Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why I believe Scotia Personnel Ltd. is a scam

Hi, I just wanted to take the time to write about my experience with Scotia Personnel Ltd., a Canadian-based placement agency for Au Pair, tutoring, and nanny jobs. The reason why I'm doing this is because I found pretty much no reviews of the company when I researched them prior to working with the company. I hope now, however, that people will see this review when researching the company and and be prevented from making the same mistake I did.

It all started when I decided I wanted to Au Pair one year abroad instead of continuing my job that year as a school teacher. I knew I had a lot to offer, as a professional who had a degree in education and interacted with hundreds of children daily, so I was not desperate for a position. I wasn't looking for a job because I already had a job that I loved--instead I was looking for an experience. Au Pairing seemed like a great idea, and immediately my initial placement preference was Iceland. I had always idolized Iceland because not only is it beautiful, but the country seemed to be filled with cool ideas, innovations, and attitudes (not to mention great musicians). Although my heart was set on Iceland, I was also considering Holland for similar reasons. I was faced with the task, however, of now finding a family to Au Pair for in these rather small countries, and finding an Icelandic family who wanted an Au Pair during the same months I was available was particularly difficult. I was using profile-based websites where Au Pairs and families could search and contact one another directly, but I was beginning to think that I couldn't find a family by myself and that I may need the help of an agency. My choices were limited, however, as I discovered that very few agencies included Iceland. The only two agencies I could find which were not some obscene price like $1200 were Au Pair International and Scotia Personnel Ltd. I contacted both, but Scotia Personnel Ltd. was the only one to contact me back.

The woman who first contacted me on the phone went over the benefits of their agency-that you were "guaranteed placement," that families working through their agency would refund the cost of the flight and cover visa expenses and paperwork, that the agency would transfer you to another family if your family and you did not get along, that they would keep you in contact with other Au Pairs in the area, as well as other extra benefits you would not otherwise receive if working independently. No where on their site did I read about their $600 non-refundable "processing fee" which was required before placement, so I was surprised when the woman, at the end of our conversation, casually added, "Well you know about the fee, right?".

I was OK with there being a fee, as all agencies required one, yet was taken aback that this fee was required before placement. However, because I was told I was guaranteed placement, I was willing to research the option. I could not find any first-hand information about Scotia Personnel on the internet, which I found surprising, seeing as this company has been around since 1987. On the other hand, while I didn't read anything good, I also didn't read anything bad, so I gave the company the benefit of the doubt and decided to keep working with them and just see what happens.

I ended up having to give them some reference contacts and a resume before they decided to interview me on Skype. That's when this really started to get bad. The woman who interviewed me basically dismissed most of my questions and said what she thought I wanted to hear in a glossed over way, sometimes outright lying to me. For example:

All of the questions she asked me were about why I chose Iceland, and what the Iceland application would involve. Later in the interview I told her I was considering Holland as well, and she told me more information about Holland's program and that I could choose to apply to one or both. After the interview, I decided on Holland and only submitted a Holland application. The woman then called me asking me why I did not apply to Iceland, so I told her what factors made me chose Holland (climate, location, etc.). She told me that I said I was going to apply to both, which I did not say, and that if I wanted to get placed I needed to apply to more than one country. This was never mentioned to me before. My heart was set on Holland and I was upset because if I didn't care what country I was placed with, I wouldn't have paid for an agency to begin with. Regardless, she presented this as pretty non-negotiable, so I went ahead and applied to three more countries--realizing that it wouldn't hurt just to see what my option were, even if it wasn't in the country I wanted.

To make matters even worse, she asked me personal questions about my mental health and the kinds of medications I was on. I felt very uncomfortable answering these questions as part of an interview, and this, as far as I can tell, is illegal.

I also asked her how many families were available to choose from in Holland and her answer ranged from "lots" to "hundreds" (Note: Afterwards, I never once was presented with any positions in Holland). I asked her if the family's profiles were available for me to search as well, and she said yes. However, I asked her this again after having only received 2 applications within the first month of applying, and she told me that only the families had the option of looking through applications. If I had known this I would have never paid the fee, because why would I pay a fee for an agency only to be allowed no access to families, and to just sit around and wait until I maybe got an application? Especially when there are so many sites out there that let Au Pairs browse families?

As I said, I only received two applications in one month from this agency, yet I was expecting to leave in a month and a half. This did not leave me very much time to get my passport, visa, flight, and everything else I needed. The first application I received was from Italy. I was not that interested in living in Italy, but I applied anyway in case I happened to see a good opportunity I didn't want to pass up. This family, however, was not appealing to me- there were three boys, including a child under the youngest age I was willing to work with. It was full time, while most Au Pairs work 30 hours a week, and I only had one day off. While the family did offer to pay for a studio apartment about the size of a normal bedroom, I was then faced with the extra responsibilities of paying utilities and commuting (which were frankly things I did not want to worry about). The family, in their application, mentioned nothing to me about wanting an Au Pair, and instead referred to this as a nanny position. It was clear to me that this was not what I was looking for.

I sent the family an email explaining that I was looking for a live-in position with fewer hours, and also CCed it the agency as they requested because for some reason they need to monitor my every exchange with a family. Apparently not accepting the FIRST position I had been offered was so upsetting to the agency that they decided to call me about it, just to tell me how great the job was that I just passed up. The woman told me that, from now on, I needed to talk to her first before I can email the family. She proceeded to demonstrate that she didn't know how to count by telling me that the family actually wanted me to work 30 hours, which was clearly not true according to the schedule they outlined for me. The family later verified that they indeed were asking for someone to work 40 hours. The woman at the agency also told me even though they family wrote nanny, they really meant Au Pair, which was probably something she just said and didn't actually ask the family for clarification about. She finally told me that most people accept the first or second position they're offered. It was becoming clear to me that the agency had no interest in seeing that I find a family which was a good fit, and that I wouldn't be allowed the luxury of having options in this process.

