This year has been rough.
I know I'm not alone when I say that the global pandemic has made it hard to pay my bills and put food on the table. So, when a check for $1,987.27 arrived in my mailbox, I thought my luck was about to change. I know, I know, it's sounded too good to be true. That's what I thought until I read the section about how the $1,987.27 wasn't all mine. I had to earn my part.
As I kept reading, I learned this was a mystery shopping company that needed my help. A few years back, Susie, a former co-worker, told me how she'd get all this free stuff just for giving her opinion. Sometimes she'd earn money besides the free food and merchandise. It occurred to me that maybe I had been chosen for a similar gig.
The check was wrapped in a letter that provided detailed assignment instructions. The top of the letter stated:
"Objective: The primary objective of this survey is to evaluate the level of customer service & to unveil retail stores who deny shoppers the privilege of purchasing gift cards."
To get started, all I needed to do was text "Assignment Received" to the number in the letter. I was to include my full name and phone number to confirm I was accepting the assignment. Next, I was supposed to deposit the check in my bank account and email them a copy of the deposit slip. This sounded like a huge red flag, but the next sentence encouraged me to blackout account details on the deposit slip before sending it to them. That made me feel better.
They said the funds should be available for withdrawal within 24 hours, and I had to complete the assignment within 48 hours.
I was directed to withdraw $1,800.00 of the $1,987.27 check to buy $900.00 in gift cards from two different retail stores. The remaining $187.27 was mine to keep as payment for the assignment. That made me feel more comfortable. The fact that they said I had to do something for the money made it seem legitimate.
As I kept reading, it all sounded like what Susie told me she used to do to earn money on the side, minus the advance payment part. All I know is that she'd buy something, write a report about the experience, and submit the report and receipt for payment. Now it was my turn, and I sure could use the extra cash. I only needed to follow the steps described in the letter that came with the check:
"Ensure that all cards are activated before leaving the store. Kindly scratch off the silver panels on EACH of the gift cards purchased to reveal the hidden digits and take a CLEAR photo of each gift card along with the receipt of purchase. Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org & as SMS to (219) 963-8021 TXT ONLY."
They even told me what to say if the store asked me questions.
"If or when asked if you are a mystery shopper, answer NO."
"If or when asked if you know the recipients of the cards, answer YES."
Unfortunately, I ignored my intuition and followed their instructions.
It wasn't until a few days later when my checking account was overdrawn that I realized I'd fallen for the fake check scam. I couldn't believe it. The check never cleared. I wasn't just out the $187.27 for completing the assignment, but the entire check which totaled $1,987.27 plus the overdraft fees. Now, I have to repay all of this money to my financial institution, and I am stuck with gift cards that have no value because the thieves drained them as soon as they received my email!
How to protect yourself.
Fraudsters posing as legitimate mystery shopping companies often use multiple deceitful practices to lure their victims. In this case, scammers combined the mystery shopping, gift card, and fake check scam into one. The ultimate goal was to get the victim to purchase gift cards with her own money and send them to the "company".
Scammers know that banks and credit unions must make funds available to you within two business days of deposit. But "available funds" in your account is not the same as having a check that has cleared. Fake checks can take weeks to be discovered. Meanwhile, scammers leave the victim liable for the amount they deposited and any additional money withdrawn against the check.
These criminals don't need physical gift cards to profit from their scheme. That's why the letter directed the victim to scratch the backs of the cards, revealing the codes. Sending copies of the card ID numbers and the original purchase receipt protects the scammers, not you. By the time victims realize it's a scam, the criminals have already drained the gift card balances using the codes they received from the victim.
Never deposit a check you receive from someone who wants you to give them cash (or gift cards) back.
If someone asks you to deposit a cashier’s check, money order, or personal check to receive part of those funds in return, this might be a version of the fake check scam. Here’s what you should do instead:
- Do not deposit the check or money order.
- If the check was received via the United States Mail, contact the United States Postal Inspection Service.
- File a consumer complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
- Contact your local law enforcement and state Attorney General. Be prepared to give them a written account of everything that happened.
- Make copies of the documents you received from the scammer. Provide them to authorities.
- View NCUA Consumer Report: Frauds, Scams, and Cyberthreats educational videos that explain typical fraud schemes and how to avoid them.
If you've already deposited the check or money order, contact an F&A Federal Credit Union member service representative as soon as possible to discuss steps to remedy the situation.