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Is This the Worst TEFL Job Scam?
It’s almost a given that English teachers will have to navigate their way through numerous scams, but usually these happen while they’re traveling around their expat home – not in their professional lives. However, wherever there is money to be made there are con artists, scheming about how to trick unsuspecting victims into giving up their cash. The best defense is to educate yourself thoroughly on the types of teaching job scams out there and how you can spot the red flags. Lucy (not her real name) suffered perhaps the most elaborate and worst TEFL job scam we’ve heard of to date and is sharing her story so that others will be on guard against scammers.
While looking for jobs after completing her CELTA, a position in sunny Spain caught Lucy’s eye. She sent her resume to the email address listed on the advert, a gmail address, but heard nothing in reply. About six months after the fact, she received a response, offering her an interview with their sister school, Sprake School in Zaragoza, Spain. After a successful Skype interview, Lucy was hired and provided with a contract. A life in breezy, beautiful Spain was waiting for her.
Interviews and job offers are only the first step in securing a job teaching abroad, and Lucy entered the quagmire of obtaining a Spanish visa as a US citizen. Bureaucracy is notoriously difficult, and her new employer generously set her up with an immigration lawyer and a booking agent for her flight. Trying to be cautious, Lucy double-checked information along the way, including the lawyer’s website, and everything seemed legitimate.
But things soon took an unusual turn.
Both the school and the immigration lawyer began asking for money – not for themselves, but to support the visa process. According to the contract, the school would provide housing for Lucy. They sent photos and a receipt, only asking if she would put down the initial security deposit. They assured her that it was refundable, so Lucy sent the money. Lucy also invested money into a refundable plane ticket, which she was told was required for the visa process. She did this with an Iberian Express agent provided by the school.
The immigration lawyer had several requests too. The most significant one was for four months’ worth of salary to be transferred into a Spanish bank account, something he claimed was necessary to obtain her visa. Lucy hesitated and convinced the lawyer to submit the visa paperwork using information from her US bank account. He did, but the paperwork came back rejected. At this point, Lucy felt like there was no other choice. After the school persuaded her that the funds in the Spanish bank account were secure and could only be accessed by her, she sent two months’ worth of salary – thousands of dollars. The school promised to provide the rest of the required funds.
Lucy checked and double-checked. She did her own research on the visa process, she asked pointed questions, she even had the immigration lawyer forward her emails from the Spanish government. Despite her growing unease, everything seemed to check out. But the visa process dragged on. She had been hired in the spring, and now the end of the year was approaching. Throughout the entire process she had been checking the school’s website and searching for information on scams. And on Christmas Eve, when she was doing a routine double-check, she found out the truth.
She pulled up Sprake School’s website, and there on the front page highlighted in bright red was a warning – a scammer had been using the school’s name to entrap teachers.
Her investment of months of waiting and thousands of dollars all came crashing down around Lucy. She didn’t know what was legitimate and what wasn’t. Who had interviewed her? Was her flight booking real? Who was the immigration lawyer she had been communicating with? How much of the visa paperwork was legitimate? Most importantly – what had happened to all that money she had transferred to the Spanish bank?
At this point, Lucy is working with the real owner of Sprake School and the Spanish police to find out how much – if any – of her money can be recovered. She agreed to share her experience under a pseudonym as a warning to other teachers that job scams of this depth and professionalism exist in the TEFL world. Con artists may go to extraordinary measures to craft their deceptions, but there are a few ways you can protect yourself from a TEFL job scam.
Tips on How to Avoid a TEFL Job Scam
Vet the company yourself. Job boards and portals usually do not guarantee the legitimacy of a company. They simply gather information to share in an accessible way. No matter where you found out about the job, devote some time to research and examine the company.
Double-check email addresses. While this may not be a huge red flag in it of itself, pay attention as you receive emails from the school, especially from different employees. Does everyone use personal email accounts? Or do some look like official business accounts? Do they match each other and the school’s website? In Lucy’s story, the scammers used everything from personal gmail accounts to accounts that looked very similar to the school’s real accounts but with a one or two letter difference.
Research the school’s digital footprint. What makes this scam so convincing is that the scammers used a real website. If you have doubts about the authenticity of a website, you can do a DNS WHOIS Lookup to see more information about the site, including when it was created. Also check to see if the school has any social media accounts or reviews by students or employees. Again, this might not yield much if the scammers are using a real company as a front, but look for any incongruities to signal a red flag.
Be highly suspicious of anyone who asks you to invest money. While paying out-of-pocket for flights and visas is standard, any other request for money should be questioned. A recent scam happened to freelance photographers in which they were swindled out of money for ‘bribes’ and ‘permit fees’ while on assignments in Southeast Asia. Once they paid the money, the photographers were even given official-looking receipts. But the assignments they thought they were working on turned out to be pure hoaxes, and they lost thousands of dollars because they had invested their own money on the promise of reimbursement. Be wary of any additional ‘fees’ and – if they seem legitimate – try to pay them directly instead of through a third person.
Make sure you know the visa and registration process. While it’s easy to just follow along with what your employer asks, thinking they’ve done this a dozen times before, protect yourself by being informed about the official requirements and timeline for the visa. Also read up on what happens once you arrive. You may have additional registration procedures to go through, requiring more time or investment.
Ask to connect with current or past employees. A good way to vet a potential employer is to talk to current or previous employees. If the employer is hesitant about putting you in touch with these people, it may be because they don’t have very nice things to say – or maybe they don’t exist! Even if you do get some email addresses, it’s possible they are dummies accounts, used by the scammer. See if you can find these people via social media to confirm that they actually do work for the company.
Ask your contacts if they know anything about the school. The TEFL world is a small one, and people are normally happy to share information. Even if no one has worked at or knows of your potential employer, they might be familiar with the job market of your target destination. They can help give you advice about what is ‘normal’ or expected when starting a job there. And if you don’t know anyone personally, ask the online community. Look for expat Facebook groups or forums to see if someone there has insight.
Trust your gut. When a teacher decides to work abroad, they are making a huge investment. If you start to feel uncomfortable with any requests from a potential employer, don’t be afraid to slow down. If you have doubts, take time to research. Lucy managed to minimize some of her losses by delaying fees requested by the immigration lawyer and by constantly checking the school’s website. If she hadn’t found the scam notice, she might have lost even more money.
Have you ever been the victim of a TEFL job scam? What advice can you share to stop this from happening to other English teachers?
(Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker CC BY 2.0)
Amy snagged a CELTA from Teaching House New York in 2013 and since then has taught on three continents (and counting). Having a CELTA has made her dream of moving abroad possible, and currently she is slow-traveling through Europe. She loves getting to know students, wandering around cities, and trying to find the world’s best donut. You can check out her travel adventures and mishaps at The Wayfarer’s Book.