Evans Kalunga lives in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. A boilermaker by qualification, he is currently unemployed but earns a living doing small jobs.
Always on the lookout for permanent work, a job advert on Facebook for general workers at South African energy company Sasol seemed timely. But oddly, the post on the aptly named “Jobs Opportunities” page required those interested in applying to comment on it.
Kalunga posted a comment, and waited hopefully. That was the last he would hear of it, even though the page remained active.
“There was no response, they have not come back to me. I can just see other people commenting also,” he told us.
What he didn’t know was that the job advert was part of an elaborate online scam targeting South Africa’s unemployed, who according to Stats SA’s most recent data numbered nearly 6.7 million in December 2019.
That number could rise as the economy flies into Covid-19-induced turbulence, setting up even more jobseekers for pain at the hands of fraudsters.
False job adverts common but easy to spot
Facebook has changed how we socialise online, but is unfortunately also a home for bad information, which ranges from bogus health cures and everyday hoaxes to rumoured deaths. And then there are the job scams, which from our experience are some of the most resilient, targeting both the most vulnerable and the more guarded.
The platform is littered with pages advertising vacancies that do not exist. One repeat offender has consistently advertised nonexistent jobs, including at the South African Social Security Agency, clothing retailer Mr Price and private hospital network Netcare.
Often, these false adverts are easy to spot. They tend to be badly written and the links don’t take you to an official website. But many times, it is not as straightforward to pick them out.
The “Jobs Opportunities” page that raised Kalunga’s hopes previously masqueraded as “Employment Opportunities” before a rebrand. Created in November 2018, it has 50,000 followers. Each job advert it posts attracts hundreds of comments from people looking for work. For example, the advert for general workers at Sasol had more than 1,000 comments.
‘We’ll help if you share this post in 10 groups’
To understand this, a simple overview of the “application” process helps.
The Sasol advert, for example, asks Facebook users to “pliz comment” on the post, stating which of South Africa’s nine provinces they live in. Once you’ve done this, you get a response asking you to share the post in 10 groups. The post also includes a link to a web page where you can apply online.
People are told sharing the post gives them a good chance of getting the job.
How does it all work?
Why are jobseekers told to share the post before they can apply for a job?
The short and obvious answer is so that the scammers can line their pockets. For this to happen a trinity of sorts is essential. First, the Facebook posts lure the victims. Link aggregators then act as a bridge and, finally, Google AdSense ties it up by bringing in the money.
But how do they do it? Africa Check and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab investigated.
Facebook pages, and less often groups, are used to entice people to engage with the scammer’s network. The network generally focuses on education funding and employment – reliable magnets for people looking for opportunities
The Facebook posts do not directly link to a job portal or employment website. Rather, when you click the link on a “Jobs Opportunities” post you are taken to a Manylink.com page with more links. This is a link aggregator, and there are lots of them.
Link aggregators have legitimate uses and allow users to share many links (or uniform resource locators – URLs – which are the unique addresses of web pages) at once. For some detail on how Manylink works, click here.
They allow you to customise what you want your readers to see. Clicking the customised link in the Facebook post takes you to a landing page with even more links, each seemingly offering different authentic-looking job or training opportunities.
When you click any of these new links, you are taken to a fairly basic web page at www.jobscamp.co.za.
At least 760,000 South Africans fooled in 2020
Contacted about the page, Manylink founder Cruize Delaney told Africa Check he had seen an increase in traffic from South Africa since the beginning of 2020.
“I wondered why this was. I went deeper into my analytics and saw some job sites and pages similar to how you describe that did look unusual,” he said. “That URL you’ve shown me is where a solid amount of South Africa traffic comes from.”
Delaney said “around 760,000” South Africans had visited Manylink so far in 2020.
Manylink is free to use. Links are currently not reviewed but Delaney said a new version would include tools to help remove users who violated the terms of service.
Traffic = $$$
The text for the many job listings on www.jobscamp.co.za is copied from old genuine job adverts or bursary application calls. The closing dates are either deleted or altered to make them seem current. In some cases, the adverts do not explain how, or where, applications must be submitted. In a nutshell, it is a waste of your time.
The website does not list any contact information or any meaningful way to identify the owners. Even username enumeration, which identifies website authors, only revealed that a user labelled “admin” is the main account for the website.
But records revealed that the website was registered by a man from Thohoyandou in Limpopo on 13 August 2019. His name is known to us.
We contacted the registrant to confirm if he was posting fake job adverts on the website and whether he was earning any money doing so. Although the questions were read and acknowledged, he did not respond despite saying he would. (Note: We will update this report should he do so.)
How much money do they make?
The resulting traffic to the website is monetised using Google AdSense, which allows publishers such as website owners to earn money from their online content.
AdSense estimates that you can earn as much as US$4,500 from 50,000 page views a month. A page view is logged every time a web page is loaded and viewed by a human visitor.
But it also has a strong caution: there’s no guarantee you’ll earn this amount. Actual revenue depends on factors such as advertiser demand, user location, user device, seasonality, ad size and currency exchange rates.
Depending on the advertising model used by the website, Google will either pay for every 1,000 people who see the advert or for each click. In 2017 South African news website Groundup reported earning $0.61 for each 1,000 views. Substantially more is earned when visitors click on ads, with some users reporting about $0.55 per click.
But it is not possible to determine if, or how much, the owner of www.jobscamp.co.za makes from Google adverts.
‘I feel like they’re playing with us and that’s not right’
CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring platform, revealed that the @careers24 Manylink page was posted more than 500 times on Facebook, to a total of 28.2 million followers.
Njabulo Khumalo from Johannesburg could have been one of them.
He had been unemployed for two years when he came across the “Employment Opportunities” page during a job search. “I joined a few groups hoping one day somebody will call me but I guess not. I haven’t got anything so far,” he told Africa Check.
And he won’t. He is just one of hundreds of thousands of people lured into an extensive network designed to make money off advert revenue – and off their hopes.
“Some people really depend on these posts. Then you get these people posting jobs on Facebook and at the end of the day nothing happens. I mean that’s really wasting people’s time. I feel like they’re playing with us and that’s not right.”
Listen to a discussion about the investigation below.
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