauai answered an ad on Craigslist for what looked like a dream job. The advertiser was an energy firm called DSL Oil and the opening was for a work-at-home position. She applied, won the job, and the company sent her a check for $3,958, instructing her to keep $200 and wire the rest immediately back to their account. The request was strange enough for the woman to grow suspicious and she refused to send the money. She then received an email apparently from the FBI demanding that she send the cash within twenty four hours or face arrest and certain jail. The jobseeker contacted her local FBI office which informed her that she had been the victim of a “work at home” scam. The check was fake; her wire, which needed to be sent before the check bounced, would have been real.

The story, told on the FBI’s website, isn’t unusual. A search for “work at home jobs” on Google produces more than two billion results but it’s estimated that for every legitimate telecommuting job advertised online, as many as seventy are scams. Nor are those scams new. Back in 2007, when Sara Sutton Fell started looking for a flexible job that would fit her life as  new mom, she too found she herself sorting through a series of suspicious offers and ads that looked too good to be true. Fell, though, had been the co-founder of JobDirect, a job site that was later sold to Korn Ferry International. She knew that flextime and telecommuting jobs do exist and that companies were increasingly willing to advertise them. Still working from home, she launched FlexJobs.com, a jobs site specializing in telecommuting and part-time work but which would check all offers and the companies that make them before posting them on the site.

Flexible Jobs Have Risen 400 Percent

Today, FlexJobs lists more than 10,000 flexible positions in more than 50 career categories. More than 300,000 jobseekers have signed up over the last five years, applying for jobs that range from a telecommuting “Senior Enterprise Account Executive” to a part-time theatrical “Stage Manager” and from a “Freelance Traffic Manager” to a “Digital Design Teacher.” Each month the site releases a “Flexible Jobs Index” that shows the most popular career categories now advertising work with telecommuting or flexible hours. Medical and Health usually tops the list but other popular job categories include Education, Customer Service, Administration, and Sales.

Those positions are becoming increasingly popular. The number of jobs advertised on the site has increased 400 percent over the last five years, says Fell, with a number of major employers turning to telecommuting as a way of saving money. After the IRS closed a number of offices recently in a cost-cutting measure, a series of home-based positions with the IRS turned up on FlexJobs.

“More companies are taking advantage of the cost-benefits of flexible work options like telecommuting, and technology is making it easier than ever to work from home or branch out as a freelancer,” says Fell.

The site works by reversing the usual business model for jobs sites in favor of the model used on freelance sites. While Monster.com is free for jobseekers but charges advertisers, FlexJobs, like Elance, is free for businesses but charges jobseekers and freelancers. The fees range from $14.95 a month to $49.95 for a year’s membership. In return for their payment, users receive two services: aggregation that puts thousands of flexible jobs in one place; and the research that guarantees that those offers are genuine, safe and worthwhile. Each day the company’s researchers spend a combined 50 hours finding, screening and listing flexible job opportunities. Around 400 employers have also passed through an approval process to list jobs directly on the site.

FlexJobs is a Virtual Company

Those researchers are working flexibly too. The company’s 25 staff are scattered across the United States, with one employee in Europe. All work from home. Each week they get together virtually for departmental and company meetings.

“We really don’t run into many difficulties other than the occasional dropped call during our weekly conference calls,” says Fell. “Otherwise, we communicate very similarly to the way we would in an office. We email, IM, use Yammer [and] share documents.”

Although the list of team members posted on FlexJobs’ website includes just one man (another male worker prefers not to put his picture on the site), according to Fell, that division is not representative of the site’s userbase. A survey found that the site’s jobseekers divided evenly between men and women, a demographic picture in line with figures produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Bureau, which looked at workers who worked from home part-time, also found that that telecommuters are more likely to have a college degree and to work in a managerial or professional occupation. (Other research has found that telecommuters typically earn $58,000 per year, with more 75 percent making more than $65,000 per year.)

Surprisingly though, parents, says the Bureau, are only slightly more common among telecommuters than among regular office workers, suggesting that the need to spend more time with the children isn’t the main factor driving workers out of the office and back into the home. When asked why they were looking for a job they could do away from the traditional workplace 79 percent of FlexJobs’ users said they were looking for better work/life balance. Eighty-two percent, however, said that they wanted to be able to work without the distractions of in-office colleagues.

But while the work itself might be taking place in an untraditional (and more comfortable) environment, the way to win those jobs will be very familiar.

“Prepare as you would for seeking for any job,” advises Fell. “Send in a resume specifically for the job you are looking for with a cover letter that makes you stand out. Use your network to help find you an ‘in’ for the company you are applying for. Demonstrate that you can work flexibly.”

And watch out for the scams.

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