A Nice Little Scam

A Nice Scam
A Nice Scam

Winnie and I were targeted for a rather slick scam recently but managed to avoid losing money. It was an interesting scam that started with a spam e-mail inviting me to do some “Secret Shopper” work.

A secret shopper is a person hired to act as a customer in a target company, for the purpose of assessing that company. The secret shopper is given a script/scenario to perform the assessment, and afterwards fills out a questionnaire in return for a small payment. I did secret shopping as part-time work for a couple of years, back when I was between marriages, and I enjoyed it. Most of my assignments were assessing fast food restaurants, and my compensation was a paid fast food meal and a few dollars pocket money. It was fun work that kept me busy in the evenings.

So when I received a spam e-mail inviting me to participate in a secret shopper assignment I was intrigued and responded affirmative. Within a few hours I received a follow-up e-mail explaining that this assignment would pay $200 for performing the scenario, which got my attention and suspicions. I’d never heard of a secret shopping assignment that paid so much, but this is Washington DC where dreams come big so I decided to play along.

The follow-up e-mail asked for my contact information including name, address, and cellphone number. I was also asked to select the nearest Wal-Mart store and the nearest Western Union office location. Now I was really intrigued; I could guess I was being asked to secret shop at a Wal-Mart, but didn’t understand the unrelated Western Union bit. I sent back the e-mail with my contact info and locations.

The next day I received a text message on my cellphone from a “Paul Weaver,” using a Dallas, Texas, phone number. The message advised I would be receiving a package in the mail with my assignment, questionnaire, and payment check. Another intriguing bit; I’d never received payment in advance doing work for an unknown person. I acknowledged, and promised “Paul” I’d let him know when I received the package.

The USPS priority mail package was waiting for me a few days later when I returned home from work. Winnie came home right after me and we got busy with supper. After we finished eating and were sitting at the table chatting, I took up the package and told Winnie what was going on. Then I opened it and looked.

The package contained a very authentic-looking bank cashier’s check for $2,485 and a letter with instructions. I was tasked to deposit the cashier’s check in my bank account, wait 24 – 48 hours for the check to clear, and then proceed to:

  • Use $20 to make any two purchases at my pre-selected Wal-Mart store and ask a store worker for assistance.
  • Go to my local Western Union location and wire $2,225 to a given name and address in Shenzhen, China.
  • Send an e-mail back to the company with the Western Union ten-digit tracking number and a brief write-up of my Wal-Mart and Western Union experience.

It took Winnie about two seconds to shout “It’s a Trick!” I was pretty suspicious, but not completely convinced it was a scam. I looked at the sender’s address; it was a Florida location with a woman’s name. I checked Google maps and discovered the address could not be located. The name on the cashier’s check was a name different that the name on mailing address. I researched the bank’s routing number and determined the bank was located in Kentucky.  At this point I gave this secret shopper assignment a one percent chance of being legit and decided to play along a bit more.

I texted “Paul” to let him know I’d received the package and cashier’s check. He got back to me within a few minutes and told me I had to do the secret shopping scenario the next day. I agreed and told him I would text as soon as I had completed the assignment.

The next morning I called the bank used for the cashier’s check. I explained to the receptionist what I needed and was passed over to the bank’s fraud department. A pleasant-sounding woman answered. I explained my story; that I had received a cashier’s check the previous evening to do some secret shopping at Western Union…and the lady cut me off.

“It’s a fake cashier’s check” she said, chuckling.

I responded “It’s a very real-looking check.”

“Yup” she said, chuckling” It’s a fake.”

“So you get a lot of these?” I asked.

“Yup” she answered, “we’ve been flooded with them ever since last summer. Mostly from California, Texas, and Florida. Where are you?”

“I’m in Virginia. The letter came from Florida and I have a phone number from Dallas.”

“Yup” the lady said, still chuckling “it’s fake. Just throw it away.”

I thanked her and hung up, amused. A short while later “Paul” texted me again, asking if I had deposited the cashier’s check. I replied that I was going to perform my assignment tonight after work. “Paul” reminded me to send him the Western Union tracking number as soon as I received it.

On my way home I dropped off the letter and fake check at my local Post Office. The Postmaster told me she had been targeted with the same scam and we commiserated with each other for a few minutes.  That evening Winnie and I joked about the scam and discussed humorous ideas about how to trick “Paul Weaver.” Later that evening I received another text from “Paul,” asking if I had deposited the check and sent the Western Union MoneyGram. I replied “Yes,” and “Paul” demanded the ten digit tracking number. Playing along, I texted back a made-up a ten digit number thinking that at least the Chinese contact would waste some time going to the Shenzhen Western Union office. No luck; within a few minutes “Paul” texted back that the number wasn’t correct, to please check and send the correct number.

At that point I texted back telling him to go fuck off and that the local Postmaster had their package. Then I blocked the phone number so I wouldn’t have to deal with the jerk again.

So we avoided being scammed, but I have to wonder about people who might actually get caught up in this scam. I see three possible scenarios:

  1. Recognize it’s a scam like Winnie and I did and toss the check; inconvenienced but no financial loss.
  2. Deposit the cashier’s check, not send the Western Union, and discover the scam when the check bounces. Inconvenienced, but no financial loss as the victim tries to steal the entire amount of the check.
  3. Deposit the cashier’s check, follow the instructions and wire $2,225 to China. Then discover the scam when the cashier’s check bounces. The victim loses a lot of money for being honest.

I think what bothers me the most about this scam is that the victim only loses money if they’re honest. That’s a problem, and the amount of money lost could easily be a rent or mortgage payment, or even exceed someone’s entire monthly paycheck.

I know the chances of the perpetrators ever getting caught are close to nil, but I can hope.  Meanwhile, I think a good rule of thumb should be “if you receive a cashier’s check in the mail from a stranger, consider it a scam.”

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