Beware of Au Pair Scams: Fly-by-Night Agencies and Fake Applicants

Going the legal route to hire an au pair is the safest all around

If you are a U.S. family thinking about hiring an au pair from another country, who will live in your house and take care of your children, realize that this is a formally organized program. It’s partly run by the U.S. State Department (DOS), because the au pair and your family will need to meet requirements set forth by U.S. immigration law in order for the au pair to receive a J-1 visa to come to the United States. Fewer than 20 agencies in the U.S. have received authorization from DOS to help administer the au pair program and arrange placements with U.S. families.

But you wouldn’t know this from what you see on the Internet. There, if you search for “au pairs” or “au pair agencies,” it looks like a lot more ways exist to find an au pair than through one of the DOS-designated organizations.

At the most innocent end of the spectrum, some websites let au pairs post their photos and personal profiles, and then when the viewer has chosen one, directs the person to one of the DOS-designated agencies to complete the process. These websites are not necessarily doing anything wrong. Still, some parents feel misled when they discover that the fee that they may pay to the sites covers only a small portion of the steps involved in getting the au pair here.

More disturbing are agencies that line people up with would-be caregivers who are already in the United States, usually on a tourist or student visa. With few exceptions, the terms of their visas do not allow them to take paid work. Because enforcement of the no-work rule for visitors and students is fairly lax, you may get away with hiring these people. But without a legitimate agency in the picture, you will not enjoy the same kind of official support that you will with a legal au pair. You may even find that your au pair has to leave the country on short notice.

At the far end of the spectrum are outright scam operations, where you are more likely to have your money or identity stolen than to receive child care of any sort. For example, reports have surfaced of families who thought they were communicating with a prospective au pair, and at her request, sent money for airfare or to move the process along. As you might expect, that was the last they ever heard from her.

Although such scams are said to originate primarily in developing countries, the emails may pretend to be from any country in the world. And they are getting more sophisticated than you might expect, involving multiple players such as travel agents, university professors, and people posing as parents and references. The bottom line: Start with one of the DOS-designated agencies, and advise it immediately if you receive any request for money directly from someone claiming to be a prospective au pair.

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