 I was receiving so much pressure from this company to just go ahead and accept the first thing that was sent to me, and this was terrifying to me. I was so afraid that if I didn't accept the next application, they would patronize and condescend me again, as if I had no idea what was good for me and that what I wanted didn't matter. I didn't want to disobey them because I didn't want to not end up getting placed, only to be told, "You would have if you followed our directions, so it's your fault." With 600 dollars already invested into this, I didn't want to waste my money. However, I came to dread every and all interactions I had with this company, and I felt like I couldn't walk away because I already paid them. All they cared about was placing me as soon as possible, regardless of what I thought, and they were not shy about using whatever pressure tactics they could. I was always afraid of responding to emails "in time" because if I didn't do it within a few hours after the email was sent, I would receive emails and calls (at the same time) from the agency telling me to respond ASAP. They claimed the reminders were for my benefit because the positions get "snatched up quickly", but they did it so often it felt like harassment. The people on the phone were always rude to me. I was being asked to make decisions almost immediately, even though I was going to a new country to stay with a family I didn't know for a whole year.

The second application was another family I did not think was a good match for me, but I emailed them back with more questions because I was terrified of what the agency would do if I didn't. The family never emailed me back. Nervous about the fact that I had gotten only 2 applications in one month, I called the agency with questions, and the woman wouldn't even let me finish--instead saying she was going to email me some brochures about the countries I applied to and that I could call her after I read the information. She practically hung up on me after saying this. What kind of customer service is this?

I feel that Scotia Personnel is by the far the rudest and least considerate company I have ever dealt with. After I paid the fee, they were so condescending and pressured me so much that I would feel grateful for the days which I didn't have to interact with them. I was afraid to check my email in case they sent me one of their "reminders," but even then, I was scared of not checking my email, because I would be harassed even more for not answering them. There is something incredibly wrong with paying for a service and then being terrified by the people you just paid.

During the Skype interview, when I asked the woman about my concerns regarding the lack of reviews and the "application fee," she became visibly defensive, pointing to the "reviews" they emailed me. What she was referring to was an email she sent me which alleged to contain text from emails sent by previous customers, all of it copy+pasted into a single email to me. This was being presented as evidence to me, as if the possibility that an employee just wrote some nice words and claimed they were emails was totally impossible. I'm not sure why they didn't go the more legitimate route of forwarding me the emails, or screen capturing them, or giving me the Au Pair's contact information for a reference.

I think the shadiest thing, however, was how they dealt with the transaction of the fee. For some reason they have an unwritten rule which requires people to pay the 600 dollars THE SAME DAY as the Skype interview in order to be hired. When I asked about some contract or something outlining what I was guaranteed before I paid the fee, the woman again got defensive and referred to their Better Business Bureau score as evidence of something. She told me that they preferred bank transfers, and when I suggested Paypal, she seemed hesitant but told me that would be OK as well. However, after the interview another woman from the agency contacted me telling me that I needed to pay with a bank transfer or pay 40 dollars to express mail a check, and that she would not accept Paypal. The reason she gave was because she alleged that Paypal took several days to go through. This was clearly ridiculous and a lie, as Paypal transactions done by a debit card are immediate and it says so on the website. It's even made more ridiculous by the fact that bank transfers, in comparison, DO take days to transfer. She also told me that Paypal would make them pay fees, which is also untrue, as I was the one who paid the fees.  I told her this and she told me I was wrong, so I sent her an email with the link to the Paypal page explaining that the transaction was immediate. She then sent me another email telling me that I was still wrong, implying that I misread it somehow. I then sent her another email correcting her, and finally, after this, she gave me the company email to Paypal the money to. What really made me wonder this entire time was why a business, which deals with people internationally and largely conducts matters over the Internet, would not simply set up a Paypal option on their site like every other merchant online. Instead they put the burden of sending the money on the purchaser, even as much as suggesting that they pay $40 dollars to mail it, while also getting mad if their absurd demands were not met on time.

Working with this company was one of the worst mistakes of my life. I have never been treated so poorly by a company. All Scotia Personnel Ltd. cares about is making money. If they cared about the client they would have a "money back guarantee". Why else would they make a fee which is required before any services take place non-refundable? They claim to offer actual benefits for the fee but in reality, it's with the sacrifice of not having choices or deciding where you want to go. While working with this agency I maintained a profile on an Au Pair site where the Au Pair and families contact each other directly, and during the same time that I received 2 offers with Scotia Personnel, I received 64 offers directly from families on the Au Pair website. Scotia Personnel treated me as if I should feel lucky to even get an application, while in reality it looked like I was better off just working independently. What do I care about the Au Pairs they can connect me with while I'm there--I'm perfectly capable of making friends. I'm also perfectly capable of finding another placement if my family and I didn't work out--and besides, working independently and taking the time to get to know a family allows me to actually be selective and pick the kind of family that would be right for me, making it much less likely that I would need a transfer in the first place. The agency offered no benefits in terms of selection, and their promises of less expenses to be paid by the Au Pair are canceled out by the fee I had to pay. In my opinion, Scotia Personnel Ltd. is an absolute scam, because it claims to offer the Au Pair a lot when really offering nothing. I have yet to decide whether I will continue to look for a family to Au Pair for, or whether I will quit the search and move on, so my complaints have nothing to do with wanting my money back because I found something better.  It's just gotten to the point where I can no longer handle the way they treat me and I am sick and tired of it. This whole experience has been a nightmare.