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Monthly archive for November 2016

Do you discriminate against employers? You should.

Quick Question

How do you deal with online and phone interviews where they blatantly ask, “What year did you graduate?” Upon receiving the answer, they hang up. This is clearly age discrimination!

Nick’s Quick Advice

talk-to-the-handWell, you decline to answer, hang up, and chalk up another company you’d never dare to work for. In other words, you discriminate.

When employers rough up job applicants like that, it’s a sign that you’re dealing with jerks. They run through applicants like chaff in the wind; you can (and should) do the same to them.

And when you’re fed up with all the chaff in the wind, stop applying for jobs via ads. Start hanging out with people who do the work you want to do, make friends, build trust, get accepted, get referred, get hired. (See Get Hired: 3 steps to become the wired insider for the job.)

Just because 50 million people apply for jobs the way HR wants them to doesn’t make it right, smart, or productive. Just say no.

Go meet the people you want to work with where they congregate. That means it’s up to you. It’s not automated. Automated is a lie.

See How and when to reject a job interview. (This cuts both ways.)


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Who’s behind the SevenFigureCareers recruiting scam?

recruiting-scam[See Update at end of this article.]

SevenFigureCareers is a recruiting firm that doesn’t recruit. Real recruiters are paid by employers to find candidates to fill jobs — they don’t charge job seekers. In a recruiting scam, you pay the fee.

SevenFigureCareers’ recruiters charge you a fee to set up bogus interviews with phony managing partners at fake private equity (PE) firms. And then you’re out $1,500, $2,500, $4,500 or $10,000 — depending on which iteration of this racket you did business with.

After months of research driven by loads of information crowd-sourced from the Ask The Headhunter community, best estimates are that this international scam has generated as much as $18 million since 1999.

A 17-year racket

The people behind this scam have operated at least four different recruiting firms that have each operated under several names themselves:

  • Executive Headhunter Group (Executive HGG)
  • Private Equity Headhunters (PEH)
  • Executive Top Gun Search (Top Gun, ETG)
  • SevenFigureCareers (7F, 7figcareers)

With each iteration, complaints have piled up on sites like RipOffReport, Scam.org, and Ask The Headhunter. Victims have sued for breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, common law fraud, and consumer fraud — and won judgments in court.

The owners of these firms have impersonated attorneys and threatened their victims. They use invalid contracts and have had their credit card merchant account cancelled as a result. Since 1999, when the heat got too high from victims they burned, the scammers created new fake websites, new fake PE firms, and new fake recruiters — and kept running the same racket.

Who could fall for such a scam? How can a fake business collect millions in fees via credit cards? Who’s behind this — and why haven’t they been busted?

We’ve already answered the first two questions in 7F: Anatomy of A Recruiting Scam and in WWEJSS: How does a fake recruiting firm get a credit card merchant account? Information and documents supplied by people familiar with the scam lead step-by-step to companies, websites, street addresses and names that are all connected by WWEJSS, LLC, “a Texas corporation” that does not exist.

WWEJSS

In the current scam, SevenFigureCareers, victims sign a contract for services and pay thousands of dollars by credit card. As we’ve already seen, the contract is bogus because the company behind it, WWEJSS, LLC, “a Texas corporation” is phony. (Even the wording on the contract is bogus, because an LLC is not a corporation.) The Texas Secretary of State confirms there is no such legal entity registered — and it must be registered if it is to conduct business.

While the contract is legally invalid, an American Express merchant account tied to that contract was very real. The contract, the account, and the domain SevenFigureCareers.com are all tied to WWEJSS.

We know WWEJSS is phony because American Express cancelled its merchant account and refunded charges collected from cardholders for fake “services” rendered.

7f-wix-1So, who’s behind this scam outfit, and who owns SevenFigureCareers.com?

A search for WWEJSS turns up a tech-support thread loaded with profanity at Wix.com, a website developer tool. The customer wwejss refers to his website, 7figuresrecruiting.com, one of the Internet domains related to SevenFigureCareers.com.

This bit of information will be helpful later. But what we’re looking for is a name tied to WWEJSS.

Who Is It?

A WHOIS database search for SevenFigureCareers.com turns up a domain registration whose owner is hidden. For a few bucks, anyone can privately register a domain name. Note the creation date of this domain registration: March 20, 2015.

7f-whois-db

DNS Record History

But what’s hidden on the Internet is not always completely hidden. StatsInfinity — an Internet statistics tool — reveals a Domain Name System (DNS) record history that confirms SevenFigureCareers.com was registered on March 20, 2015.
7f-statsfinity
Unlike WHOIS, StatsInfinity also shows the history of the domain, which reveals the owner’s name, street address, e-mail address, and phone number. The owner’s name is listed as “Worldwide WWEJSS.”

Note the phone number: (832) 912-4445. We’ll call it later to see who answers.

Apparently, whoever established this domain locked the ownership information afterwards. But the details were captured and preserved by StatsInfinity.

Craig Chrest

Closer inspection delivers the gold nugget of information we’ve been looking for. There’s a name now connected to WWEJSS and SevenFigureCareers.com on a public document that also serves as a legal Internet registration: Craig Chrest.
7f-statsinfinity-chrest

Iterations of the scam

Internet research reveals that this recruiting scam is not new. Several iterations going back to at least 1999 can be traced to the same operating entity — WWEJSS — and Craig Chrest. Before we get to the name connected to SevenFigureCareers.com, let’s go back to the domain name we found on the Wix.com support page, 7figuresrecruiting.com. (If this is not a chronological history, it’s how Internet data led to each of the companies involved.)

#1: Private Equity Headhunters

A Google search for “7figuresrecruiting.com” takes us to ScamOrg.com, where we find a lengthy report about another company, Private Equity Headhunters LLC, which pre-dates SevenFigureCareers. (You may need a score card to keep track.)

7f-pehhsOne victim connects this firm with 7figuresrecruiting. And who turns up in the complaints but “Art French (salesman),” who refers to himself in e-mails as “VP Recruiting” at SevenFigureCareers.com. (For more about Mr. French and his twin brother Tony, see 7F: Anatomy of A Recruiting Scam.)

And right beside French is “John Chris, account manager,” known as “James Chris — V.P. Account Management” at SevenFigureCareers. He apparently goes by “Chris Johnson” at PEH.

