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Skip This Shopping Spree

"Official" checks are the latest spin in mystery shopper schemes

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 Union’s service.

“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 received one.”

Credibility from the state capital

Official-looking checks that purport to be from government agencies 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).

But the check is counterfeit—which can take your bank weeks to discover. No money enters your account, and you end up on the hook for everything 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 issued 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 getting 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.

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 year.

  • 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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