It's become an iconic image. The clip art photo of the smiling, attractive person curled up on a couch with a laptop on her lap. Along with the accompanying message: You too can work from home. Sounds too good to be true, but is it? After all, most life-changing advancements become universally adopted within a few years of their invention. If working at home is so wonderful, why are we not yet a nation of telecommuters?

No Commuting to Work
Work-from-home employment comes in two classifications. In the first category are existing jobs that a shrewd worker can convince his or her employee to transfer from a traditional workplace to the worker's home. In the second category, the task itself is less important than its venue. With these jobs, the emphasis isn't on the work, but rather on the "from home." These are jobs offered specifically to lure workers who don't want to commute.

The companies that advertise work-from-home jobs generally disclose little about the actual duties and responsibilities of the work itself. A standard work-from-home TV commercial spends most of its duration telling viewers how much money they can make, dizzying us with a generous cavalcade of zeros after each dollar sign, without saying a word about what the work entails.

It took some research to determine that almost all such companies are selling direct marketing in one form or another. In a typical arrangement, Work-From-Home Company X manufactures or distributes something. Common products distributed by such companies are açai berry juice, weight-loss powders and cleaning products. The mark buys in bulk lots of the products which he or she in turn sells to whichever neighbors and family members are available. As you might imagine, most of the units stay in the salesperson's garage, sometimes even beyond their expiration dates. Left unanswered is the question, "If Work-From-Home Company X's products are so amazing, why will no retailer touch them?"

Here's the Problem
The problem with such a scheme, at least from the employer's perspective, is that many would-be employees are at least realistic enough to know that they're not very adept at sales. Thus, the work-from-home industry lowered the bar even further. Some firms offer straight cash payments for stuffing envelopes, a task that was first automated decades ago. If that doesn't daunt the intrepid job-seeker from choosing envelope-stuffing as an occupation, there's also the small matter of no one sending mail anymore.

For the opportunity to engage in mind-numbingly menial labor for fantastic wages, the would-be employer is supposed to contribute something, too. A "processing fee" or a "supply fee" for the envelopes themselves is standard, even though envelopes are some of the cheapest products in all of commerce. Because some prospective workers-from-home would balk at even that, many work-from-home companies require their employees to at least make an upfront purchase of the company's "sales system" or "success manual," a simple booklet or DVD that sells for a four-digit percentage markup. That way the work-from-home company enjoys some profit, even if it never ships an order of its product to the intended employee.

What to Watch for
If a lifetime of being exposed to humanity hasn't yet compelled you to constantly keep your guard up, it's never too late to start. The hopeful catchphrases from many work-from-home companies should tip anyone off: "Earn Big Money!" isn't something a legitimate employer promises to let unseen recruits do, especially if there's "No Experience Needed!" Any business that prefaces its communication with the word "legitimate," as in "legitimate home-based opportunity," makes one wonder why the qualifier is necessary.

Well-paying jobs with a minimum of inconvenience exist, but they're not literally there for the asking. Some of the work-from-home companies are certainly less than ethical, but it isn't fair to assume that anyone who works without making it past his or her mailbox is somehow either actively scamming or being scammed.

The Bottom Line
It's certainly possible to work from home and even to enjoy a semi-comfortable living doing so. Like anything else, it requires diligence. Remember the first (and more lucrative and stable) of the two flavors of work-from-home jobs. If you can hone skills that a) are marketable and b) don't require you to be in a particular physical place, you can do it. Just ask any of the tens of thousands of advertising copywriters, graphic designers, technical support representatives, bookkeepers, medical transcriptionists and real estate investors who've blurred if not erased the lines between their living rooms and their offices. The important thing is to start with your worth in the employment marketplace and find a work-from-home job that corresponds to it, rather than do things the other way around and wait for a work-from-home company to find you.

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