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How to Spot a Fake Internship

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

Take a minute to picture this scenario you spent weeks scouring employer sites and online job boards for a summer internship. You finally find what you believe is a ‘perfect match’ and apply, ace the interview and get an internship offer. You show up on the first day, excited to work with a company offering real experience in a field you love, only to see that the interns way outnumber the employees, there’s no onboarding or training offered, and you’re only offered “supposed experience” in return for your completion of a laundry list of tasks. Your instincts kick-in and tell you something here is wrong- and you’re completely right.

Believe it or not, employers can get away with offering vague, meaningless, and even sometimes unethical internship positions, leaving you without any measurable skills or knowledge after months of hard work. This is one type of a fake internship. It's when an employer takes total advantage of an intern and their hard work. Another's a complete scam where there is no company, only someone looking to scam unknowing students and take their money. Luckily, there are some easy tactics to help you avoid falling into the fake and scam internship traps and reputable companies that have an intern’s best interest in mind.

Pay attention to sources.

Where are you looking for internships? Most students start looking for an internship online and this is the best way to avoid scams in the first place. Only use reputable sites that vet their employers or offer some kind of verification. Lots of colleges have career centers that partner with specific companies (like Intern Pursuit) to give their students access to offers from alumni or with companies that target their school.

You can also check with your career center for their partner website, or look at well known sites like Indeed or Glassdoor that have employer ratings and reviews.

Do some research.

Before even applying for an internship, do a quick search to make sure the company's legitimate. Look at their website and see if it looks like an authentic business page. Do they have social media accounts that look real? LinkedIn is a great resource for this. Check their LinkedIn page, are there employees associated with the company? Another way to avoid getting scammed is to do a Google search of the company name and “scam” to see if anyone has written anything about that company offering fake or sketchy jobs. It’s important to do this research before you apply to a position and give someone all of your personal information. Pay attention to your gut and if something looks like a red flag, hold off on applying.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

Look at requirements.

When applying to a real internship, a company would never ask you to pay them to learn more or even just to apply. This should only happen if you’re hiring a job placement agency to find an internship. Otherwise, you should never have to pay to apply for an internship or learn more about it.

Companies are usually transparent about what the internship expectations are and what the company is looking for, so don’t fall into this trap of spending money unnecessarily.

Look for compensation details.

Read the job description, requirements, expectations, and experience required for the internship. Does anything strike you as odd? Does the offer sound too good to be true? If it does, there’s probably something fishy. Make sure to look at information on what you'll gain from the internship, who'll be mentoring or working with you, and how you’ll be compensated (paid, school credit, quantifiable skills?).

Seventy percent of the internships are unpaid in the U.S. Usually, these are with small to medium size employers. Make sure the company truly invests in your development so you are not taken advantage of. Internships that mention mentoring, networking, building on specific skills, or seem to have an interest in the intern’s professional development are usually safe bets.

On the flip side, if a company promises unrealistic pay or bonuses for interning with them, be weary. Most internships are unpaid and those that are paid won’t have you walking out the door with six figures. According to data on Indeed, one of the biggest job boards in the U.S., the average salary for an intern in the U.S. is $12.84 an hour. While larger companies based in cities with high cost of living or with more robust internship programs can offer closer to $20 an hour, anything substantially higher than the national average should raise suspicion. For a more in-depth look at how much you should expect to be paid, take a look at this table that breaks down salary by degree and year toward completion of that degree.

Uncovering a fake internship.

Internship scams can be easier to spot than fake internships, so what happens when you realize you’ve been hired for a fake internship, like in the opening scenario? First of all, do some research and find out what tasks, projects, or help is expected of you and who will be in charge of teaching or mentoring you. If an employer is bringing you in because you have expertise in an area that they know nothing about, odds are the employer is taking advantage of you. You should also look at the employee to intern ratio. Is this a small company with way more interns than full-time employees? That should be a red flag since there may not be enough employees to properly mentor you and ensure that you are also benefiting from the internship. The U.S. Department of Labor is the federal institution that oversees employee and employer regulation and their Fact Sheet #71 outlines how internships should be conducted. If you have any doubts about the legality or ethicality of your internship, make sure to read their fact sheet and clarify your role with your employer.

Photo by Emma Matthews on Unsplash

While these tips can be helpful, the only way to ensure that you don’t get scammed while looking for an internship is to join Intern Pursuit’s network of employers that have already been vetted and approved as real offers. Not only are all the internships listed on Intern Pursuit 100% real, all of the employers believe in giving interns a robust and meaningful employment experience. Some employers are even working towards getting their Employers for Change badge, showing that they are committed to paying it forward with internship programs. Avoid the potential for scam or fake internships in the first place and sign up with Intern Pursuit today!


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