#2: Executive Top Gun Search

An earlier recruiting firm surfaces when we examine the addresses of these entities, and it’s tied to the same owner.

The street address on Craig Chrest’s current SevenFigureCareers.com domain registration is 12841 Jones Road, Houston, Texas. A search for this address on TexasCorporates.com turns up another Chrest property: Executive Top Gun Search, LLC — at the same address.

7f-top-gun-address

While WWEJSS and SevenFigureCareers are not legally registered entities, Executive – Top Gun Search, LLC was registered in Texas on May 30, 2002 by Craig N. Chrest at 12019 Bexhill Dr., Houston, TX, 77065. The registration is still active.

Now let’s jump forward to SevenFigureCareers. Note Chrest’s middle initial on the Top Gun registration — N. While his name is never used by anyone at SevenFigureCareers, his initials make their way into the business. 7f-chrest-nAccording to myrelatives.com, the N stands for Nicholas.

When victims of SevenFigureCareers filed disputes with American Express, the merchant was required to document the transactions and submit supporting information to AmEx. When those victims also complained to Art French, he called them back to announce “we won the settlement — we always do.” Then French offered to put them in touch with “the CEO of the company” — C.R. Nicholas — because “our CEO would like to make things right with you.”

Listen to a voicemail left by French for a victim:

 

      Art French

Mr. Nicholas” (CRaig Nicholas Chrest?), later left this message for the same victim:

 

      CR Nicholas

When the victim spoke with Nicholas, Nicholas ranted about how Ask The Headhunter is “scamming” SevenFigureCareers and causing trouble — but Nicholas would “look into getting you your money back.”

French was lying, and so was Nicholas. AmEx not only refunded the victims’ money, AmEx cancelled the merchant account.

Now that we have a first, middle and last name for the owner of these companies, let’s get back to Top Gun. Websites for Executive Top Gun Search disappeared after customer complaints revealed the scam on sites like RipOffReport. (See links to complaints below.) Searches for the firm turn up nothing but complaints.

#3: The Executive Headhunter Group

The earliest iteration of Chrest’s recruiting business is referenced in a press release that claims Craig Chrest started The Executive Headhunter Group in 1999. This glowing article on SBWire is dated 2011 and is loaded with text links to Top Gun — but they’re all dead pages.

7f-hhg-sbwire

A 2013  prweb press release refers to this iteration by another name — “Executive HHG.” It’s filled with links to a “domain for sale” page.

7f-hhg-prweb

The firm’s website is gone, but there are plenty of complaints lodged against it and Craig Chrest. The complainants tie Executive HGG to Top Gun.

#4: SevenFigureCareers

7f-wwejsslss-usplacesThe most recent iteration of this recruiting scam has been documented extensively on Ask The Headhunter.

WWEJSSLSS?

Another variation of the WWEJSS name turns up on USplaces.com — this time as WWEJSSLLS. LLS has no meaning I’ve been able to discern.

Is this another recruiting business? Perhaps it’s just another sloppy error — intended to be “LLC.” More likely it’s intended to cause more confusion for potential suckers doing their due diligence.

But it’s yet another business listed at the 12841 Jones Road address that again and again leads back to Chrest.

Unraveling WWEJSS

Legal filings connecting WWEJSS and Craig Chrest tie all the entities together with names, addresses, and telephone numbers.

There was no indication what the letters WWEJSS stood for until one of the victims pressed American Express for more detailed information about the name of this merchant on credit card bills and on the SevenFigureCareers contract. AmEx coughed up the solution: Worldwide Executive Job Search Solutions. But the only address AmEx would provide is “Suite 201, Houston, TX.” A spokesperson for American Express declined to explain why it won’t give cardholders the full address of one of its merchants.

While WWEJSS is not a registered entity, thus rendering the SevenFigureCareers contract invalid, Worldwide Executive Job Search Solutions, LLC is registered in Texas. But the registration — like the SevenFigureCareers.com domain name — is hidden, this time behind a “registered agent service.” Someone doesn’t want to be found.

7f-wej2

But in the world of government registrations, you can’t hide. Ask The Headhunter’s attorneys turned up this summary of the LLC’s true owners:

7f-wej1

Craig Crest is listed as a member, or owner, of the LLC. The rest of the details are in the complete Certificate of Formation filed by Chrest’s partner, Franklin Wescott Straussbaugh, with the State of Texas.

LLCs are interesting legal entities. They’re not corporations and technically they’re not partnerships. They have members (owners) and they have managers. The formation certificate declared all the members managers. Less than a month later, Straussbaugh filed a Certificate of Correction making Chrest the sole manager of the LLC. The other two members, Jaree Zafar and Franklin W. Straussbaugh, remain members and owners. (Soon we’ll see that Straussbaugh is more than just a member.)

[See Update at end of this article. Zafar claims Chrest added him to the LLC without his knowledge or consent and says he is taking legal action to be removed.]

Executive Top Gun Search, LLC (a.k.a. ETG) was registered by Craig N. Chrest on May 30, 2002.

7f-etg1

The Ask The Headhunter legal team pulled ETG’s Articles of Organization, filed May 30, 2002 by Chrest. He is the only member and manager of record.

Privateequityheadhunters.Com, LLC (a.k.a. PEH) was registered June 27, 2013 by another registered agent, InCorp Services, Inc. But PEH’s Certificate of Formation shows this LLC was organized by Jaree Zafar, Chrest’s partner at Worldwide Executive Job Search Solutions, LLC. [See Update below. Zafar claims Chrest forged his digital signature.] But according to the Certificate, Craig Chrest is the real manager behind all the legal shielding — he’s the guy behind Worldwide Executive Job Search Solutions, LLC, which is listed as “the governing person…” and “Managing Member”:
7f-peh-cert1

By skipping from one business entity to the next, Chrest and his team tried to escape the torches and pitchforks that were pursuing them online and in the courts.

12841 Jones Rd Ste 201, Houston, Texas

 

The address listed by Chrest on business filings, 12218 Jones Road, Suite D-108, Houston, TX, 77070, is a Mailboxes Plus store — a mail dropbox.

