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How to spot TEFL scams and bad employers online

Never jump straight into a job without putting in due process. This article is all about that process.

The TEFL/ESL industry has a bit of a reputation. Scam companies, shoddy language schools, the idea that anyone looking to make a cheap buck in Asia starts up an English language school.

Unfortunately it's not entirely un-justified. There are a lot of people who just want to make a quick buck and in most countries the English teaching market isn't dripping in regulations and teacher protection.

Equally though there are just as many excellent schools and companies who care about teaching and can either give you a start to a career or a great year out.

Covering how to spot the difference and specifically how to do the online research, ended up being a large enough article that we put it separately from the knowledge base entry on finding a job.

Before we jump in we'll look at the difference between a scam, a bad recruiter and a bad employer.

  • A scam is someone pretending to recruit for a school in order to take advantage of teachers, perhaps by stealing money, personal details etc.
  • A bad recruiter is someone who lies about the schools they're trying to recruit for, tries to pressure people into taking jobs they don't want etc.
  • A bad employer is a school which doesn't pay on time or treats it's teachers badly etc.

There could of course be overlap between these, a school might be directly recruiting for a position and lying about it's facilities, then it would be a bad recruiter and a bad employer. A recruiter might be charging people to get jobs, in which case it's a scam and also a bad recruiter.

The difference is important, because some of the steps might only be good for spotting one of the three. Of course you don't really want to encounter any of them, so you can follow all the steps but defining them gives us some nice structure.

The difference is also important in how we deal with them at teflSearch. Which will be in a blog post coming soon. Those ramblings have no place here.

Finally the process of weeding out all the bad stuff goes far beyond the advert, a large part of it happens in the interview and afterwards, so when you're done with this article head back to the finding a job section where we'll complete the rest of the steps. (Finding bad employers for example often happens in the interview or afterwards.)

Step 1: Going through the advert itself

A brief note, job sites for specific employers like the British Council or International House only allow adverts from schools in their networks. This automatically removes the problem of someone pretending to be a school.

We'll start off in the most obvious place, the advert itself. Here's my basic advert checklist:

Immediate advert bins:

  • Giant lists of job posts. (I'm looking at you Korean recruiters).
  • Anyone asking for money upfront (It's definitely a scam).

Warning Flags:

  • A lot of bad spelling
  • A LOVE OF CAPS LOCK
  • Talking about value. E.g. "Free Chinese lessons worth $100 dollars a month.
  • Anything wildly outside the norm. e.g. Huge salaries, giant vacations.
  • Job advert being posted by an anonymous email.

Too many of these flags and you should begin to worry about bad recruiters or scams.

If you apply on the website, it's usually a good sign and we jump straight to step 2.

If you send your application to an email address we need to check it out.

Step 2: Email Address Research

Researching the email is very important, a suspicious email address is a strong sign of scam.

Most importantly, is the email address from an anonymous service anyone can sign up to?

Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, QQ (Chinese) are all good examples of this.

If the email is anonymous

If the email address provided is as we described above (i.e. Gmail, Outlook etc.) the first step is to google the school/company who posted the advert and try to find a website.

At this point most schools/employers have some sort of website, smaller or poorer schools may have a Facebook page or Google Groups page instead of a standalone website.

If there's nothing at all it's a big warning flag and it's time to move on.

There are some schools with no presence, if you want to continue down this risky line then you need to find a phone number and address for the school, and try to get in touch with some current teachers.

Assuming you found a website (or a Facebook page), then you need to search it for the anonymous email address you found on the job advert. If you find it, it's a good sign. If you find a different email e.g.:

Then this is another warning flag. At this point you need to contact the school/employer via their genuine email address or telephone number on the website and confirm that they use the other email address for recruiting. If they say no, it's obviously time to bin the advert.

You might find some of the websites take forever to load (i.e. it's a Chinese school website), or are full of dead links etc. It's not necessarily malicious, it's probably just a terrible site. There are plenty.

One useful way to speed up your search for the email is to google the email address as an exact string i.e.:

Google: "[email protected]"

If the email is on the website it'll appear somewhere in the Google search results and you'll see it in the text snippet on the Google result. This isn't foolproof because the email may be on an image, or in a flash animation (Iooking at you Chinese school websites) in which case Google won't be able to find it. It does mean you don't need to wait for the site load and look through all the pages if you find it this way though.

So either we've confirmed the email address belongs to school (either by finding it on their website or contacting them with their website details to check) and if not we've discarded the job.

If the email isn't anonymous

In this case the address looks something like this:

In this case then we can usually try the following web addresses to find our school/employers website:

If the website doesn't work at first try it a couple times over two days. I've found a lot of the Asian websites in particular seem to have a lot of downtime and might not work the first time you try them.

If we can't find a website then it's time to bin the advert, otherwise we should now have a website which will let us move onto step 3.

Step 3: Website Research

If we've reached this point then we've managed to avoid most of the scams and depending on the advert text we might have a sense of whether or not they're a bad recruiter.

The next thing we look at is the website. We're looking for a professional/genuine website.

Sidenote: It should be noted that by this point you'll probably have been able to spot if the company is large. If it is then this next step is sometimes less useful. At a certain size, company websites are often just an exercise in wading through jargon. You can trust in their size and reputation to know they're not scams or bad recruiters.

That doesn't mean they're not bad employers, but because they're often franchises you'll get a better sense about this by asking questions in interviews and talking to current teachers, rather than from the job adverts and websites.

So bearing that in mind, things to look for:

If it's a school:

  • Real pictures of current teachers
  • Real pictures of current students
  • Real pictures of recent events at the school
  • In-depth information about the school
  • Website design - does it look good

If it's a recruiter or large employer:

  • Useful and detailed information about the recruitment process and conditions
  • Pictures of the employers and their team
  • Website design - does it look good

The more of this we can find the better. When I say real pictures I mean the kind of pictures you and I would take, not stock photos or perfect photos.

The more of these boxes the website ticks the bigger thumbs up it gets. You of course need to temper this with common sense. Applying to a rural school in Cambodia? Don't expect a professional website, anything more than a Facebook page is pretty impressive. An international school in China? Look for a very high quality website with plenty of information for prospective parents.

Step 4: Online Reputation & Reviews

Now we've managed to rule out a bunch of adverts based on their emails and hopefully we've got an opinion on the ones left over based on their website.

Next up we'll look up some reviews online. This one we need to be a little careful with. Why?

Because it's the internet and when people are anonymous anything goes.

Maybe someone didn't like their supervisor, so they posted an angry review trashing the school, perhaps someone came to the job with a ridiculous impression of what teaching English abroad would be like.

Perhaps, horror of horrors, it's a fake review to make the school look good. And of course it could all be 2 - 3 years out of date.

Rather than using this information to immediately turn down the job, put it as another warning flag and make a checklist of anything that really worries you. Then ask about it in the interview and when you're talking to other teachers who've worked there.

Don't take any negative criticism of the school as an immediate reason to drop it. Just because you're going to another country doesn't mean all jobs are perfect, it's not like everyone back home is never complaining about their jobs. Use your common sense, be smart and you'll easily be able to navigate the maze of ESL jobs.

The next step is to apply to the jobs, so it's time to jump back to the Finding a Job section of the knowledge base.

Image Attribution:

"Beware of Edge" by Tim Green aka atoach is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
"College of DuPage Hosts Career Fair 2015 35" by COD Newsroom is licensed under CC BY 2.0.