DUSHANBE -- When Sobir Sobirov learned in early 2018 that a Dushanbe-based firm called Garduna was guaranteeing Tajiks $1,300-a-month jobs at a Skoda automobile factory in the Czech Republic, his first thought was that the offer was too good to be true.
Sobirov had lost his job as a driver in Dushanbe and heard about Garduna over social media after searching eight months to find steady work in a city where the average monthly wage is only about $200.
So the money being dangled for work in Europe was certainly appealing, even if there were signs that something was amiss.
For example, Garduna did not ask Sobirov about his training as a software developer or other qualifications he might have to live and work in the European Union.
And the firm's only requirement was that job seekers provide a valid passport and pay an upfront "recruitment fee" of about $1,320 to secure employment at one of three Skoda production plants in the Czech Republic.
To convince Sobirov that Garduna was legitimate, the company's co-owners showed him documents proving that it was legally registered in Tajikistan.
They gave him copies of what they claimed would be his Skoda employment contract and promised to obtain a Czech visa and work permit for him.
They also showed Sobirov photographs of an actual Skoda dormitory near a production plant in the Czech town of Mlada Boleslav where they said he would work and be housed as part of a "Skoda employment package."
Finally, they arranged for Sobirov to have an "interview" with a 51-year-old Czech man named Vaclav Skohoutil -- describing him as an "intermediary" between Garduna and a recruitment agency called Chekhovskaya that they claimed was working with Skoda on "staff issues."
'A Little Bit Dodgy'
Skoda Auto spokeswoman Kamila Biddle told RFE/RL that the automaker "is not linked with Garduna in any way," or with any recruitment agency called Chekhovskaya, and has "no involvement" in the activities of either company.
"This sounds a little bit dodgy," Biddle said.
Sobirov, however, was ultimately convinced by Garduna's elaborate details.
He took out a $600 bank loan and, together with his life savings of about $720, handed the money over to the company.
Then, like 200 other Tajiks who also paid Garduna's "recruitment fee," Sobirov waited for news about when he would be sent to the Czech Republic to start work.
"First. I was told they would send me to the Czech Republic in June or July of 2018," Sobirov said. "They didn't. The next time I confronted them, they promised they would send me to Skoda in October. They didn't, but they assured me that I would start work there in January."
Sobirov says it was when Garduna failed to contact him in January that he finally admitted to himself that he'd fallen for an elaborate "fake job" scam and would never again see the $1,320 "recruitment fee" he'd paid.
Now, on top of trying to find sporadic odd jobs to support his wife and his elderly parents, Siborv is struggling to pay back his bank loan.
He says he has been reduced to begging and borrowing money from his closest friends just to make ends meet.
All Too Common
The International Labor Organization (ILO) says fake job scams have become all too common, with "unscrupulous recruitment agencies" preying upon would-be migrant workers who want to travel abroad to build a better life for themselves and their families back home.
The World Bank says Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the world's most remittance-dependent economies -- with money sent back home by Central Asian migrant workers totaling more than three times that of official development aid.
The Pew Research Center notes that the vast majority of Central Asian migrant workers -- more than 1 million from Uzbekistan and more than half a million each from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- work in Russia where they face complicated bureaucracy, exploitative employment conditions, and social isolation.
The ILO says that makes impoverished Central Asians particularly susceptible to fake job scams that "guarantee" employment in EU countries in exchange for paying a recruitment fee.
Typically, the ILO says, many workers are not aware that they should not pay recruitment fees to get a job.
"This principle is key and has been listed as one of the ILO principles to ensure fair recruitment," the ILO warns.
Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, says deceitful recruitment agencies also "take advantage of the lack of law enforcement by governments or because workers are simply not aware of their rights."
But law enforcement officials in Tajikistan have vowed that they will take action.
In Dushanbe, the Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption says it has already launched a criminal investigation into the activities of Garduna.
Garduna's three Tajik owners -- company director Bakhtiyor Arabov and his deputies Tokhir Rustamov and Tous Hushkadamova -- have been detained and questioned on charges of running a fraudulent scheme to swindle more than 200 Tajiks from across the country out of nearly $250,000 combined.
More than half of the victims took out bank loans to pay Garduna's recruitment fee, the agency says.
All of them have difficulties paying back what they borrowed and most are becoming desperate as the interest due on their unpaid loans accrues.
Rustam Nuraliev, an investigator at the anticorruption agency, told RFE/RL that Tajik authorities are also searching for Skohoutil -- noting that he has visited Tajikistan on multiple occasions.
Nuraliev says Skohoutil had stayed in contact with the scam victims, using the Viber messaging app to reassure them they'd be sent to the Czech Republic.
But since Garduna's co-owners were detained for questioning in early March, Nuraliev says Skohoutil has "disappeared."
Nuraliev said Tajik authorities are in the process of applying for an Interpol "red notice" on Skohoutil -- an international arrest warrant that would call on police around the world to detain him and wait for a court ruling on a request for his extradition to Tajikistan.
But so far, Interpol's public database of "wanted" criminal suspects does not list Skohoutil.
RFE/RL has been unable to contact Skohoutil in order to discuss his alleged role in Tajikistan's fake-jobs scam.
Public records show that Skohoutil was born in the Czech town of Novy Bor, about 115 kilometers north of Prague, where he has operated several businesses since 1994.
All of those firms are either defunct or are in the process of being liquidated.