7f-12218jonesrd-ste-d

According to public records, Executive Top Gun Search (ETG), Top Gun Executive Group, Worldwide WWEJSS and WWEJSSLLS are located at 12841 Jones Road, Suite 201 in Houston, Texas, phone number (832) 912-4445. It’s not clear why American Express hides the “12841 Jones Road” part of this address from cardholders who have demanded contact information about the AmEx merchant that bilked them.

Earlier, we noted the phone number listed on the domain registration for SevenFigureCareers.com — it’s the same. While the number listed on the SevenFigureCareers website (at 600 W. Broadway, San Diego, CA), and the number C.R. Nicholas says he’s calling from, is (866) 621-1062, the telephone number under which the businesses are registered, (832) 912-4445 is answered by a man who says, “Billing.”

When I called for comments about the subject of this article, the man answering denies he is Craig Chrest and says he is not familiar with any of the firms or people we’re talking about. He says he’s not in Suite 201, but in 301. The building’s manager says there is no Suite 301 or third floor in this building, where offices are rented to lawyers and other businesses.

The voice answering  (832) 912-4445 is, in my opinion, the same as the voice on voicemails left by C.R. Nicholas.

When Ask The Headhunter visited the building, we found a directory of occupants inside the front door. The business occupying Suite 201 is “CNC.” Could that refer to Craig Nicholas Chrest? This seems to be the real home of all the recruiting firms connected to WWEJSS.

Who is Craig Chrest?

Craig Chrest, the documented owner of the SevenFigureCareers.com domain is also the man who owns, manages and controls Top Gun Executive Search, Private Equity Headhunters, Executive HGG, and Worldwide Executive Job Search Solutions (WWEJSS) — but has no LinkedIn connection to any of these business entities.

What successful business person isn’t on LinkedIn? Not Arthur or Tony French. Not C.R. Nicholas or Wesley Strauss or others connected to these firms. Franklin Wescott Straussbaugh does not exist on the Internet. Not even the notable entrepreneur Mark Allen is on LinkedIn, and he’s the managing partner at the notable Agile Capital Partners who “interviewed” victims for seven-figure jobs… just on the phone.

But Craig Chrest has quite a presence online, if you know to look for him.

According to public records and to promotional materials he published himself, Craig “Chip” Chrest played football at the University of Wisconsin – LaCrosse, and later in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers and the Cleveland Browns.

Chrest published the Top Gun Executive Group’s Blog during 2011. Judging from comments on his posts, the blog was used to create a “presence” to bolster the brand. The names and comments on his posts are nonsense.

7f-weebly
Many other Top Gun pages appear on third-party hosts, clearly intended to create as big an Internet presence as possible. For example, Yola lets anyone build a free business web presence.

7f-chrest-pix-17f-chrest-pix-2Chrest published The Top Gun Executive Group on Yola. It includes a promotional headshot, reproduced here.

Another photo captioned with Chrest’s name appears on a recruiting association website, Top Echelon.

A biography published on fandom reports that Chrest majored in journalism and marketing, sold software and medical equipment, and founded Executive HHG in Houston, Texas in 2013.

Top Gun In Trouble

Fandom also reports that:

In 2013, Chrest and Top Gun were defendants in two civil court cases in which the jury awarded the plaintiff all actual damages and attorney fees of 4 times actual damages for one and subsequently additional damages for the second.

The biography links to Texas attorney Bradley J. Aiken, whose website provides more details about Michael Heartsong v. Executive-Top Gun Search LLC.

7f-lawsuit-1

Chrest testified in this trial and lost. A unanimous jury awarded four times actual damages to the plaintiff for “misrepresentations and breach of an employment search services contract.” Michael Heartsong never collected a dime of the judgment. Chrest claimed bankruptcy.

In 2010, New Jersey resident Vincent Peters sued The Top Gun Executive Group and, after multiple appeals, in 2013 won a final judgment from the 14th Court of Appeals in the State of Texas. LawCitations.com provides details, including this excerpt:

BACKGROUND Peters is a resident of New Jersey, and Top Gun is incorporated in Texas with its principal place of business in Texas. Peters and Top Gun signed a contract for Top Gun to locate employment opportunities for Peters, among other things. Peters paid Top Gun $4,500 for the service. Peters eventually sued Top Gun in New Jersey for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, common law fraud, consumer fraud in violation of a New Jersey statute, and attorney‘s fees. Peters obtained a default judgment for $18,680.62 and filed the judgment in Texas pursuant to UEFJA.

According to public court records obtained at MoreLaw.com, Top Gun “owner Craig Chrest” was the only witness. Additional court documents are available at Justia.com. According to plaintiff Peters, Chrest has never paid the judgment. He claimed bankruptcy.

Complaints

Websites connected to older iterations of Chrest’s recruiting firms have disappeared. But complaint sites document more PE firms, addresses, and names of individuals connected to this series of scams. While people posting complaints do so anonymously, their stories are consistent and the pieces fit together across sites and time.

7f-scamorg-3 7f-scamorg-4Complaints dated 2013-2016 appear on FacebookYelp, Scam.org and RipOffReport and refer to Craig Chrest, Arthur French, Wes Strauss, Wes Anderson, CR Nichols, Wade Ahmed, Douglass Robinson, to “The Top Gun Executive Group AKA Executive Headhunter Group (along with other aliases),” and an enormous cast of characters.

7f-scamorg-5

7f-yelp-1

7f-scamorg-6

Threats against victims

One of the RipOffReports features “retaliation responses” trying to discredit victims. The responses are never credible and offer no trackable source. A legitimate company would respond and provide a name and contact information.

Perhaps the most interesting collection of victims’ stories appears on ScamOrg.com, about Private Equity Headhunters LLC. It’s chock full of names associated with various iterations of the scam, among them some familiar to victims of SevenFigureCareers. These complaints also triggered “responses” threatening the complainers.

7f-scamorg-1 7f-scamorg-2
It seems the threats frightened some complainers into silence, including a case where the scammers posted the full name of a victim — apparently to intimidate her. But judging from Scam.org postings, victims caught on and lost their fears.

Evolution of the non-disclosure threat

As complaints mounted, each firm disappeared and a new one popped up to replace it. This seems to explain why the newest “contract” — for SevenFigureCareers — includes a wild non-disclosure (NDA) clause that warns victims they’ll be liable for tens of thousands of dollars if they ever speak up.

