Don't Fall for the Mystery Shopper Scam!

Like most of the rest of us, Algernon Morehead of Humble could always use a few extra bucks, so he looked online last month for ways to become a mystery shopper -- people paid by market research firms to evaluate the shopping experience at a variety of companies (usually retailers).

He filled out an application at what he thought was a legitimate mystery shopping association site, but instead found himself the target of a nationwide scam that the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service are warning consumers about.

Morehead received an e-mail from someone identifying himself as Joe Mansour, "Head of the Recruiting Department" for the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. The MSPA is a real organization, but it doesn't have a Joe Mansour heading the recruiting department, and it doesn't use an e-mail address like the one "Joe Mansour" used.

Mansour told Morehead he would receive two $970 U.S. Postal Service money orders in the mail; he was to cash them at his bank, and then wire the money -- keeping $150 for his payment -- to a "Julie French" in Wichita, Kansas. His mission was to evaluate the quality of the customer service at the Western Union.

The money orders, signed by Mansour, arrived express mail, postmarked San Jose, California. But the sender was listed as a Robert (we're leaving the last name out) in Miramar, Florida.

Morehead smelled some fishy, and he was right to: the money orders, of course, are fake. But the scam works because the money orders are convincing enough for most banks to cash them immediately; it's not until a few days later that they're flagged as fraudulent. The person who cashed them is then on the hook for all that dough, plus whatever fees their bank might assess.

What caught us as strange was that Morehead was supposed to wire this money to Kansas, and not directly overseas.

Rozi Bhimani, a staff attorney with the FTC, told us that, in these scams, a middleman will pick up the wire transfer "using a fake ID, and then they'll turn around and resend it -- probably overseas -- and it's very difficult from a law enforcement perspective to track that money after the fact."

A quick Google search of "Joe Mansour" and "mystery shopper" reveals a bunch of complaints from people duped -- or almost duped -- by someone using that name.

It appears that sometimes these scammers use legitimate names and addresses; this blogger says that he was targeted by a scammer using a stolen FedEx corporate account number. That's why we tended to believe the guy in Miramar, Florida (listed as the sender on the envelope Morehead received) when he told us he had no idea what we were talking about and was more than curious how his name wound up on the envelope.

We e-mailed the so-called Mansour, but got no response. It's likely that, whoever the person is, they're using a different e-mail address by now.

It kinda astonishes us that many banks can't recognize the fraudulent checks right away; even if the check itself is a convincing counterfeit, then certain names -- like "Joe Mansour," which has apparently been used for months now -- should be a red flag. We're just glad that Morhead, unlike so many others, figured it out before it was too late.

"People [are] going through some hard times right now, and they get these two... money orders in the mail, they're going to go cash them," Morehead told Hair Balls. "....It'll come back to haunt them."

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow