It’s all about the story. That’s what scammers sell, the story. If it’s a good enough story, they will use it again and again and again. And if it’s a really good one, scammers will tweak it, adding new features that enhance their efforts to get into your wallet.
Always on the lookout for opportunities to take advantage of a bad situation, these con artists have recently dusted off the Secret Shopper scam, while working in a couple of new hooks.
The bad situation they are taking advantage of is a combination of people being out of work due to the coronavirus plus the immediate need for extra cash during the holidays.
Here’s how the old Secret Shopper scam worked: Someone looking for ways to earn extra cash would answer an ad about becoming a secret shopper. The “job” entailed the supposed employer sending the job seeker a check, which they were to deposit in their personal bank account. The check included a generous amount the job seeker was to keep for themselves. In a couple of days, the bank would even say the check had cleared.
The victim was instructed to buy gift cards from specific stores, take photos of the back of the cards to “verify” the purchase, and report their experience with the stores. However, the bank soon finds out the check deposited was a fake, meaning the job seeker is on the line for all that money. The gift cards are now worthless as well because the victim sent photos of the numbers on the back, allowing scammers to drain all the money off.
The latest edition of the secret shopper scam has added a couple new hooks. The first is that a check arrives unsolicited. The second twist is it is not in an ordinary envelope, but in a pricey USPS Priority Mail envelope, lending more authenticity to the scammer’s tale.
Accompanying the check is a letter instructing the recipient to deposit the check, purchase several gift cards from various stores and then evaluate the service at each store. As payment, the letter instructs the recipient to keep a specified amount for themselves. The third hook is if the assignment is done quickly, the victim may even be in line for a bonus.
A Virginia man, Sterling Price, recently received such a Priority Mail envelope that included a check made out to him in the amount of $2,950.52. The letter said he could keep $450 for himself, and (the third hook), if he promptly completed the task, he would earn a bonus.
Luckily, Price suspected a scam right away.
“The check just didn’t look like a real check,” he said.
Researching, he found the company on the envelope did not exist and, even though the package’s return address was from California, the tracking number indicated it had been shipped from Puerto Rico. Finally, the company that allegedly wrote the check was an innocent non-profit in Florida. The scammers even followed up with a text to him on his cell, referring to him by name and telling him their name.
BBB’s advice to avoid this scam is to be immediately suspicious of any unsolicited or unanticipated checks, and do not deposit them. Even if the bank tells you a check has cleared, you can’t be sure it won’t be detected as a fake weeks later. One thing for sure though is you’ll be responsible for funds drawn against that check if you do.
If you receive such a check, immediately report it to the local law enforcement agency, the state attorney general and the BBB.
Cheryl Parson is president of the Better Business bureau serving West Central Ohio. The BBB may be found on the Internet at www.lima.bbb.org.