4 Red Flags to Look for When Applying to a Media Job

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Last fall, I submitted a flurry of journalism job applications in a panic, hoping to land an interview in this tough market. Soon, I got a promising email from a podcasting company, asking me to take a writing test. But before I could start the test, the company wanted me to subscribe to its platform with a discount code and listen to past episodes. If I got the job, the email explained, I would only get paid if listeners subscribed to the platform after listening to the podcast I wrote.

My heart sank. I realized the gig was among the many job scams in media and tech that I’d been hearing so much about. 

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The Federal Trade Commission reported that business and work opportunity scams increased 179% since 2019, costing victims $490 million in 2023. The FTC also recently issued an alert to warn college students about job scams that are specifically targeting their age group.

“It’s really unfortunate because especially in this market, job seekers are so vulnerable,” said Gillian O’Brien, who has researched recruiting scams as general manager of the job site Remote Talent. “The downside of having a model where anyone can post a job posting for free and it’s unverified is that it’s easy for fraudulent companies, scams, spam and automated ghost jobs to easily get on the platform.”

To avoid these scams, young job seekers should be on the lookout for red flags in job postings, recruiter emails, virtual interviews and offers. Here are some tips. 

Look out for vague or inconsistent language

After graduating from UCLA in 2021, audio journalist and producer Emma Lehman applied to about 500 jobs. At the same time, fake-seeming publications with AI-generated content started emailing her with opportunities that often included poor spelling and weird spacing.

Amid those scams, Lehman interviewed with what looked like a legit content writing company, but she sensed something was off when the person she communicated with via email remained vague about the position’s duties. “I was already a little skeptical because they didn’t say, ‘You’re going to be writing three opinion articles or listicles a week,’” she said. “It was just three articles. … I would ask questions, and they’d provide me with a lot of information that wasn’t related to my question.”

When Lehman ultimately received an offer from the company, it included a lot of random fonts and margins, leading her to suspect a scam. She turned down the job. “It’s an opportunity that you not only did not get, but it was never there in the first place,” she said. “It’s this weird feeling of feeling really dumb and gullible. It’s like you got catfished.”

O’Brien said scammers often use vague language and entry-level requirements to get as many applications and as much engagement on job postings as possible, in an attempt to eventually swindle money from large amounts of people. “This is a more sophisticated thing where they’ve really put in the effort to be extremely believable and reputable so that people will fall for it,” she said. “You’re not going to see many scams that would require an engineer with years of experience, because the number of people who would actually identify as a fit for entering the scam funnel is likely too small.” 

Early in her 13-year career, Radio One Philadelphia assistant program director and on-air personality Ashley “ASHMAC” Maclin encountered many job scams with vague language, especially pertaining to awards show and event coverage. Now, she advises young journalists to be journalists, and even when looking for jobs, to verify posts and job offers lacking in detail.

“I’ve run into situations where it’s an unpaid opportunity that sounds good on paper, but then what happens if the event’s not real?” she said. “The industry is a very small world, and you’re only 1 to 3 degrees away from someone who knows a rep or a manager you could email to verify if this is real.”

Don’t exchange money

While pursuing a graphic design degree at Northwestern University a decade ago, narrative writer and artist Rook Feld interviewed for a gig at a photography website that offered a good salary and benefits. During the virtual chat, he noticed the interviewer never turned on the camera and addressed his questions with vague answers.

“In some ways, I was taken in by this idea of financial stability and doing something that I actually enjoy,” he said. “In retrospect, I looked up the hiring manager’s name and couldn’t find anything on them. They didn’t appear to have a digital footprint, which was a red flag.”

Feld reached the offer stage when the biggest red flag emerged: The company said it would send him thousands of dollars for equipment. He was excited to finally have a company pay for his software and computer, but he soon realized the money was part of a common scam he’d heard of in which companies send checks for large amounts, but then ask for some of the money back. Meanwhile, the deposited check bounces, causing the victim to lose money.

