A Minneapolis headhunting firm has closed its doors and shut down its website, leaving a trail of questions and disgruntled customers who say they shelled out thousands of dollars to land a job but never got results.

A paper sign taped to the locked glass door of the company's 12th-floor office in the Baker Building in downtown Minneapolis says: "Arthur Group Executive Search." On it, someone scribbled, "Fraud! I want my money back!"

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) said Thursday that it began investigating the company about three weeks ago and was moving to yank its accreditation but the firm's closing beat them to it.

"I think they were preying on middle- to high-level executives who were at their weakest moment," said Dana Badgerow, president and CEO of the local BBB, adding that she feels many were embarrassed to even file a report. She said the company flew under the BBB's radar for a long time by resolving complaints right away, often by paying out a settlement.

A common theme among those who claim they were scammed: They felt the service would give them an edge looking for a high-level position in a tough job market. They say the company's owner, Barry Trimble, was a smooth salesman who didn't follow through on promises. While the company provided some services, the clients say, it often did a less-than-adequate job. And they question whether the jobs and connections the company touted existed at all.

In a phone interview Thursday, Trimble, 46, of Dellwood, denied misleading clients, saying it's clear in the company's agreements that it does not make any guarantees. He also said that the jobs did exist. "We had numerous jobs right up until the end. They were real jobs."

He blamed the closure in Minneapolis and an office in the Chicago area on a bad economy. "We couldn't afford to keep the doors open without the income," he said.

One former employee, Edward Guck, 42, of Edina, said clients were misled "without a doubt."

The way it worked: Get potential customers in the door and make sure they had money, then rip apart their résumé and their skills in a "mock interview" situation. Have them sign up and pay for the services with promises that the Arthur Group had relationships with dozens of prestigious companies and could help them get a job.

"There were a few jobs. There were a few relationships," said Guck, who quit in November 2008 after nearly a year. "It was certainly not what he was telling people."

AG's office contacted

Mike Myser, 48, of Prior Lake, says he gave Trimble $3,000 in January in exchange for help with interview skills, his résumé and promises of interviews and an executive-level job. In the end, he said he received minimal help with his résumé but never landed even an interview. He asked for his money back but hasn't seen a dime.

"I'm mad at myself that the red flags didn't go off sooner," said Myser, who also shared his frustration with the New York Times earlier this month. "I wasted months of time with that guy."

Myser said the Minnesota Attorney General's Office interviewed him last week. Contacted by the Star Tribune, the Attorney General's Office would neither confirm nor deny it is investigating the case.

But it said, in general, it is interested in talking to anyone who may have been wronged by companies taking advantage of job seekers at a time when unemployment is so high.

One woman, who has a master's degree from Duke University, claims in a lawsuit that the résumé the Arthur Group created for her "had grammatical mistakes, typos" and was unable to be read when it was sent out via e-mail. She is seeking to get her $2,590 fee back in the Hennepin County District Court case.

Trimble has ties to another Twin Cities company that faced similar allegations.

In 2005, then-Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch settled a consumer fraud case against Bernard Haldane, a New Jersey-based company with a presence in Minneapolis. The suit said the Twin Cities office charged more than 1,000 Minnesotans $5,000 to $16,000, falsely claiming it had special access to the hidden job market, and that it accepted only an exclusive clientele and promised a job within 120 days.

Instead, the suit alleged, its job listings were widely available to the public elsewhere, the company accepted all customers, and it left customers to do all the work anyway.

In a settlement, defendants agreed to pay $225,000 to a restitution fund for clients. Trimble also paid $75,000. At that time, Trimble said he volunteered to contribute to that fund, even though he had already left the company, and that he bought the Arthur Group to run a company the right way.

'A big fat nothing'

Accusations by Arthur Group clients date to 2003, when Bob Alberti of Minneapolis says he put $8,000 on a credit card to pay for help transitioning from work as a contractor to an executive position. He was impressed by the company's "opulent" offices and promises that he'd get a signing bonus that would cover his expenses.

"I didn't complete my college degree and I saw this as a way to make up for that," he said, adding that he thought the company could give him an edge during shaky economic times. "I was aware that I could be ripped off." He did, however, check out the company with the BBB, which listed no complaints against it.

Alberti said things began to seem fishy when he would spot positions on monster.com and had to bring them to the Arthur Group's attention. He said all he got for his money was a mock interview, which was videotaped so he could study it.

"I'm embarrassed to admit that I gave a lot of money to the Arthur Group in exchange for a big fat nothing," said Alberti.

List of heavy hitters

Myser, a former a vice president for business development at a technology company, started a job search late last year. Looking on careerbuilder.com, he noticed that most of the jobs listed were through the Arthur Group.

The firm listed numerous big Twin Cities companies that it said used the Arthur Group, including 3M, Best Buy, Buffalo Wild Wings, Medtronic, Cargill, Carlson Companies and Piper Jaffray. The Star Tribune contacted several of these companies to determine if they had worked with the Arthur Group. Only one replied: Cargill said it found no evidence that its human resources department ever worked with the Arthur Group.

Alberti said he had a bad feeling all along but kept proceeding, all in the hopes he just might get a job.

"We blinded ourselves to the obvious fraud and crossed our fingers," he said.

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707