SAN ANTONIO – The check looked real.
But it wasn't, and now a San Antonio woman is out nearly $4,000 after being taken in by a mystery shopper job scheme and a counterfeit check.
"These people are so cunning," Irma Latham said.
Latham is embarrassed and angry, but decided to set that aside and share her story to warn others.
Her trouble began when she received an email telling her that she was accepted as a mystery shopper. Latham said she had applied online for secret shopper positions months ago.
But nothing came of it, until now.
"It was for going to do shopping, evaluating customer service, what the store looked like," Latham said.
The email informed Latham she would evaluate stores, outlets and banks, and that if she accepted, a check would arrive in a few days.
"I checked their website and it looked very professional," she said. "It looked like it was legitimate, and I said, 'OK.'"
A cashier's check for $3,935 arrived by priority mail.
Latham was instructed to deposit the check in her account and keep $350 for herself for each assignment and use the rest for two tasks.
Her first assignment: evaluate Walmart and wire $900 to another "mystery shopper." Her second assignment was to evaluate a Bank of America and transfer $2,500 to another "mystery shopper."
The next day, Latham heard bad news from her bank -- the cashier's check that looked so real was fake.
When Latham logged on to look at the company's website, it was gone.
"My heart and my whole everything sunk to the floor. And I'm like, 'Oh, my God, I've been taken,'" she said.
Latham is not alone.
Unsuspecting consumers have lost millions of dollars over the years to the classic scam.
Fraudsters create counterfeit cashier's checks using well-known financial institutions' names and logos. In Lathan's case, it was USAA Federal Savings Bank.
"To someone who's not familiar with cashier's checks, I can see how that might look legitimate," said Sandra Cerda, USAA executive director of financial crimes management, who looked at a photocopy of the bogus check.
When it comes to cashier's checks, Cerda advises people to know exactly who they are dealing with.
"You are responsible for the check and the funds that are in there," Cerda said. "If you feel skeptical about a check you received, contact the financial institution."
Banking laws and regulations require that funds from cashier's checks be made available in a quick time frame. However, it can take a week or more for the issuing bank to discover that the check is worthless. Scammers take advantage of that lag in time, which is why they encourage quick action by their victims.
Cerda cautions consumers to do their homework and watch for red flags, such as someone sending you a big check and asking you to wire money to someone else.
There are legitimate mystery shopper opportunities, and they do not pay shoppers up front nor ask them to wire money.
Legitimate mystery shopper companties also do not pay big bucks. A typical payday is $10 to $40 for an assignment, and not hundreds of dollars.
The Federal Trade Commission suggests consumers who wish to find a real secret shopper gig to go through the nonprofit Mystery Shopper Providers Association or MSPA.org.
Latham wants to warn others.
"No matter how good it looks, don't do it," she said.
Victims of such a scam are encouraged to report it to police and the Federal Trade Commission.
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