Ferreting out online fraud
The whole thing is bogus, of course, and potentially devastating for anyone who is taken in. That once again underscores the adage, “If something sounds to good to be true, it probably is.”
In fact, with some overseas cons, people trying to get their money back by traveling to the country where the swindle was perpetrated have actually suffered the ultimate victimization — loss of life.
Thankfully, the outcome of most online cons isn’t that dire. But sharply questioning and thoroughly investigating any get-rich-quick or make-easy-money scheme before getting involved in it will likely save a lot of unnecessary grief.
To prove that point, I purposely responded to an online proposition that, on the surface, seemed legitimate. It offered $100 for each survey undetaken by you in your home area.
That sounded reasonable. It didn’t represent a one-time killing, but it did represent some ongoing extra income for doing something relatively simple.
Here’s a sample from the e-mail pitch.
“We would assign you a number of tasks to perform, such as shopping at retail chains of your choice in your location, culminating in you providing valuable customer experience feedback to us. The items you would purchase would be of your choice and you would get to keep them.”
This, of course, is the secret shopper concept with the carrot of keeping the merchandise. And the company supposedly implementing it checked out. It’s a big-time market research firm with offices nationwide.
The only problem was that when I contacted the company, no one there knew anything about either the deal or the person pitching it.
Such a huge red flag would have deterred any person with half a brain. But how many interested parties would take the trouble to check out the company’s credentials in the first place, let along follow up with a phone call?
Forewarned and forearmed, I continued with the process.
I told my contact I was ready to sign on. He responded by assuring me there would be no financial obligation on my part as a ploy to obtain my mailing address.
“Please be informed that you are not expected to conduct surveys using money from your own pocket,” he said. “A check covering your pay for the task performed, shopping expenses and the funds required to conduct all market surveys, would be sent to your address before you embarked on these tasks.”
Within a few days, I received a USPS Priority Mail envelope enclosing a check drawn on a legitimate, California-based credit union. It was payable to me in the amount of $2,330.
Even though I knew this check wasn’t worth the paper it was counterfeited on, I must admit that seeing such an official-looking financial instrument with my name on it did stir a certain emotional trigger.
Accompanying the check was a letter misspelling the corporate name in the letterhead, but spelling it correctly down below, under the sender’s name. It instructed me to deposit the check, wait 24 hours for it to clear, then go to a Western Union site and a MoneyGram site to “carry out a comparison amongst (sic) the two money transfer outlets.”
It went on to say, “You have received funding of $2,300. Deduct a total of $300 as your payment/salary for the first mystery shopping assignment.
“You will have $2,000 left. Go to a Western Union outlet and send $1,000 to one of the receivers mentioned below; also send the other $1,000 from a MoneyGram outlet to the other receiver.”
The two receivers, women with matching first names, both had addresses in Miami. But the area code given by the contact person was for New York City.
Instead of being a cooperative sucker and following the instructions in order to “earn” $300, not the $100 per assignment originally pitched, I went to my bank, First Federal in McMinnville.
Judy Rutschman, who heads up the bank’s fraud department, knew immediately what I was talking about as I filled her in on the scenario thus far. She went to a file cabinet and pulled out several examples of different schemes perpetrated online, including a variation of mine.
In her example, the dupe would be a “consumer service evaluator” comparing gas stations and retail outlets like Walmart, JC Penney and Target — and, of course, Western Union and MoneyGram.
“Once you wire money, it’s gone,” Rutschman said. “It’s almost impossible to get it back. We try to warn our customers about these schemes, but some get a foothold before they’re uncovered.”
Meanwhile, the $2,300 check eventually bounces, leaving you holding the bag.
One of the more insidious scams starts with a phone call to senior citizen from someone purporting to be a grandchild. The caller asks his victim to wire money because he’s landed in jail, gotten into an accident or had his wallet stolen, typically in a foreign country.
“One clear sign of a scam is the request for you to wire money,” Rutschman said. “Any time you get a phone call like that, it’s a con. Hang up and call your grandchild or his parents.”
Rutschman was kind enough to call the California credit union that supposedly issued the check sent to me. Sure enough, it was bogus.
The representative was embarrassed. She was frustrated that her institution’s name had been appropriated for this con game.
Augmenting the cleverness of the fraud, the check also bore reference to WESCORP of San Dimas, Calif.
WESCORP was once a multi-billion-dollar banker to credit unions, playing a role akin to the one the Federal Reserve plays with banks. But it went bankrupt two years ago.
For a couple of weeks after the check arrived, I continued to receive e-mails from the “market research team.”
“Hello. How are you doing today? Make sure you complete and e-mail your secret shopping reports early today. Thank you.”
“Dear Survey Agent. I need an update regarding your first Secret Shopping assignment; e-mail your reports ASAP.”
Needless to say, I never deposited the phony check, nor visited a Western Union or MoneyGram site. And the perpetrator of this online fraud finally stopped contacting me.
I have, however, e-mailed a copy of this story to the contact person. I don’t expect a reply.
And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — investigating the seamy underside of online communication.
Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 503-687-1227.