Your Money ; Scam Alert
‘Official’ checks are the latest spin in mystery shopper schemes
Skip This Shopping Spree By Sid Kirchheimer
So you think you can collect a juicy fee from your state government for a few hours of shopping at the mall? Sorry, but
that’s not how tax dollars are really spent.
Trash that $3,400 check from the Tennessee
Department of Labor and Workforce Development. It may look like an authentic unemployment benefits check, bearing the official bank
routing number used by that agency. But despite
what an accompanying letter may say, there are
no state-funded programs to be a “mystery shopper” at a local Sears or Wal-Mart or to wire thousands of dollars to London to evaluate Western
“These checks are being sent all over the U.S.,”
says Jeff Hentschel, a spokesman for the Tennessee agency. “Just yesterday I got a call from
someone in Illinois who
erything you spent at the mall, and for what you
wired overseas—to the scammers, of course.
Recently, at least 10 people tried to deposit
bogus Tennessee unemployment checks, says
Hentschel. “Consider that on average, we’re
sending out about 150,000 unemployment checks
each week. So there are a lot of checks out that
can be modified.”
In a variation of the scheme, some scammers
are sending out checks for $4,940 supposedly is-
sued by the state of Maryland. They bear dead-on
signatures of the state’s comptroller and treasurer.
Such details lend a lot of credibility “in making
people feel more secure in thinking they’re get-
ting a valid state check,” says Joseph Shapiro of
the office of the comptroller of Maryland. The
checks were really sent by con artists in Canada.
There are no
programs to be a
at a local Sears or
the state capital
that purport to be from
are the latest bait in mystery shopping scams—a
ruse that promises easy money if you’ll just visit
local stores and restaurants and then evaluate
prices and services.
The scam begins when a check arrives in your
mailbox. You’re instructed to quickly deposit it
in your bank account, then spend some of the
money at a particular business, keep some for
your “work” and wire transfer the lion’s share
elsewhere, typically overseas (appraising service
at MoneyGram or Western Union is part of your
assignment, you’re told).
How to protect yourself
Legitimate mystery shopper gigs do exist, and
here’s what you can expect from them:
; No upfront payment. “Shoppers usually get paid
after the assignment is completed,” says Kelly Hancock, spokesperson for the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, whose 300 member companies
hire shoppers for millions of undercover visits each
; Payment of $8 to $20 per shop.
; No instructions to complete a wire transfer
overseas, where the money will be beyond the
jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement—likely never
to be recovered. ;
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof
Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.
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