7f-contract-2

This NDA strategy seems to have shut up new victims, notably John Rice, who first posted his complaint on Ask The Headhunter. Rice then asked me to remove it when a phony lawyer sent him a nasty e-mail invoking the confidentiality clause. The NDA seemed to be working — for a while.

But we learned the lawyer was fake — which prompted legal review of the contract, and investigation of WWEJSS. It’s all phony, thus the threats are once again empty. And now victims are not just posting complaints. Victims are delivering documentation that has led to the exposure of the entire ring and the whole string of recruiting companies under Craig Chrest’s registrations.

How big is the scam?

It’s big. Multi-million-dollars big.

Size of the operation

While it might seem there are many people involved in the operation discussed in this series of articles, indications are that it’s just a handful.

According to victims, Chrest handles the database and operations from Houston (including “Billing”). People familiar with Straussbaugh suggest he’s the voice on the phone — Arthur and Tony French, a.k.a. Wesley Strauss and Wes Anderson — doing the sales pitches and coddling the victims until they realize their money is gone. A changing roster of programmers seem to be helping with the back end in Pakistan. According to a 2013 prweb article, Jaree Zafar — an LLC organizer and current member — handled information technology, though his involvement today is unclear. [See Update at end of this article.]

It doesn’t take many people to run a scam when it’s automated. Judging from communications received from SevenFigureCareers by victims, boilerplate “reports” and “updates” are mail-merged with different names and sent out en masse every day to hundreds of victims and targets at a time. Most notable is the boilerplate included in supposedly confidential e-mails between French and the managing partners of PE firms. This bit of social engineering has generated loads of laughs among the Ask The Headhunter team:

Good talking to you and glad to hear Julie is doing better.

— See 7F: Anatomy of a recruiting scam

Suckers are supposed to think they’re listening in on personal repartee that reveals the close connections between Art French and his clients. But Julie is referenced in e-mail threads attributed to multiple sources and included on mails pertaining to multiple job opportunities from different “managing partners.” Poor Julie.

Big bucks

Ask The Headhunter has been contacted by people to whom Chrest has bragged about his accomplishments. How much money have victims been scammed out of since at least 1999?

Reasonable estimates are between $4 million and $10 million, possibly more. Chrest has changed his fees over 17 years to what the market will bear — $10,000 per “client,” $4,500, $2,500, $1,500. The number of victims per month is shocking.

When American Express cut off the WWEJSS merchant account, the credit card company’s fraud unit kicked into action. Victims have confirmed that AmEx has already begun refunding fraudulent charges to cardholders. VISA and MasterCard participate in a fraud clearinghouse called MATCH. Because of the scope of the scam, it’s reasonable to expect that federal authorities are investigating. One victim has reported that:

The good news is that I have all the addresses, contracts and bank info to turn over to the FBI.

The credit card companies and banks have a lot of explaining to do. Now that victims are demanding charge-backs, does anyone think the card companies are going to eat the costs in dollars and damage to their brands? How did they let this go on for 17 years?

International

Art French solicited a leading telecommunications scientist in Israel who contacted Ask The Headhunter immediately. He played cat and mouse with French while feeding along French’s e-mails and audio recordings of their conversations.

The scientist believes French found him in an executive networking database he’d recently joined. This suggests time zones and country boundaries are no obstacle when everything is done online and on the phone — and that there are many more overseas victims and targets who will come forward.

Here a condescending French pitches the “opportunity” for a phony job with Apax — a renowned London-based venture firm — and an interview with the non-existent Mark Allen. It’s all very, very confidential. (Audio approx. 3 minutes.)

 

      Art French

At the end, French lays the hook — he’s got to get approval to “let” his victim do the interview.

In the next call, French tries to reel in the victim. He explains how “the program” works. Finally, the frustrated French discloses that an interview for the job in San Jose is going to cost $1,500. And, if the Apax job doesn’t work out, for thousands of dollars more, “7F” will make him “a client” for three months. (Audio approx. 6 minutes.)

 

      Art French

International fraud is what attracts federal authorities. French is still waiting for the scientist in Israel to wire $2,500.

Craig Chrest: “Someone is scamming us!”

When victims have confronted Craig Nicholas Chrest — calling himself Mr. Nicholas — after they realized he’d ripped them off, he has responded that, “Someone is scamming us!” Someone was using his firm’s name, ripping people off, and making it look like it was him.

But Chrest’s signature across a span of 14 years doesn’t lie about who’s behind it all. Here it is on the 2002 Articles of Organization for Executive Top Gun Search, LLC that he filed with the Texas Secretary of State:

7f-chrest-sig1

And here’s Chrest’s signature, dated September 1, 2016, on a contract he signed as SevenFigureCareers with one of his victims — while claiming he was C.R. Nicholas, CEO of the firm:

7f-creditcard-sig

This particular victim’s $2,500 was refunded by American Express after the credit card company’s fraud unit turned off the lights on Chrest’s merchant account.

Scam firms beyond this series of articles

Fortune recently published two articles by Dan Primack about a recruiting scam the magazine referred to as The Ghost In The VC Machine, but they never got to the actual culprits. (See also The Venture Capital Firm That Wasn’t There.) Could these be connected to Chrest and SevenFigureCareers?

I think they are. The names are different. But note the address of one of the scam recruiting firms discussed in the Fortune article: 600 West Broadway, San Diego, California.

7f-fortune

That’s the address of SevenFigureCareers, which appears in press releases like the one below, and on the firm’s erstwhile website, and which is confirmed by the receptionist when you call (866) 621-1062:

7f-600bwy

This scam is bigger than anyone has guessed until now.

Have you been scammed?

Repeated calls to SevenFigureCareers’ advertised phone number, (866) 621-1062 (which is also the number on the firm’s contract) to reach Art French, C.R. Nicholas, Franklin Straussbaugh, Craig Chrest, and Jaree Zafar for comment failed. Only an answering service is available.  [See Update at end of this article. Zafar contacted Ask The Headhunter after publication of this article and provided a detailed comment.]

What’s interesting is that the receptionist — like the guy answering the phone at 12841 Jones Road — answers, “Billing,” then denies you’ve reached SevenFigureCareers. When pressed to speak with Art French, she goes to get him, then says “your account representative is not available” and denies any of the aforementioned individuals are at the number.

