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Police: Be leery of survey scams

One scam masked as mystery shopper program

April 25, 2012
The Crawford County Sheriff's Department has seen a lot of scams through the years, scams designed to separate hardworking people from their money. "They seem to never end" was the department's conclusion.

Some, like the linoleum scam that deputies worked to solve four or five years ago, have all but disappeared, but they have been replaced by newer versions. Many work quite well, earning the culprits millions of dollars from unsuspecting victims all over the country.

A recent attempt to gain money from Crawford County residents has the sheriff's department's attention again. The scam, which is often focused on elderly citizens, leads victims to believe that they are going to make a substantial amount of money by doing a shopping survey of such companies as Walmart and Western Union. And all it takes is to cash a money gram, or money order, and go shopping. What could be easier?

"Unless Ed McMahan knocks on your door, complete with camera crew, it's probably a fake," Chief Deputy Shawn Scott said. "If anyone on the Internet or phone asks you to cash a check, keep part of the money and send them the balance, it's a scam. That's what happened here recently. A local resident received a money gram for $850, took it to the bank and cashed it. The resident kept $200, plus $50 to use for shopping, which was part of the agreement, and sent the remaining money back to an address in another state."

For a while, it all seemed like a stroke of luck: making $200 for just cashing a check and having $50 to buy a product that they could keep. What a deal! But the resident soon learned that the deal wasn't what it appeared.

The scam usually begins when someone receives an e-mail or phone call from a person who pretends to be interested in doing a survey of Walmart, Western Union or other business and wants people to be "mystery shoppers." Anyone who responds will be told that they will receive a check by UPS for their first "assignment."

According to a press release from the sheriff's department, those who respond are told: "You are to cash the check at your bank, and you are advised to run a survey on two prominent companies in your area, which is Walmart and Western Union. You are to deduct $200 for your commission from the total payment received and an additional $50 (to be kept by you)." They are then given details of what to look for during the survey, as well as how to send the remaining balance of the money order to the "Mystery Shopper Agency."

"This is then followed up with another offer," Scott said. "They raise the amount of the next check to $2,100, but, by that time, when you take the $2,100 check to the bank to cash it, your bank notifies you that the previous check, for $850, has bounced. And, of course, you cashed it, so you are responsible for the money. The checks, or money orders, look legal. They are printed using laser printers and look real. They often even fool the banks or businesses that cash them. But, when they bounce, you have to come up with the money."

Another scam informs people that there is a large check, $80,000 or so, waiting for them. All they have to do is pay the handling costs and fees of $500 by sending in a money order and the check will be sent to them immediately.

"Of course, it's all a fraud," Scott said. "No one is going to send you $80,000. And another scam is a caller wanting personal information. Some of those people get forceful and even threatening. They say that they will file a lawsuit against you, or even that they are getting an 'affidavit for your arrest tomorrow.' And, of course, some people become scared and respond to their demands. But they want your information for identity fraud. Never give any personal information out over the phone or Internet."

"If you get one of these calls or e-mails, call the sheriff's office," Sheriff Tim Wilkerson said. "Most of those people running the scams are from other states and even Canada. But we can make calls and find out if it is legitimate. We will look into it. And never give out your Social Security number over the phone or Internet. Identity fraud is still a big problem."

"If it seems to good to be true, it probably is," Scott said.

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