Mystery shopper alert: Don't fall for this scam

mystery shopper alertBeing a "secret shopper" sounds like an easy way to make cash. Making easy money usually comes with a catch. In this case, it's you paying them. Robby Brand found this out the hard way.

Brand, 36, of Ladson, S.C., filled out a questionnaire to become a secret shopper and received a check and a letter in the mail for nearly $3,000. He was suspicious about the check, but went online to look up the company, A Closer Look. He says after reading through the website and seeing they had been around for 15 years, he decided it was legit.
Brand took the cashier's check to the bank, then called the toll-free number on the letter to get his assignment. He talked to an operator who told him to spend a small portion of the money at a Walmart and to wire the rest to England. He was told they were testing their international rates, so he didn't think twice about sending the money out of the country.

Two days later at lunch with his daughter, Brand's credit card was declined and he found that he owed $2,711 to the bank. Sensing a scam, he called a number he found on the Closer Look website. He was told the company had recently learned a scam was being run using the company's name. It is typical for crooks in these types of schemes to use the reputation of a real company to convince people to fall for the scam.

Though he's notified the FBI and the FTC, Brand is responsible for paying back the money he lost in the scam.

"What I'm being told now is the paper wasn't good and with the watermark, it should've been caught. The check was cashed at the (bank) and if they can't tell it's fake, how am I supposed to be able to tell?" says Brand.

Attorneys general are warning people to beware of secret shopper checks and money orders received through the mail. The scam takes many forms, but usually, the consumer is hired to evaluate a wire transfer company as Brand was. Victims receive a money order or checkto deposit into a personal bank account, which they then are told to wire out of the country. The check or money order, which could be for thousands of dollars, is worthless -- something that might not become apparent for a week or more. But when the check is found fraudulent, the consumer is responsible to the bank to pay back the amount that they withdrew.

In Nebraska, officials said scammers have used actual U.S. Postal Service money orders that have been doctored from their original $50 purchase to appear to have a higher value, such as $950. The code on the money order reveals the true amount. The U.S. Postal Service will check any money order for fraud.

Once the money is sent overseas getting any back is pretty much a lost cause.

"We refer most of these fake check scams to the Secret Service for investigating and unfortunately it is impossible to recover any money lost in this scam because the perpetrators are untraceable and are often located overseas," Molly Butters, spokeswoman for Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller told Consumer Ally. "Bottom line: Don't wire money anywhere for any reason if you are solicited by a stranger."

Other signs of scams you should look out for, according to the Federal Trade Commission:
  • Companies that sell certifications.
  • Guarantee a job as a mystery shopper.
  • Charge a fee to be a mystery shopper.
Brand is not optimistic about retrieving the money he's lost. "Basically at the end of the day, it rests all on me," he says. "I wish there were more ways to protect consumers who go through this."
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