If you’re a victim of any of the recruiters and recruiting firms described, I’d like to hear from you. So far the people behind these firms have stayed far enough under the radar to trigger only small lawsuits — which the plaintiffs have always won.

The scam continues

Recently an Ask The Headhunter reader who paid SevenFigureCareers with his VISA card contacted me and referred to Chrest & Crew as the “7F CROOKS.” He said:

Anthony French solicited and sold me on a PE package and I actually got an interview with a PE firm that was questionable at best. Now their emails are all dead! I welcome a chance to share this bad experience with your readers.

Is it possible to go after people who hide behind ever-changing business names? Lawrence Barty, an attorney who has specialized in employment and labor law, offers this:

If you can identify the person who perpetrated this fraud, a tort claim of fraudulent inducement might be possible (as always, State laws vary) against that person — not against the illusory 7F. You were induced by X (identity presently unknown) to enter into a contract that cost you money, but was known in advance by X to be worthless. So, you should sue X, the person who tricked you into entering that contract. A claim of that type can be a tort claim, possibly giving rise to compensatory and punitive damages.

While Chrest’s victims have sued and won judgments in court, it seems the mistake they made was to sue his LLCs. According to attorney Barty, they should have sued Chrest personally. As in TheLadders case, individual victims need not hire lawyers. As more evidence and more plaintiffs surface, a massive consumer class action is likely the best legal strategy. (See TheLadders: How the scam works and Federal Court OK’s Suit Against TheLadders: Breach of contract & deceptive practices. This action arose out of complaints published on Ask The Headhunter, too.)

In the meantime, American Express found enough evidence in these articles to start refunding money to victims who were each defrauded of thousands of dollars by “WWEJSS.” No matter which credit card you paid with, you should contact your credit card issuer, include links to this series of articles, and ask for restitution.

All crooks are sloppy

This story started with an Ask The Headhunter reader who complained about getting scammed out of $2,500 by SevenFigureCareers on the comments section of this website. (See SevenFigureCareers: Threats and fraud.) He immediately received a threatening e-mail from a lawyer. The lawyer’s name was real — but the lawyer didn’t write the threat. He was impersonated by someone at SevenFigureCareers — a crime in all 50 states.

Arrogance makes scammers sloppy, especially when they do their business on the Internet. But when it’s on the Internet, information is forever — and any number of people can play.

Many thanks to all who have shared their experiences and information, and e-mails, contracts, recordings, and other documents to help expose this recruiting racket. Special thanks to the Ask The Headhunter legal team for digging up and reviewing documents, and for their insights, comments and legal advice. A big shout out to the field team that visited actual locations discussed in this article.

>Update: November 30, 2016

Jaree Zafar contacted Ask The Headhunter after publication of this article and says that he himself is “a victim of this fraudster,” referring to Craig Chrest.

Zafar says, “I am not his partner,” but that he worked for Chrest as an independent contractor “handling his IT needs between 2012 and 2013,” and decided to leave when he discovered Chrest’s “fraudulent practices.” He says that since 2013 he has had “absolutely nothing to do with Craig Chrest or his businesses,” that he has “not been paid a single cent from him” since 2013 — and that Chrest “still owes me thousands for my last month” of work.

Commenting on the LLC filings that bear his name, Zafar says, “I found out that [Chrest] had forged my signatures on his LLC formation and added me as a member without informing me and without my permission.”

It’s worth noting that, while Craig Chrest’s and Franklin Straussbaugh’s actual signatures appear on the Texas State filings obtained by Ask The Headhunter (see links above), Zafar’s actual signature does not. He explained that the forms were filed online and that Chrest merely had to type a name in place of an actual signature — without Zafar’s permission.

In 2013 Zafar “assumed that [Chrest] would have removed my information [from the LLCs] after receiving three demand letters from my attorney.” Unable to afford legal costs, Zafar says he did not go through with litigation.

About Chrest, Zafar says, “This guy has a long history of impersonating and defrauding people. I have contacted my attorney regarding this matter and I intend to start criminal proceedings for identity theft and fraud… but since he has all my personal information including my date of birth and social security number, I am now seriously concerned about the extent of this thief’s intentions. I am sorry for everyone who has been victimized by this fraudster.”

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The Salary Questions

In the November 29, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is puzzled about how to answer salary questions in interviews.

salary questionsQuestion

What’s the best way to deal with an interviewer who wants to know my salary history and salary requirements? While I know employers always ask this, I feel it takes away from my edge when I divulge that information.

Nick’s Reply

You’re absolutely right — to a point. When you show your salary cards at the wrong time, your negotiating edge disappears. When employers ask for salary requirements, they usually follow up quickly with a question about your salary history. Then they use your last salary to influence any offer they make. And that’s why you need to take control of the discussion.

There’s no puzzle here, if you keep your objectives straight. Your goals should be to:

  1. Avoid divulging salary history.
  2. Determine your worth with respect to this job.
  3. Express your desired salary as a range you can justify, and
  4. Negotiate a salary that reflects what you can contribute to the company’s bottom line.

Rather than go through the steps, let’s look at the underlying logic. How you apply these ideas is up to you and depends on the situation and on your good judgment.


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Each of the tips below references a How to Do It resource.
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When salary questions come up, profit is the issue

My advice is to turn any salary questions around and ask what exactly the employer wants you to accomplish for its business. But be even more specific than that.

How to Say It
What kind of profitability goals do you have for this position?

The more the employer expects you to contribute to the company’s profitability, the more you should be paid. Remember that every job contributes to profitability, either by increasing revenue or decreasing costs. If a manager thinks a question about profitability is odd, reconsider whether you want to work for him. This is someone who may not have a job himself in three months.

How to Do It: The PDF book, How Can I Change Careers? — which is for anyone who wants to stand out in a job interview, not just for career changers — provides detailed exercises to help you demonstrate and justify your value. See the section titled “Put A Free Sample in Your Resume.”

Salary history is confidential

In my opinion, discussing salary history is a no-no. It’s no one’s business. Some employers will object, but keeping your past salary confidential is pure common sense because it directly affects your ability to negotiate.

Although an employer may suggest that your old salary is a good indicator of your value, the truth is that it’s up to him to make an independent assessment of your value to his business. Your salary history is personal and confidential, and in some cases your prior employment agreements may even prohibit you from divulging it because it is also confidential to your old employers.

