I didn’t think anything of it when the interviewer for my journalism internship with iConceptMedia said he couldn’t get his Skype camera to work.
I’d done my research and checked Glassdoor for company reviews (there were none). No research could’ve prepared me for what would result in me threatening legal action, and the thought that he was purposefully hiding his face.
I’d applied to the unpaid internship through Handshake, a website recommended by the university where opportunities are posted specifically for university students and alumni. Handshake employers are approved by the institution they’re recruiting from.
Everything about the application process appeared legitimate: I sent in writing samples, answered questions, completed a Skype interview and was offered a contract. But once I’d signed on, the tone shifted and I was put into contact with “Bruce.”
Bruce sent me new requirements, asking for at least four articles of 600 words per day rather than the original requirements of two articles of varying length, expected only on weekdays. If I didn’t meet the requirements, I was terminated; upon termination, Bruce would remove the credit line from my writing.
The standards to avoid termination were nearly impossible — writing more than 2400 words per day, pitching and writing seven days per week and posting a minimum of five articles daily on personal social media (illegal, as Delaware law prohibits companies from requiring personal social media usage).
Bruce’s shared document, littered with typos, revealed the nature of the company. The document listed 12 websites of varying topics and plans to create more. The websites were clickbait, with URLs only one letter off from trusted sites. Almost all the articles on each site had the byline revoked.
That night, I sent Bruce an email citing Delaware law, warned him against the publication of my articles and left the company. iConcept Media has since been flagged and removed from Handshake.
When I shared this story, I learned of others who’d been offered illegitimate, seemingly university-approved internships.
Two years ago, senior Jedediah Hackett bought a plane ticket to New Zealand, ready to start an internship offered to him through the Department of Political Science and International Relations canvassing for the Labour Party.
Upon his arrival, he was shown his housing accomodations: a community building filled with rows of handmade cubicles assembled by other interns with flimsy walls and no roofs. Each barely had space for a twin bed.
Those who weren’t in the community building doubled up in temporary housing with rooms built for one. Although it was winter, the cabins didn’t have power during the day.
No building on the site had wifi access, so interns dug trenches to connect cable.
“We were there solely to campaign, but on the site we were expected to help cook, clean, dig trenches to provide internet access … fill up the generators that powered the cabins, go get the gasoline, build the cubicles, help landscape, make sure the bathrooms were stocked, make sure we had enough cold medicine in case someone had something wrong,” Hackett says.
And something did go wrong.
“The day I got there was the end of a whooping cough outbreak because there were some French interns there who had not been vaccinated,” Hackett says.
Everyone was under the impression that the program would have 30 interns. By the end of the program, more than 90 were present.
The Labour Party never approved the internship, and other interns who questioned supervisors found out that funding primarily came from a private donor. Interns questioned their supervisors and soon learned that the Labour Party’s head office had rejected the program unless there were only 15 interns. Supervisors slowly began to disappear, and interns contacted the official Labour Party.
Hackett returned home after a month and wrote a letter to the university about his experience. He never received a response.
However, the university did add a line to internship emails warning students to accept at their own risk, even if the internships appear to be approved by the university.
According to Lynn Sydnor-Epps, Associate Director of the Career Services Center (CSC), there is a vetting process for every employer on Handshake conducted by both Handshake and the university. Employers must have an active business license, valid intent, career pages and no required payment for students.
“Sometimes things leak through,” Sydnor-Epps says. “It happens, unfortunately. Any case that comes to us we deal with it directly and provide support for the student.”
The university receives about 30,000 potential Handshake listings per year, and sometimes CSC can’t handle the volume.
“Because of the number of fraudulent employers we have the policies that indicate or try to help students identify what might be identified as a fraudulent employer,” Sydnor-Epps says.
But when jobs and internships are offered by departments through email, the vetting process occurs in-house. Here, diligence in determining fraudulent offers may rest heavily upon students.