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BOB MOON: So, it's way past midnight. You can't sleep. I always raid the fridge first then pad out to the living room to see what's on TV. But on so many channels at that hour, all of the regular programming has been replaced...by this:
CLIP OF INFOMERCIAL: So if you're excited to learn how to make as much money as you want with ten free website businesses of your very own, then don't touch that remote control.
Yeah and I bet you even waive the shipping and handling fee. "Get rich quick" ads like that have proliferated on TV and the internet for years. But more and more of them have cropped up during, and possibly due to, this recession. And some have shifted their target audience from stay-at-home moms and insomniacs to just-laid-off anybodies. But wait there's more! From Marketplace's Sean Cole.
SEAN COLE: Our guide through the jungle of work at home programs is Melissa Yarosz. She's a full time executive assistant in Chicago. But she's always looking to earn a little extra.
MELISSA YAROSZ: Yeah, for vacation time or Christmas or whatever the need might be.
And when her husband's fire alarm installation company started failing late last year, the need got greater. So she's been on the hunt, weeding through a thicket of work-at-home programs that make extravagant promises.
YAROSZ: You know, make $3,000 a day while you sleep, or whatever.
COLE: Did you ever see any of those late night infomercials on TV?
YAROSZ: Oh yeah. I've had a couple of insomniac nights where they've had a couple young girls show all their cleavage and enticing all the men that were still up.
STACEY HAYES: Welcome to beautiful Southern California. I'm Stacey Hayes.
CARMEN PALUMBO: And I'm Carmen Palumbo.
STACEY HAYES: Today we're at...
This is probably the reigning work-at-home infomercial. "Jeff Paul's Shortcuts to Internet Millions."
PALUMBO: And listen to this: Even though it's an Internet system, you don't need to know anything about computers or the Internet to make money. It's fast!
HAYES: It's easy!
PALUMBO and HAYES: And it works!
But how does it work? All I can tell is that the program costs $39.95. Jeff Paul never responded to my email. Or the fax I was told to send. And when I looked at his website with Alison Southwick at the Better Business Bureau...
ALISON SOUTHWICK: It's kind of a visual overload here. Everything's exploding and colorful and coming at me.
Including a lot of red flags, she says. Waving violently.
SOUTHWICK: Money back guarantee! It's as easy as sending email.
Southwick says customers have complained to the bureau about this program, saying, for instance, that they can't get their money back. And she expects to hear a lot more complaints this year about a lot of programs. Because the Jeff Paul's of the world know their audience.
SOUTHWICK: During their infomercial I think there was one guy who said, 'Yeah, I just got laid off from my job.'
CLIP FROM INFOMERCIAL: I got laid off. And not just me, but everyone I work with.
SOUTHWICK: But then I learned about "Jeff Paul's Short Cuts to Internet Millions" and I'm now making, you know, eleventy billion dollars a minute. So they definitely are playing off of the economy and they're trying to speak to people, you know, who've been laid off, who are up at two, three in the morning.
Thankfully Melissa Yarosz is really careful about vetting these programs. And she's not even looking to get rich quick.
YAROSZ: No. I think, you know, with some hard work and working smart, that you can make a decent income.
Which is exactly what Vickie Sayce is trying to do. For a little less than a year, she's been building a home business around eBay called Vickie's Ventures.
VICKIE SAYCE: Actually it's Vickie's Ventures Incorporated.
She started off selling e-books on eBay. Then she wrote her own book on how to use eBay.
SAYCE: Called "Auction Pay Day Kids Play."
And she says her sales are a good measure of how the economy is doing.
SAYCE: In the fall, I was selling primarily cook books and that kind of book. But pretty much since Christmas more than 90 percent of everything I'm selling right now is geared toward how can I make money from home.
But selling e-books doesn't exactly turn your computer into an ATM. Sayce might make a thousand dollars one month and no dollars the next. It seems like the only reliable work-at-home job you'll find on-line is an actual job. And Melissa Yarosz says you can find them on Flexjobs.com.
YAROSZ: I heard about Flexjobs actually through LinkedIn. They make sure that they're all legitimate jobs and that there aren't any of those scammers just wanting to take your money.
Flexjobs is basically a classified listing of telecommuting jobs. Anything from part-time sales gigs to VP of a company. Job searchers pay a subscription fee. Sara Sutton Fell, who runs Flexjobs, says the primary audience used to be stay-at-home moms.
SARA SUTTON FELL: But in the last four to six months that's changed quite a bit and our audience has broadened massively. People who would have never previously considered telecommuting or work from home jobs are very much looking towards it as a viable professional option.
And thus, Flexjobs has changed its marketing too.
FELL: Using terms such as part time and second jobs and trying to get the word out to people who are unemployed.
Plus the actual number of actual jobs on Flexjobs is up 40 percent. Fell says employers might realize that telecommuters cost less.
COLE: Have you -- have you thought of putting together an infomercial for Flexjobs like "FLEXJOBS! Come online and do something somewhat normal!"
FELL: We've actually been approached to do those things.
COLE: Have you really?!
FELL: Oh, a few times too! And actually no joke probably after this airs we'll be contacted again.
And there's only three seconds left in this radio story so don't delay!
In Boston, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace Money. Call now!