If you still have trouble with this logic, ask yourself, Would an employer divulge the salary history of the job you’re applying for?

How to Do It: Keep Your Salary Under Wraps shows you how to say NO when employers demand your salary history, to make them say YES to higher job offers. Learn how other Ask The Headhunter readers avoid disclosing their salary history politely but firmly. (This PDF book comes with a bonus audio lesson.)

Know what you want

Now let’s talk about your salary requirements. It’s a legitimate question for an employer to ask, as long as it’s couched in a larger discussion about how you will contribute to the bottom line. As we said above, the more value you can contribute to the work, the more you’re worth. There’s no way to provide a desired range until you know what the job entails and what the expectations are — and that requires some discussion. That’s not a cop-out or a clever response to the question. It’s the truth.

But, at some point, it makes perfect sense to decide what salary range you want and to share that information. (Wait until you’re satisfied the employer is one you want to work for, and that this is a job you want.) I think this actually gives you a negotiating edge because it establishes a level of agreement before you get to the offer stage.

When you share your desired range at the proper time, the employer should either agree that he will continue the discussions in good faith based on that range, or you should terminate your discussions. For more about this, see How much money should I ask for?

How to Do It: “The Poolman Strategy: How to ask for more money” is one of the key sections of Fearless Job Hunting, Book 7: Win The Salary Games (long before you negotiate an offer). Many years ago, my own lawyer taught me how to start a negotiation. In this lesson, I teach you how to dominate talk about salary.

Negotiate responsibly

Some people believe you should hide your requirements until an offer has been made. They seem to think that if you divulge what you would accept, the employer will low-ball you. This is nonsense. If you present a well-thought-out range, it gives you room to maneuver based on how well you can articulate your value.

No employer is secretly thinking, “Gee, I was going to offer 50% more than he’s asking for. Lucky me!”

It just doesn’t happen. While some employers are looking for ridiculous bargains, I think you will find that an employer’s target compensation is probably somewhere in the ballpark. (If it’s not, you walk.) When salary questions arise,providing a range and being able to justify it opens the door to a responsible negotiation.

It’s easier to negotiate the right deal when you’ve demonstrated good faith — and firmness — by demonstrating your worth and sharing your goals with the employer.

How to Do It: I know you’ve asked yourself this question — “Am I unwise to accept their first offer?” I cover this in detail in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9, Be The Master of Job Offers. You’ll also learn a surprising tactic: How to say, “I accept your offer, but I’d like more money!”

Do the salary questions make you nervous in interviews? How do you handle them? What additional tips would you give this reader?

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Recruiting: How to get your hands dirty and hire

In the November 15, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager offers a profound recruiting tip for employers.

Question

recruitingMost professional associations have “X helping X” groups (e.g., lawyers helping lawyers). These groups consist of people being rehabilitated from disabilities of one sort or another (including a number of recovering alcoholics). It never hit me before, but such groups can be great sources of hires. When we brought our latest aboard and she worked out extremely well, I asked where we found her. I got to thinking after that.

A guy in my company goes to just such a “helping group.” (He joined Alcoholics Anonymous 20 years ago and has been sober since.) A while back he started recruiting the occasional employee from the group. The success of our hires from that group, compared to hires from the general population, is about 4 to 1. Why? I think it’s because at these meetings you get full disclosure of a person’s problems, a good feel for the degree of their recovery (just being a member is a good sign) and the people are generally competent, humble, loyal, and grateful as heck to be employed.

Anyway, I find it an interesting approach to hiring. I attend our industry’s “X helping X” group whenever I can now. Afterwards, people go to dinner together, and I’m usually the last to be left out of a group!

Nick’s Reply

I have corporate clients who pay me a lot of money to provide them with recruiting ideas like the one you just described. It’s so obvious, it’s almost silly, isn’t it? Real recruiting by getting your hands dirty — going out to meet people!

Recruiting: I doubt you are!

Employers get so stuck thinking about hiring the traditional way that it never occurs to them to make it personal. That means having managers stop and think about social, professional, and community settings where potential job candidates congregate. You’ve hit on a particularly interesting one, where you’re not only getting what you want, but helping the kinds of people who make great employees.

Think of all the other possible sources of job candidates, all of them essentially free, where you can observe people in action:

  • Local chamber of commerce meetings
  • Church groups
  • Professional associations and meetings (like the one you describe)
  • Job search clubs
  • Professional training programs (e.g., marketing, programming, finance and accounting, etc.)

I do workshops for some of the top business schools around the world (and I charge them a fee), but I also regularly conduct pro bono Ask The Headhunter workshops at the Somerset Hills YMCA in New Jersey. Very talented “downsized” people gather to learn how to job hunt. I’ve never met an employer at these events! Why don’t employers jump on these? Maybe because they’re too busy reading through dopey resumes on LinkedIn and Indeed!

Managers have forgotten how to circulate and meet people! (See Smart Hiring: How a savvy manager finds great hires.)

Recruiting people where they learn

Think about professional training programs especially. This is where people are building skills that you want to hire! Why don’t companies routinely send a few of their managers to these? The students at these programs are great potential hires, and it’s a comfortable setting in which to recruit. Like the “X helping X” groups you talk about, these classrooms are also a revealing environment in which to observe prospective candidates.

Clearly, you already get the idea, and it’s paying off. I’m not at all surprised that your hires from that group are four times more likely to succeed than other hires. When you find people — especially people who’ve overcome problems — where they’re helping one another, you’ve hit a gold mine.

Sheesh — What do people think employers did before the Internet? For that matter, what do people think any of us did before the Internet? (See Network, but don’t be a jerk!)

Thanks for sharing a great tip from the employer side! My compliments!

If you’re a hiring manager, where do you find your hires? Ever invest time in your professional or social communities to meet people you can hire? Have you ever gotten a job this way?

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My references died: how do I get more?

Quick Question

How should a person deal with the fact that his best references for a job have died?

Nick’s Quick Advice

references

Sorry to hear it — but it’s actually a problem we headhunters encounter from time to time. It’s a very real problem, and a challenge, but you must address it. People who can endorse us are actually all around. You just have to stop and see them. That’s how you’ll develop the new references you need.

