An August 2000 report published by Wynnwith Engineering, a British technical recruitment agency, found the online recruitment industry to be “riddled with inefficiency, misleading information and downright fraud”.

Although the report deals specifically with the UK at that time, the findings will resonate with all knowledge workers who have used online recruiters.

Wynnwith said the questionable practices occured because electronic recruiters were in a fierce race to build momentum before the online jobs market consolidated. For example, in the UK there were hundreds of online job boards. In the long term, the difference between survivors and losers will be the size of their databases.

Two databases matter; lists of companies looking for new staff and the job seekers’ CV databases. A virtuous circle means these two tend to grow in tandem. Outside certain niche markets, employers seek sites with large rosters of job seekers while job seekers look for the sites with the most jobs. It’s easier for a less scrupulous online recruiter to build the job seeker database, hence the ‘whatever it takes’ culture.

Legitimate tactics include advertising in online and offline media to drag in new job seekers. This works, but it can be expensive. And there’s no guarantee a passing job seeker will file a CV on the site’s database. This is where the ‘misleading information and downright fraud’ comes in.

One favourite technique is to post ‘phantom job advertisements’ offering attractive work, pay and conditions. These are designed merely to capture job seeker details. Personal data collected this way is then used in a number of ways to market services back to prospective employers.

First, phantom jobs boost the number of job seeker CVs stored on a web sites database. These numbers alone makes the site more attractive to companies looking for staff.

However, once site operators have a job seeker’s CV on file, they believe they have a ‘relationship’ with that person and then can start bombarding them with details of new jobs.

The right to send new job details is often part of an ‘agreement’ reached with the job seeker when the CV is submitted. Never mind the fact that people often don’t bother to read these agreements. And anyway, online companies have a poor track record of keeping their side of the bargain. In a high profile example, welched on promises not to sell customer data and following the dotcom crash in 2000 many bankrupt online businesses flogged their databases to pay creditors despite cast iron assurances this would never happen.

The practice of writing phantom job advertisements predates the Internet. Recruitment agencies have used them for many years in print advertising as bait, only to tell interested applicants that while the position in question is now filled, another, similar but inferior position has come along. And it’s not unknown for companies to advertise a number of phantom positions as a sly way of signalling to competitors or investors that a major expansion is underway.

However the phantom jobs posted on Internet sites are used for entirely different purposes, according to Wynnwith, “Job seekers currently using the Internet to find work can expect to be treated as a trading commodity, with the focus being on capturing their personal details and a CV, rather than feeling any real personal service.” Based on transactions between online recruitment company the value of a single CV posted on the net in this way can be anything up to a few hundred dollars.

Although Wynnwith didn’t make the connection, it is not entirely unknown for companies that have collected CV information, which often includes details about salary levels, family circumstances and other private information to hawk their data to companies selling financial services and other products. Even people who are scrupulous about their personal privacy in most online transactions seem happy to spill the beans to a prospective employer.

The first step towards protecting oneself from abusive practices is to recognize that it exists. Awareness is half the battle. Think twice before submitting private data, would you be happy if the information ended up on anyone’s desk. How about if it got sent to your current boss?

The second step is to know who you are dealing with and what are their credentials. It sounds obvious, but you need to read all those legalistic disclaimers hidden away in obscure corners. If something you read feels wrong, there’s a good chance it is wrong. Better still, if you can afford it, ask a lawyer for advice.

Wynnwith says, “the onus is on the job seeker to establish the professional credentials and track record of the web sites they find on the Internet and make a judgement accordingly.” In other words, only deal with sites that are trustworthy. This is easier said than done, but looking for membership of relevant industry organisations and adherence to codes of conduct is the best starting place.