Scam Alert – Beware ‘Mystery Shopper’ ruse!

Veteran columnist turns tables on would-be con artists

The check that Justin Manjorin received looks legitimate, but the scam became evident after his inquiries. The names of the innocent banks used by the scammers have been obscured in this photocopy of the bogus check.

The check that Justin Manjorin received looks legitimate, but the scam became evident after his inquiries. The names of the innocent banks used by the scammers have been obscured in this photocopy of the bogus check.

Many of you who read this paper know me as the guy who writes about wine, food and does restaurant reviews. Today, I am writing about a variation on a scam to separate you from your hard earned money.

Like many of you in our aging population, I am always on the lookout for a job that isn’t too physically demanding and can be done on a part time basis. Recently, I saw an e-mail on my computer from a company looking for a Mystery Shopper. I filled out the application. It DID NOT ask for any sensitive information such as Social Security or Credit Card information, so I felt relatively safe.
A few days later, I received an e-mail telling me that I had been approved as a Mystery Shopper and that instructions and a payment had been sent to me.

Imagine my surprise when an overnight Federal Express package is delivered to my home!

Inside the package I found an ‘Assignment Letter’ and what looked to be an absolutely authentic Cashier’s Check, made payable to me, in the amount of $3,590.56.

My ‘assignment’ consisted of two parts. First, the letter instructed me to deposit the check in my local bank. My second task was to visit a local Walmart, spending $50 in the process. For my time, the letter told me to keep $300 and an additional $50 for travel expense. And, the letter warned me to keep this transaction secret and that further instructions would be forthcoming!

The linchpin of this entire scam is the bogus check. Most people think a Cashier’s Check is the same as cash since funds are supposed to be available in the account upon which the check is drawn. In addition, the bank freezes the funds in the account until the check is presented for payment. This is true but it depends upon some additional factors.
Some of these factors are: 1) The company issuing the check exists. 2) The bank upon which the check is drawn exists. 3) The account upon which the check is written exists.

Here are the red flags that helped me avoid being scammed: 1) The check was drawn on a company I didn’t know. 2) The bank was located in a town in New Jersey I had never heard of. 3) The so-called ‘Payable Through’ bank was located in a small town in Oklahoma – again a place I had never heard of.

Further investigation was warranted!

I went online to research the issuer, and there they were! The bank exists, and even has several branches in Burlington County, New Jersey (which is way South and in an area even Jersey residents aren’t too familiar with!)

Being a methodical type, I picked the branch upon which the check was drawn and called them to make sure the branch existed. The phone was answered and that satisfied me for the moment.

I then called the bank upon which the check would be paid to ascertain if the issuing corporation maintained an account or had a relationship with them. Being a small bank, I was able to reach a person who took the time to help me. It turned out that there was no account or relationship, which he could discover.

Following up, I called the issuer back and after some time on hold I found someone to help me with the research. When I described the check, the person on the other end said it sounded like it could be one of their Official Checks.

HOWEVER, THERE WAS NO ACCOUNT TO MATCH THE ACCOUNT NUMBER ON THE CHECK THAT I HAD RECEIVED. That meant I was holding a worthless check!

What can we all learn from this incident? Don’t be too trusting! Scam artists tend to target the aging population for a number of reasons. One, we come from a more trusting time. Two, studies have shown that financial acuity tends to decrease as we age. Three, even “official documents” may not be what they appear to be. Four, if you are not sure, seek help from your financial institution. There is no such thing as a dumb question when it comes to your money.

BE WARY: IF A DEAL SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT PROBABLY ISN’T.

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