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 The Check's In The Mail

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 20, 2008 5:55 pm Reply with quoteBack to top

Sunday, Jan 20, 2008

The check's in the mail, and it could end up costing you

Star-Telegram staff writer

Devona Jackson was quite surprised when a bank cashier's check for $4,880 made out to her arrived in December at her Fort Worth home. Who doesn't want extra cash before the holidays?

The accompanying letter explained that the sender was "a secret customer service employment firm that specializes in the assisting of corporations on how to improve customer service to their clientele."

The letter offered to hire Jackson to work as a mystery shopper and promised that "all fees have been waived."

The letter looked good, and the attached form looked even better. Logos for big-name companies such as McDonald's, Wal-Mart, FedEx and Burger King were placed above "Customer Service Evaluation Tool" at the top.

Jackson read the form and understood that she was supposed to shop at stores and businesses and then rate sales representatives for their dress, courtesy, manner and efficiency. All she had to do was cash the $4,880 cashier's check, spend $50 at Wal-Mart, $40 at The Gap, keep $500 for herself, and make wire transfers of $2,700 by Western Union and $1,400 by MoneyGram to Canada. The rest went to associated fees.

Jackson took the check to a check-cashing store just to get an informed opinion. The clerk looked at it and told her, "If I were you, I wouldn't cash it."

Jackson, a hospital office assistant, wasn't certain what to do. She could have used the money, she recalled later. And it was a cashier's check! Can't they be cashed immediately?

"I said, 'I'll tell The Watchdog and see what he has to say about it,'" she told me.

I took a copy of the check and called the phone number for the issuing bank: United Republic Bank of Omaha. There was a quick busy signal -- not a good sign. Then I looked up the actual phone number of the bank, and it was different. I called the bank in Nebraska.

Venita Spier, the bank's chief operations officer, told me that the check was part of a scam that had prompted several hundred people to call her bank in December asking about the legitimacy of the checks.

Several people had fallen for the scam, she said. They cashed the checks and then, days later, found out that the business wasn't legitimate.

They owed their banks $4,880. The money wired via Western Union and MoneyGram went to Canada, she said, where the scammers collected big-time.

"We have contacted local enforcement, the FBI, the regulatory agencies and the United States Postal Service," Spier told me.

There are legitimate mystery-shopping businesses. Typically, a shopper is reimbursed and allowed to keep the product they bought in return for a completed customer-service report, the Federal Trade Commission states.

In the past, cashier's checks were seen as solid, almost equivalent to cash, and a surefire way to quickly transfer money. But these checks are fake, says David Barr, spokesman for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

"With today's technology, it's considerably easier to make a forged check, even a cashier's check," he says. "You can put check-writing software on your home computer, and you can be in business.

"Now it's a couple of clicks of a mouse, and you have a check."

According to the FTC, here's how this scam works:

You cash the check, do the shopping and wire off the rest of the money. A few days later, you get a call from your bank that the check is no good. If Jackson had gone through with it, she would have owed her bank $4,880.

Legitimate companies are registered with the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. Its Web site states that legitimate companies never promise large sums of fast cash or require fees.

A British Web site -- -- warns people to ask themselves: Why did you get the offer? Why was such a large sum of money sent to you? And why (as in this case) are you being asked to wire money to another country?

Barr says that if somebody you don't know gives you a check, you should wait until the full amount is deposited in your bank account before spending the money. Don't mistake the end of a hold period as the final test of a check's legitimacy.

"A lot of times, holds are lifted on a check before a check actually clears the system," he says. "So it's two separate things. Banks hold checks three to five days before the money becomes available, but that doesn't mean the check has cleared the system."

Bottom line: It's a cliche but always worth repeating, Barr says: "If something sounds too good to be true, chances are it probably is."

News researcher Marcia Melton contributed to this report.

Check it out

Legitimate mystery-shopper companies are registered with the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. The Web site is

Real companies don't charge an application fee. Many accept applications online. They don't charge a fee for access to job opportunities.

Do your homework. Check libraries or bookstores for tips on how to find companies that hire mystery shoppers.

Be especially wary of companies that advertise in a newspaper's help wanted section or by e-mail.

Real companies don't sell certification to customers or guarantee a job as a mystery shopper.

If you are asked to cash a check to participate, don't do it.

If you have encountered what you believe is a scam, contact the Better Business Bureau, the Texas attorney general's office and the Federal Trade Commission.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 21, 2008 1:17 am Reply with quoteBack to top

Ugh. That's a nasty twist on the scam. Victims actually do something productive for the money (instead of merely wiring back 10 percent and pocketing the rest), which makes the whole thing slightly more believable. That sucks.

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