July 17, 2009
I’d like to think that I’m at least as smart as the average bear, if not perhaps a teensy bit sharper, when it comes to spotting scams and frauds. After all, I am the self-anointed king of urban legend debunking (thanks to my friends at Snopes.com).
But recently I found a “Mystery Shopper” opportunity which offered up to $200 for simply doing what I like best — whining about retail service — and I decided to see what it was about.
A friend of mine had told me about how she signed up to be a secret shopper, aka “mystery shopper,” and while it didn’t pay the mortgage, it was decent money and fun to do, she reported.
So when I found something in my e-mail about this, I inquired. I probably should have been suspicious when I was accepted into the program with no regard for qualifications, but I marked that up to them simply wanting ordinary consumers.
In the next e-mail, I was advised that I would start my Mystery Shopping career by evaluating two operations: Walmart and Western Union. I was instructed to look up the closest outlets for both. Easy to do.
I was being especially wary about fronting any money since I really didn’t want to have to hassle with reimbursements. But subsequent e-mails indicated that the company would be sending me the funds to cover both the cost of purchasing the goods or services as well as my travel expenses.
At this point I had not committed to anything and had, in fact, created an alias that would allow me to spot any spams that might result…if that’s what the scheme was really about.
About 7 days after the initial correspondence, I received this e-mail from the company. It’s sort of long, but worth reading because it really shows the excellent sleight of hand going on. Remember, the key to most magic tricks is distracting the audience, whether it’s with showy girls prancing about in skimpy costumes or some other mundane device that cloaks the actual stuff going on.
Here’s the letter, verbatim, including quirky capitalization. I’ll be back in a minute.
Dear Survey Agent,
You will be evaluating the Wal-mart store and a Western union outlet in your City. The Payment sent to you ($3,300.00) covers all expenditures including evaluation, shopping, transport and your compensation which is $200.00 for this survey.
You are to purchase Goods of your Choice for your own Use at the Wal-mart store in your City which you are evaluating, spending not more than an $50.00 and deduct an extra $25.00 for transportation cost.
Also as regards Western Union, we will be using our company feed-back mechanism, therefore you will be sending funds through Western union outlet in your City to our receiving agent.
You will take a total of $3025.00 to the western union outlet you are evaluating, you will have to pay the western union transfer charges from the $3025.00 you are sending out.
Please send all western union transactions to the details below:
NAME : ALLEN JOHNSON
ADDRESS : 1649 S COLUMBIA ST
CITY : BOGALUSA
STATE : LA
ZIP CODE : 70427
Below are details you need to send once funds has been transfered to the Agent’s Name and Address Which is above :
– Sender’s Full Name and Address.
– Secret question and answer ( if any )
– Western Union transfer charges
– Actual Amount sent
– Money Transfer Control number ( MTCN )
After Evaluation, ensure that you send back (via Email) the western union transfer code [10 digits ] and Wal-mart reports as it is required for Company feedback purposes on service delivery.
Wal-mart…………………………….. . $50.00
Transportation ……………………… $25.00
Please remember what we are really after are the lines of question stated below, those are guidelines that you will lookout for during your visits to Wal-Mart and Western Union.
-How long it took you to get services.
-Ambiance/Outlook of the Shop/Outlet
-Smartness of the attendant
-Customer service professionalism
-Reactions when under pressure
-Information that you think would be helpful
-Your comments and impressions.
-Your personal opinion
We are Counting on you and we expect a detailed report. Please get back to us if you have somethings to know about your Evaluation.
Ok, we’re back.
Did you spot the trick yet?
On Thursday, July 16, the doorbell rang and I found a UPS package. Inside the UPS package, which was complete with the sender’s name, address, UPS account number and tracking number, was this cashier’s check for $3,300, made out to my code name (but fully cashable) issued by PNC Bank.
This adds considerably to the illusion because it appears someone actually paid UPS to send this package. In fact, possibly paid them $30.80, UPS’s published rate for Next Day Air from Philly to Phoenix. (The actual shipper of record, Urban Outfitters, may have a discounted rate…which is not to say that Urban Outfitters was the perpetrator.) The cool part of the deal, for the scammer, is: they didn’t even have to pay for the shipping! Very sweet.
What they do is either hack some company’s account or, more elegantly, simply walk into a UPS store, copy down the account number from a package lying on the counter, and then write it on the shipping label. The UPS office ships out the package and bills the hacked company, which either pays or tells UPS the account number is no good, in which case UPS eats the cost.
