Notice: this training can be hazardous to your wallet

"NOTICE TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC," blares the full-page ad in the Daily Progress. The official look continues below: "Federal Job Eligibility Orientation. GREAT BENEFITS AND JOB SECURITY With Starting Pay Of Up To $14-$20 hr."

The ad seems helpful enough. After all, “State National Training Service, Inc.” would be conducting two-hour orientation sessions at the Cavalier Inn on "Monday, March 4th Only!" complete with a "Barometer Test by Professor C. Rand, former Federal Agent, FBI."

Along with about 40 others, I showed up and paid $5 for a manual, picked up a sheaf of forms and information sheets, and sat down in a room awash in posters with such headlines as "Counter-Terrorist Specialists Needed.”

Thanks to an exposé by a TV station in Cleveland (www.newsnet5.com/troubleshooter/1215658), I knew something my fellow attendees didn't. In the words of the Cleveland station, “’Job Seminar' Ends Up Being Nothing But Scam.”

Although they pretend to be privy to the inside scoop on getting jobs with the federal government, in fact they're selling a $695 home-study course that guarantees success on civil-service exams– and, by extension, success in getting one of those precious federal jobs.

The more scams I investigate, the more I find their psychology fascinating. For instance, the centerpiece of the orientation session was Professor Rand's "barometer test," clearly designed to convince the test-taker that passing a civil service exam without the company's tutelage is tantamount to acing the bar straight out of high school. Indeed, the sales rep declared that "nine out of 10 people fail these tests." The topics covered are a ludicrous mix of general knowledge, such as multiplying fractions or detecting a misspelled word, and highly specialized. Two examples of the latter are, "An automobile may be a good source of fingerprint evidence. Which of the following areas is least likely to contain legible latent prints: A) The rear view mirror B) the dashboard C) The steering wheel rim D) The front door handles" and "Drug abuse may be fatal to the user. Which of the following dangerous drugs are considered to pose the greatest problem: A) Barbiturates B) Heroin C) Placebos D) Tualine."

Actual civil-service exams for jobs outside of law enforcement would never include such questions– but this company wants you to believe otherwise (and that the tests are "tricky," which makes the prospect of taking one even more daunting).

I squeaked through with the lowest possible passing grade, 70 percent, but considering that only about three of us expected we'd pass before the grading started– I assumed I'd only missed a couple, rather than 6 out of 20– I think it's safe to say the failure rate was even higher than 9 out of 10.

So what's an earnest jobseeker to do? Why, sign up for their $695 home-study course, which is even wackier than the barometer test. For instance, consider the General Clerk Training Program, which would prepare a student for a range of clerical jobs. Lessons include "Pressure and Buoyancy," "Specific Gravity," and "Machines– levers and pulleys," to say nothing of "Heat– expansion and contraction." How have I survived all these years as a secretary without even one physics course– and no knowledge whatsoever of fingerprinting?

Now, a word on Professor C. Rand. Although he's a former FBI special agent, police officer, deputy sheriff, and Massachusetts state trooper, he's not above stretching the truth. First, he has only a master's degree, which hardly qualifies him for the title of professor.

And second, although both the $5 manual and the company website say he's a doctoral candidate at Northern Illinois University, he hasn't been a student there since 1993.

If you're interested in getting a government job, here are some resources you can trust. For exam preparation, Amazon.com has over a hundred books (search "civil service/study guides/study aids"); Barnes & Noble and the public library also have them. And for instructions on applying for openings and registering for exams, the Office of Personnel Management maintains a website (www.usajobs.opm.gov) with the very information SNTS wants to sell you– and it's free.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer at fearless@readthehoook.com or write her at 100 Second St. NW, 22902.