“Something told me I should not try to deposit this check,” Feld said. “What clued me into this scam in particular was that things were not lining up in terms of what they were telling me, who I was talking to and where their headquarters was. And I also brought it up to some friends, and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s fishy.’ They were luckily my voice of reason.”

O’Brien warns job seekers against exchanging money at any point during an interview or job offer process.

“Anyone asking you to spend money for equipment at any point in the process is well-understood to be a scam,” she said. “You should never be spending your own money for any work-related expenses.”

Be wary of spam disguised as recruiters

As soon as Lehman added her UCLA graduation year to her LinkedIn profile, she noticed her DMs and email inbox getting bombarded with job spam and scams. It only increased when she independently produced an investigative podcast, Gooned, which was nominated for several Ambie awards. Podcasting marketers and growth specialists began to target her. 

“I get a lot of people asking me if I want to hire a personal podcast assistant,” she said. “They’re not asking me for a job, so I don’t know what their angle is.” 

As O’Brien points out, the most vulnerable group to scammers is young job seekers – which is why they often look for updated graduation years, as Lehman experienced. 

“College students make an easy and repeatable target because they generally lack the experience to understand what’s normal for an interview process or employment agreement,” O’Brien said. “They tend to be eager to please entry-level employees trying to prove themselves and may be naive, making them particularly susceptible.”

But even experienced journalists and job seekers are at risk. Last fall, freelance journalist Ivan Fernandez received messages purportedly from multiple recruiters about a job posting for a weekly sports columnist at an online media outlet. He considered applying, but he saw that the hourly rate online was different from the one the recruiter had DM’ed. A week later, Fernandez saw a friend’s social media post about the company, warning that they charge an application fee. 

“I actually replied back to one recruiter and said, ‘Hey, I’m getting the same job posting from other folks. Is there serious competition going on here, or what’s the story?’” he said. “I never heard back, and that confirmed for me that this was a scam.”

Composer and sound designer Evdoxia Ragkou said she received an email from a cryptocurrency podcasting company recruiter to schedule a job interview for a podcast editor role. But Ragkou never applied for the job and, upon further examination, she noticed the recruiter’s email address was strange, ending in “.team.” She considered responding, but soon after, she saw a post on an audio listserv warning others of podcast scams coming from email addresses like that.

“My gut was telling me there’s something that’s off with this,” she said. “After realizing it, I thought to myself, wow. I did not respond to these people. I just flagged it as spam and they have not followed up.”

O’Brien advises job seekers to not only look out for scams in job postings, but also in your inbox. “A scam will have an intention from that party to trick you or extract some kind of value from you under hidden means,” she said. “Spam is a really poorly written AI-generated job description that’s not really telling or relevant. There’s no game to get you to give the company money, but it does waste your time.”

Watch out for a lack of human contact

When Lehman interviewed with the content writing company, she repeatedly asked the recruiter to meet via Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams, but the recruiter ignored the request. All communication was only through a single email thread. “At the time, for me, I really wanted a remote job and because that was appealing to me, I kind of let that slide,” she said. 

When freelance writer and editor Danyelle Wilder interviewed for a tutoring job at an educational company, she thought the gig was legitimate because the posting had asked for high qualifications. But when Wilder signed onto the Zoom link, the recruiter never turned their camera on. “I have no idea where this person is in the world,” she said. “Then I went back to the job posting and I noticed that I couldn’t actually find where this job was located. It wasn’t even in the United States.”

O’Brien says such lack of human contact is common in job scams, and often just one of many red flags in the application process.

“You should also be able to talk to these people in person or on Zoom,” she said. “If they’re trying to conduct the interview over text or only over email, and you’re just really not getting the information that you need, … one red flag won’t necessarily tip you off, but it’s the combination of all of these things that will start to paint a picture.”

Mallory Carra

Mallory Carra is a journalist, editor and USC adjunct journalism professor based in Los Angeles, where she teaches digital and audio journalism. Her bylines have appeared in Cosmopolitan, E! News, Teen Vogue and elsewhere.