When I talked to Urban Outfitters, they said the shipping account number is theirs but the account number was closed “some time ago.”
OK, let’s pull back the curtain and see how the scam actually works.
First off, the use of Walmart is simply a distraction (though it would have been shrewder to use three stores, the better to disguise the object of interest). The target all along is Western Union because they’re the ones you’re going to be wiring money through to supposedly test their customer service.
See, the cashier’s check is bogus. That’s the long and short of it. When you present this check to your local bank branch, the bank will pay on it because they have no way of verifying (or won’t verify) until the check comes bouncing back from the issuing bank. In the meantime, you’ve gone off and bought $50 worth of goods from Walmart, paid yourself $200 in fees and $25 in travel expenses…and wired the rest to the scam artist in (in this case) Louisiana. But it’s really your money you’ve wired because you’re liable for the money you received from your bank…plus a bad check fee.
The whole scheme hinges on the fact that your bank will pay on a check without verifying that there are funds to back it up.
Part of the scammers’ scheme is that they need you to do your evaluation in a short period of time, usually two days. Otherwise you’d take the money and when the bank notifies you that the check bounced you’d just return it. You’d be out the bad-check fee but the scammers wouldn’t get their three grand.
I asked my local Wells Fargo why they can’t just verify the check on the spot — assuming you asked them to — and they said they could try, but the issuing bank often won’t divulge that information for a variety of sorta-good reasons. Just for fun, I’ve asked them to call PNC about my check. We’ll have to see what results. (Update: A representative of Wells Fargo made a call to PNC in my presence to check out the check. It took about three different transfers to get to the proper authority at PNC but she did get through. We found that the account number on the check is valid, but the business is not. In addition, there were “notes on the account” at PNC flagging the amount and the company name. Apparently, there have been quite a few counterfeit checks put through for that exact amount, $3,300, and for that business name, Skyline Marketing.)
One reader asked whether the recipient of the money transfer has to pick it up in person at the Western Union office. If so, why not station an FBI guy at the WU? According to Carlos, Operator 938, of the Western Union Fraud Department, the person does indeed have to pick it up in person. However it would be highly impractical to nab him since money can be paid out anywhere in the state. In fact, it can be paid out in any of three neighboring states as well, if there are any (except in California and Arizona). WU is not authorized to do the nabbing anyway, so that would mean stationing a fed at every WU for three states around, 24 hours a day.
In the meantime, on 7/16 I e-mailed back to my contact, “Frank James” at “Skyline Marketing Group” that I never received the package, just to see if I could drag this out a bit longer.
He replied on 7/17: “It was delivered somewhere around your house. Look for it and get back to us.”
This just in, Sunday 7/19:
Dear Survey Agent,
How are you ?
Payment has been delivered to you by UPS to carry out your evaluation on Wal Mart and Western Union store.
Let us hear from you.
Now I have a dilemma. Do I…
a) write back saying “Yes, I got the check. Thanks! I’m just waiting for it to clear and then I’ll get on the project right away!”
b) write back saying “Gosh, I was just at the neighborhood UPS office on my way to the bank and they mentioned that the UPS package you sent came from Urban Outfitters. Is your company affiliated with them? Just curious.”
I suspect that, either way, that will be the end of the correspondence. Any suggestions?
I sent out item #2 above and received the following note today
“Yes, they take care of our payments sometimes, we will be waiting for your mail with both evaluation report.”
Update: May 2010
It’s been nearly a year since I first posted this cautionary tale. I subsequently received a separate Mystery Shopper offer from a different scammer. And then, amazingly, the same offer from the scammers at Skyline Marketing. Of course it could be a completely different con artist simply using that nom de plume.
The reason I’m updating today is that I’ve been noticing a rather sharp up-blip in hits to this particular posting, even though it’s 11 months old. This makes me think that the Mystery Shopper con artists are still out there, causing people to want to check out any information they can find.
Sad to say, a bad economy typically brings out the con artists, scammers, network marketers and pyramid schemers who prey on people desperate for work… and worse (in my view), the cancer/diabetes/autism-cure magicians who prey on people desperate for answers to things that may not have answers.
Not that I’m an expert on such things but I believe there’s an old saying that still has value: “It’s hard to cheat an honest person.”