Mystery shopper scheme targets job hunters

Victims lose out when depositing fake checks

SAN ANTONIO – A classic scam involving counterfeit checks and real consequences is popping up online and in local mailboxes.

It starts with an online job opportunity offering intrigue and cash: mystery shopper.

"It said be a Walmart shopper and it will pay you," said John, who did not want to publicize his last name.

It sounded like a good way to earn a little extra cash, so John filled out the online application.

Soon, a priority mail cardboard envelope arrived in his mailbox. Inside was a check made out to John for $1,950.

"I said, 'Wow, it would be nice, but something's up,'" he said.

The enclosed letter laid out his mystery shopping assignment. He was to be a mystery shopper for Western Union, not Walmart.

First, the letter instructed him to deposit the check in his bank and email a copy of the deposit slip. Next, he was to withdraw the cash and use Western Union to wire $800 to another mystery shopper in Harlingen and $800 to yet another mystery shopper in Georgetown.

Immediately, John received a text message from the sender.

"They contacted me and said, 'Did you receive the check?' and I said, 'Yes, but I'm going to have it checked by my friend at the fraud department,'" he said.

John did not fall for it, but many have, losing their hard-earned money. Once the bank determines the check is counterfeit, the victim's real money is gone.

That's only the beginning of the trouble, Postal Inspector Michael Martinez-Partida said.

"Not only will they become victims of these scheme, they will give up their personal information," he said. "So now they can become victims of identity theft."

A call to the issuing bank in California confirmed that as legitimate as the check appeared, it was a fake.

To avoid being fooled, the Federal Trade Commission advises job hunters or anyone who may encounter these offers never to wire money if instructed to do so and never pay for a job.

The Mystery Shopping Providers Association has also warned of scams stating that legitimate mystery shopping firms will not send checks prior to the completion of an assignment.

Job hunters are urged to check out mystery shopping opportunities and not simply reply to ads.

Anyone who is a target of an overpayment scam may report it to the police, Federal Trade Commission, FBI or postal inspector.

About the Author:

As a consumer reporter, Marilyn is all about helping people stay safe and save a buck. Since coming to KSAT in 1985, she’s covered everything from crime to politics, winning awards for her coverage of the Mexican Mafia, Oklahoma tornadoes, children’s transplants, an investigation into voting irregularities and even a hit-and-run Santa Claus.