Child Care Gig Workers Are Getting Scammed. Why Aren’t the Platforms Where Scammers Lurk Doing More About It?
Professor Julia Ticona spoke to domestic gig workers about the scams they face on the platforms where they find work and how they help one another avoid them.
Annenberg Professor Julia Ticona studies life for the gig workers who rarely make headlines, but whose work is crucial to many families in America — the nannies, babysitters, and other in-home care providers who use online platforms like Care.com, UrbanSitter, and SitterCity to find jobs.
Ticona’s most recent study, published in the journal New Media & Society, documents the scams that these in-home care workers face and the lengths that they have to go to to avoid them.
The most common scam involves a fraudulent job listing, a fake advance paycheck, or a request for a money order.
A family “moving to your city”
Scammers often claim they are from out of town and need to secure help before they arrive. They send the potential hire a fake check, ask them to deposit it, use some of the funds to buy supplies, and wire the rest of the money back. The scammers then disappear before the victim realizes the check has bounced.
Ticona and her collaborator, Alexandra Mateescu, a researcher on the future of labor at Data & Society, interviewed more than 40 in-home care workers about finding work on Care.com, UrbanSitter, and SitterCity. More than 60 percent of the care workers they spoke to had come across this type of scam during the course of their career.
In fact, scams are so prevalent in the industry that some of Ticona’s study participants worried that her study was a scam.
“We kept hearing again and again from the people who we would recruit for the interviews, ‘Hey, you know, I almost didn't do your interview because I thought it was a scam,’” Ticona says.
For those looking for work on big online platforms, avoiding and reporting these scams can be a job in itself: one that isn’t paid, but certainly required.
Care workers help each other with this by sending out warnings and sharing stories on social media, especially in Facebook groups. These groups act as outlets for experienced care workers to pass down knowledge to those new to the field and to crowdsource scam detection.
It’s common for inexperienced nannies to paste messages from potential clients and ask, “Is this real?,” a long-time nanny told Ticona. Members will then weigh in with their guesses, inspired from years of messaging with both legitimate clients and spammers.
The debate over worker classification
Care.com, the largest online care worker platform (with over 11.5 million registered worker profiles in the U.S. in 2019), puts the onus on users to report bad actors and fake profiles and even to contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) if they encounter a scammer.
“As a labor scholar, seeing a labor platform refer its users to the Federal Trade Commission was really bizarre,” Ticona says. “because the FTC regulates commerce, not work — not anything we would consider work.”
Other gig economy platforms like Uber have argued that their users are consumers — not “real” employees, but in doing so, have incited lawsuits from drivers who argue that they need to be classified as employees.
Care platforms might be making similar arguments, says Ticona, but with very different consequences.
“We see these big battles between Uber and its drivers in the news, with debate about the role of the state and governance in these situations,” she says, “but for care platforms, we just don't see this issue getting attention.”
Oddly, the domestic workers Ticona and Mateescu interviewed took this in stride.
Why? As a largely informal industry, domestic work has long been excluded from regulation and oversight that protects other workers. Ticona believes that has led to a culture among domestic workers of looking to each other for help.
"Regardless of the challenges that domestic workers face now with looking for work online,” says Ticona, “many workers have been socialized to believe that working conditions will never be ideal, that 'bad stuff happens and it's your problem — you just have to be savvy; you just have to deal with it.'"
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has put care workers in high demand, with Care.com reporting triple-digit increases in demand in 2020, the relationship between care workers and online platforms is still very understudied, in scholarship and in public debate, Ticona says. If we want to stop these scams, the media, researchers, and the public need to listen to care workers.
“It’s a real problem that needs to be discussed,” Ticona says. “What works for Uber drivers might not work for domestic workers.”