References are everywhere

Consider people who worked in your department or in related departments. Your best advocates don’t need to be your ex-boss or even someone you worked with directly. For example, if you’re an engineer, there are probably people in your old employer’s manufacturing, quality, and sales departments who can probably speak about you.

Who else saw the work you were doing? Not just other employees — but perhaps customers, vendors, and consultants who worked with your company. Anyone you did work with can speak up for you. But you have to ask them.

Call, don’t e-mail

Call them. Don’t send an e-mail request. References are a personal favor, so demonstrate that you’re willing to make your request personally.

Don’t start by asking them to be references. Just reminisce — try to get them to talk about their memories of when you worked together.

How to Say It

“Hey, remember the X project we both worked on… What did you think of how it turned out?”

Then lead them into a discussion about stuff you worked on. Get them to talk about it. If they can discuss it a bit, you’ve got a reference.

Here’s the magic

Helping people talk about your work and past performance helps them formulate what they’d say later as references. It’s your job to help them talk about it. Then, when you ask them to be a reference, they feel like they’ve got something to say. (See Don’t provide references, LAUNCH them.)

Does this sound like manipulation? It’s not. It’s like priming a pump. By helping people remember, you help them find the phrases they need to talk about you to an employer. Just do it honestly.

(If you’re an employer, see References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.)

Ever provide a surprising reference that helped you land a job? How would you advise this reader?

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WWEJSS: How does a fake recruiting firm get a credit card merchant account?

WWEJSS, LLC — a.k.a. SevenFigureCareers — is a “recruiting” company that does not legally exist, yet major credit card companies have authorized merchant accounts that it uses to fraudulently collect fees for services it never delivers, while it silences its victims with a confidentiality agreement that’s fake, too.

WWEJSSA credit card scam

In a series of recent articles, readers shared their experiences with phony recruiters at SevenFigureCareers (a.k.a. 7F, 7figcareers, and loads of other names) who scammed job seekers out of loads of money:

But, how does a racket like SevenFigureCareers get a merchant account to collect fees via American Express, MasterCard and VISA — then win disputes when victims complain about being scammed?

By getting victims to sign a contract.

To defend against claims of fraudulent credit card charges, 7F tells credit card companies that its “customer” signed a contract and that 7F delivered what it promised under the contract — hence, no refund is due.

One victim, John Rice (not his real name), told me that AmEx said it was a contractual problem between him and 7F because 7F reported it had fulfilled its obligations. AmEx suggested he hire a lawyer after AmEx rejected four requests for a refund.

After reports detailing the scam appeared on this website, AmEx eventually refunded Rice and other cardholders thousands in fees collected by 7F, and cancelled 7F’s merchant account. But it seems that AmEx issued that merchant account without confirming whether 7F is a legal entity. AmEx declined to explain exactly how it vets merchants before signing them up. AmEx also won’t disclose what problems it found with 7F after a phony lawyer threatened a user of this website who spoke up about getting scammed.

The SevenFigureCareers contract is a fraud

Two real lawyers reviewed the 7F contract for Ask The Headhunter. One of them explained the problem:

“A contract is between two parties. If there are not two parties, then there is no contract. This contract is invalid because there’s only one party — the victim.”

When high-salary executives don’t recognize that an agreement they’re signing is invalid, then everyone needs to learn the basics.

Read the contract

Let’s start with the SevenFigureCareers contract. Several victims provided me with copies. Each seems to be coded with an ID at the upper left, to identify the victim. I’ve redacted that.

Here’s why the contract is a fraud, and why AmEx — and MasterCard and VISA — should never have issued merchant accounts to SevenFigureCareers.

7f-contract-1

Although it calls itself by many names, SevenFigureCareers does business under a name its victims don’t see until they receive a contract: WWEJSS, LLC. But this “Texas corporation” does not exist. Thus, there is no contract.

Did credit card companies get scammed, too?

So, how does a fake company collect payments through real credit card accounts? Why would credit card companies with anti-fraud departments authorize merchant accounts for crooks? Good questions, for which we have no answers. And that means you should never assume that paying with a credit card protects you from fraudulent vendors.

Did these credit card companies get scammed, too? How? Will they ever admit it?

Tip: If you have concerns about a company you’re about to contract with, investigate the entity. If SevenFigureCareers’s victims had done due diligence, they’d never have gotten suckered. They never would have paid — even with a credit card. John Rice, a seasoned executive, has said to me several times, “I was such a dumb shit.” Yes, he knew better — but he suspended his concerns because he figured American Express would protect him from losses. American Express, however, apparently didn’t take reasonable precautions to protect Rice from this phony merchant.

Caveat emptor really does mean that due diligence is always your responsibility.

WWEJSS, LLC is a fraud

American Express credit card charges from SevenFigureCareers appear as WWEJSS, LLC or WWJESS, LLC on victims’ statements.

After doing some basic research, one victim learned the company is not licensed in Texas and confronted 7F recruiter “Tony French.” French replied in an e-mail that SevenFigureCareers doesn’t have to be licensed, but that it is registered in Texas under “WWEJSS, LLC.”

7f-e-mail-1

On September 29, I contacted the office of the Texas Secretary of State. Victoria, a helpful employee, told me that, “If it’s a legal entity, like a Texas corporation or LLC or limited partnership, it has to be registered with the State, even if it only does e-commerce.”

She then looked up WWEJSS, LLC and WWJESS, LLC, “a Texas corporation,” in the Texas registry.

“There is no WWEJSS or WWJESS registered,” Victoria reported.

That makes Tony French a liar and his “company” illegal.

7f-whitetailsHunting… scammers, or deer?

Nor is there a registration for SevenFigureCareers, Seven Figure Careers, 7Figures, or any other such name. (In 1993, “Seven Figure, Inc.” was registered to Carl Poston, but that expired in 1996.)

There is, however, a registration for 7F, Inc. — to Gary Benbow in Yoakum, Texas. I spoke with Gary, who runs the respected 7F Whitetails Ranch. The 7F comes from an old cattle brand that’s been in his family for generations. He’s never heard of SevenFigureCareers. Gary’s not in the recruiting business. His family raises cattle and offers trophy deer hunting on the property. And he’s not happy about scammers tarnishing his registered brand.

