One of the most common questions on the Careers section of “Yahoo Answers” is about online jobs – “where can I find one.” People submitting these questions are usually referring to jobs they can complete at home, with a computer and an internet connection and/or phone.

Most internet users are savvy enough to realize that many of these jobs are scams (or, worse yet, setups for identity theft). Broadly speaking, there are three common types of legitimate, web- or phone-based, “work from home” jobs.

Surveys
The first is taking surveys, and only a handful of these “jobs” are legitimate and pay decently. There are additional caveats to be aware of. First, most of these start you out at a very low rate for completing surveys – you have to “prove” yourself before you start getting paid more. Second, almost all surveys have a designated demographic audience they are intended for (middle to upper class moms are a popular example).

Third, you will often start a survey and get disqualified after a few questions. (For example, let’s say the first question is whether you dye your hair and whether you do it yourself. Answering “no” to the second question will disqualify you for a survey about a new hair dye to be sold in grocery stores.)

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Add all these caveats together and average out the time you spend and the money you make, and you’ll see that taking surveys online at home isn’t very profitable. Just as importantly, I have yet to see a legitimate source where you can take as many as you want, when you want. Rather, they send them your way when they want to, and you have a limited window of time to complete them in. So you can’t even control your income by putting in additional time when you want to.

Telecommuting Jobs

There are a variety of jobs out there that enable employees to work from home. They are very rarely advertised as such, because the fact that you are working from home is secondary. For example, there are call enter/telephone support jobs that are setup to allow the operators to work from home.

These are advertised as “Call Center” jobs, not “work from home” jobs. Hiring is done based on your skills and experience, so you need to have the right background. There are other reasons that most telecommuting jobs aren’t the “easy street” type of opportunities that many people are hoping to find:

  • Often, you need to prove yourself in an office setting before being allowed to work from home.
  • You generally need to go into the office periodically, so these aren’t “global” opportunities (e.g., live in LA, work for a company in NY).
  • Only certain types of jobs lend themselves to this arrangement – jobs where your productivity can be easily measured. It’s easy to measure every aspect of a call center rep’s productivity, for example. Or many pages per hour a medical transcriptional completes. Other jobs can’t be easily measured, and employers tend to want to oversee performance in an office setting

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Entrepreneur/Independent Contractor

If you make yourself an expert at a task that can be completed mostly or entirely online – especially if it’s an unusual skill of great value to employers – you can easily create the ultimate work from home, online job. You can control your hours and make lots of money, and you aren’t at the mercy of clever scam artists.

Here are a few examples of jobs that lend themselves to sitting at home, using the web and running the show:

  1. Search engine optimization specialist. Help employers get more traffic on their web sites.
  2. There are “virtual” web-based translation agencies that operate 24×7, responding to individual and business needs for translation services.
  3. PR guru. The world of PR has mostly migrated onto the internet. If you know how to generate buzz for businesses, there’s little need for face time with clients.
  4. Start your own Web site. How to begin and grow a profitable online business is a whole other story, but it’s probably the best way to make a fortune on the web.

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What To Watch Out For

There are a variety of hallmarks of scam “work from home” opportunities. The slickest scammers avoid many of these, so don’t expect to see all (or even most) of these “red flags.” Even 1-2 should make you very cautious.

  1. You can’t find a web site or (more importantly) a postal address for the business.
  2. Links in email messages they send you take you to different URLs than they appear to be setup for.
  3. People who contact you (e.g., “recruiters”) use disposable email addresses (like Hotmail) and cellular phones, instead of valid corporate email addresses and office phone numbers.
  4. The opportunity “sounds too good to be true.”
  5. They try to collect any sort of personal information, such as credit card numbers or social security number. This one is tricky, because (in the US, anyway) a legitimate employment opportunity requires an employer to ask for and verify your social security number before you can actually start working.

By far and away, the primary red flag to watch out for is when they try to collect money from you. After all, that’s the scam – that’s why scammers are out there, what they are looking for! Note that scammers can be very clever in how they justify their request: “starter kit,” “setup fee,” “training fee,” “down payment,” “retainer,” “deposit,” etc. There are a very small number of legitimate opportunities that require a fee (generally in exchange for something of significant and equal value) but you should view any request for payment with extreme suspicion.