ST. LOUIS – Joe Epstein’s heart did a little flip-flop when he opened an e-mail from a staffing firm that promised a portal to a new job.

“When you’re in this situation, it really picks you up,” said Epstein, 58. Nearly a year after being laid off from his job as an information technology sales rep, he finds himself in a job search for the first time in a quarter-century.

As Epstein learned in the resulting telephone conversation, an ailing economy can bring out the worst in people: Companies that prey on the unemployed in their struggle to find work.

Epstein said a “very nice, very positive” woman representing the staffing firm plucked his resume from a job search engine and promised that her company could brush up his resume, provide interview tips and give him access to exclusive job listings.

The price – $4,000.

Epstein turned it down, as well as subsequent follow-up pitches from the firm.

“Once you give them your credit card, you’re up a creek,” said the Brentwood, Mo., resident.

Consumer protection advocates say his reasoning is dead-on. In 2007, the Consumer Protection Agency received almost 6,000 complaints about headhunters and employment and placement agencies.

And that was two years before the economy threw an estimated 3.6 million Americans out of work.

“There’s always people out there willing to take advantage of people’s misery,” said Chris Thetford, director of communications for the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. “I’ve never met anyone who had to pay to get a legitimate job.”

Nationally, authorities are finding examples of job scammers and taking action. For example, the Federal Trade Commission filed a federal court complaint in November against a Georgia firm that was charging $120 to $140 for materials it claimed would help applicants pass a U.S. Postal Service qualifying exam.

In early 2008, the Ohio attorney general fined a personnel service for enticing clients to pay $389 for a connection to nonexistent jobs.

Jeannette Hoss of East Carondelet, Ill., has been on the receiving end of similar pitches since starting her job hunt in December.

She estimates she has e-mailed her resume in response to Craigslist.com ads nearly a 100 times trying to land a position in health insurance, human resources or other fields.

Of those inquiries, Hoss, 30, estimates fully a third have triggered automatic responses that amount to little more than spam.

One company offered to set Hoss up with her own resume-writing service. Another provided suggestions on how to establish a phony e-mail address.

(Distributed by MCT)

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