Targeting the credit card companies

American Express and other credit card companies have permitted an unregistered legal entity to collect payments with their credit cards even after the victims gave notice that this merchant is a fraud. Apparently, AmEx failed to do the simplest due diligence. (When I asked, AmEx would not disclose exactly how it vets its merchants.) Then AmEx rejected requests for refunds out of hand, relying on what we now know is an invalid contract used by a fake company operating illegally in Texas.

These credit card companies have put a target on their own backs that says “Fraud.” I didn’t ask Gary Benbow whether he takes credit cards. But I’m sure he’d love to find the guys who call themselves 7F.

As of the date of this column, Texas Company Search lists no registrations for any of the SevenFigureCareers legal entities — least of all WWEJSS, LLC, the name listed on its contracts.

WWEJSS: How it silences its victims

It seems clear that WWEJSS has flourished because it keeps its victims quiet.

After John Rice’s credit card dispute was rejected, he posted about the scam on this website. Within minutes, SevenFigures silenced Rice with an e-mail. A phony lawyer “representing” SevenFigures threatened him with a contractual penalty of $25,000 if he didn’t remove what he posted. It was actually that threat that publicly unraveled the entire SevenFigureCareers scam.

What scared Rice and other victims into silence is an intimidating non-disclosure clause (or NDA, or Non-Disclosure Agreement) in the contract — “Mutual Confidentiality Regarding ENTIRE AGREEMENT and your Search.”

The NDA threat

We’ll forget for a minute that the entire contract is invalid because WWEJSS doesn’t exist. Let’s take a look at what these people agreed to — and at what a lawyer says about it.

7f-contract-2

This clause essentially says that the signer can’t reveal anything about their experience with 7F, or comment about it anywhere to anyone. Victims I interviewed were convinced that, even if they knew they’d been scammed, they’d have to pay 7F $25,000 if they told anyone.

But, this section of the contract by itself wouldn’t stand up in court, say two attorneys who reviewed it. That is, it seems there is no danger to SevenFigures’ victims if they tell all to the world. (Note: The opinions of the lawyers I spoke with are not legal advice. If you have a specific contractual controversy, you need to get advice from a lawyer about your specific problem.)

Phony Lawyering: liquidated damages & penalties

It’s worth understanding a legal concept that’s key to many contracts. The idea is pretty simple. If we bind ourselves with a contract, and I do something that violates our contract, I will cause you damage, and I must reimburse you for that damage.

But, how much could the damages be worth? The law acknowledges this can be hard to calculate. Here’s how one lawyer explains it:

In situations where it’s not practical or maybe possible to come up with an actual number, in a contract parties can “pre-decide” what the damages will be (called liquidated damages), but there has to be a reasonable relation to the actual harm caused. It can’t just be some outlandish number like a bazillion dollars because then that would be more like a “penalty” and less like compensation for actual damages received.

If a court (judge) feels like the amount pre-decided (the liquidated damages) is actually a penalty then they may decide to throw out that figure. That is why lawyers go to great lengths when using a liquidated damages clause to make it seem as far from a penalty as possible, starting with not calling it a penalty!

7f-contract-3In this lawyer’s opinion, the fact that the contract calls the payment a “penalty” would probably invalidate any damages claim. What this — along with the other sloppy wording and writing in this “contract” — tells us is that a lawyer didn’t write it.

My guess is it was written by the same putz who impersonated a lawyer — illegal in all 50 states — in the e-mail threatening John Rice.

This is how 7F silences its victims, using an unenforceable confidentiality agreement in a fraudulent contract to intimidate them into keeping their mouths shut. They naturally worry that speaking up would cost them $25,000 for violating confidentiality. But liquidated damages normally can’t be a penalty — only compensation for damage.

Go suck rocks.

All that Tony French’s victims have to do is tell him to go suck rocks when he threatens them. And that’s why we’re having this brief legal lesson, courtesy of two friendly lawyers who hate scammers.

(We won’t get into it here, but SevenFigureCareers violated its own NDA when Tony French shared confidential communications from his private equity “clients” with the candidates he was supposedly recruiting. Except those PE clients don’t exist — so where’s the harm?)

Who should sue whom?

Well, it seems Mr. French might be doing more than sucking on rocks soon.

I asked Lawrence Barty, a retired attorney who has specialized in employment and labor law, for his views on this case. He suggests the SevenFigureCareers victims may have grounds to sue whoever is behind this phony recruiting firm. Even though SevenFigureCareers doesn’t legally exist, someone convinced the victims that the firm does exist and that the contract is real. And that person faces trouble.

The persuasion of this “person” led you into a situation in which you lost money. If you have a legal claim, it can’t be against an entity that doesn’t exist — right? So who can you sue?

If you can identify the person who perpetrated this fraud, a tort claim of fraudulent inducement might be possible (as always, State laws vary) against that person — not against the illusory 7F. You were induced by X (identity presently unknown) to enter into a contract that cost you money, but was known in advance by X to be worthless. So, you should sue X, the person who tricked you into entering that contract. A claim of that type can be a tort claim, possibly giving rise to compensatory and punitive damages.

Ah. Now we get to penalties. Not just compensatory damages, but punitive damages. Except now the penalty is against the scammer.

This is tricky stuff — maybe more than your readers need to know. The threshold issue is to identify and locate who is behind 7F. You can’t sue someone whom you can’t identify. And, because he is a crook by any definition, he therefore is likely to be a very, very elusive target.

Yah — like a deer on Gary Benbow’s ranch.

What’s next?

Since this series about SevenFigureCareers.com was published, the “firm’s” website has gone dark. Many of the associated phony websites of phony private equity and venture capital firms have disappeared. But SevenFigureCareers continues to operate and collect fees, with a web presence on Manta, a business web-hosting service. It’s newest customers have been in touch with Ask The Headhunter — after they lost their money.

Where is the crook? Has American Express found him?

How does someone running a fake company get merchant accounts with American Express, VISA and MasterCard? What basic controls against fraud do these credit card companies have in place? I mean — how hard is it to look up a corporation’s or LLC’s credentials? A dog with a note in its mouth can do it.

In the next edition, we’ll go down to the bottom of this wormhole: Who’s behind the SevenFigureCareers recruiting scam?

Are you one of the victims scammed by SevenFigureCareers? Or did you see the scam coming and walk the other way? How would you avoid getting fleeced by a “career service?” What due diligence do you do?

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