By Tim McNicholas

CHICAGO (CBS) — We cannot be clearer:  If someone sends you a check and asks you to send back a portion of the money, don’t do it.

Whether they want you to send cash or a check or pay via Zelle or gift cards, it is a scam. 100%. There’s no legit reason someone would send you money and pay you more than they should.

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So how does the scam work?

They send you a check. They ask you to buy gift cards, perhaps under the guise of “mystery shopping,” for example.

You deposit the check at your bank.  By law, your bank must make the funds available quickly.

So you get all excited when your balance skyrockets. Then you take a portion of the money and buy gift cards. You send those gift cards (or photos of the gift card numbers), and keep a few hundred dollars “extra” as your compensation.

Then days – or weeks later – your bank tells you the original check was no good. The amount of the original check is deducted from your account and you’re out hundreds or thousands of dollars.

(Credit: CBS)

(Credit: CBS)

 

We want to step you through two examples recently sent to the same Chicago household.

You can see the envelope looks official and important, sent by United States Postal Service via Priority Mail.  Must be legit, right?  No.

Inside you find a CASHIER’S CHECK for $2,375.90 and a SECRET SURVEYOR EVALUATION.  You are instructed to buy $2,000 worth of gift cards, send images of the gift card numbers and keep the $300+ as your pay.

Easy enough?  Sure, except for the fact that the $2,375.90 check is bogus. Worthless. The money may show up in your account initially, but it will be deducted later.

Here are some red flags, beyond what’s described above:

-The return address is from Marilyn Heaton. The remitter of the check is Michael Wiegand. And the letter is signed by Rikard Hermanus.

-CBS 2 Googled the name of the company on the letter, HPS Data Center. It does not show up.

-The return address tracks back to a coffee shop, not a marketing/survey company.

CBS 2 also reached out to the bank that supposedly issued the check in August 2019: Wilshire Bank in Los Angeles.  It’s a real bank.

Well, it was up until 2016.

Then the name changed to Bank of Hope. A spokesperson said: “the bank routing number and account number relate to the former Wilshire Bank’s account for cashier’s checks.

However, that account has not been active since the system conversion was completed in November 2016 after merger completion. In other words, there have been no new cashier’s checks issued from that account since November 2016.”

One other telltale sign: This check does not contain the bank’s phone number. A real cashier’s check always includes a phone number for the issuing bank. On scam checks, the number is often missing or is fake itself.

(Credit: CBS)

(Credit: CBS)

Here’s another example, sent to the same address in Chicago in October.  Again, Priority Mail. But this time, the name on the return address label, Jeffery Goldstein, matches the name on the offer from “Top View Market Survey.”

This time, the offer letter includes a phone number, and even lists the sender as “Jeffery Goldstein, MBA.”  In this case, MBA stands for Master Baloney Artist.

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The gist is the same. Take a check from $2,499.73 to your bank, deposit it, but $2,000 in Apple gift cards and you get to pocket about $450 as compensation. This offer stoops even lower, promising a $25 donation to the charity Feeding America for each “mystery shopping survey” completed.

Here’s what we learned about this offer:

The address tracks back to a co-working space in Denver. CBS 2 called and learned that no Jeffery Goldstein nor Top View ever existed at that address. And they had received many other calls for the mystery Jeffery Goldstein.

CBS 2 called the phone number on the offer. Twice, from two different phones, separated by a couple weeks. In both cases, the connection sounded garbled, likely because this was an Internet phone connection from overseas. The first time, we said we were from CBS 2 early on in the call.

Click.

The second time, we asked for Jeffery Goldstein and the man who answered said he was no longer with the company. We suggested the check was bogus and he asked how long ago it was issued.

When we told him a few weeks, he said that was because they canceled the check due to the delay. When we told him that the bank told it us it was bogus, he told us we were wrong.

When we told him we were from a TV station and the check was a scam, click.

Disconnected again. When we tried to call back, the call went straight to voice mail.

CBS 2 also reached out to the issuer of this check, City Credit Union in Missouri.

A spokesperson said: “unfortunately, my credit union along with several others in our area, are victims of a scam that has been going round.  They have somehow duplicated our Official Check image and are randomly sending them to individuals across the US.  We have gotten in front of this and have minimized the loss to us as well has several of the recipients.”

Google searches for Top View Market Survey turn up nothing legit.

Don’t think you’re not a victim if you don’t fall for these scams. We all are.

Remember those Priority Mail stamps? They cost about $7 each. In many cases, the stamps are bogus. That means counterfeit or the scammers hack into a legit business account and essentially steal stamps.

In the long run, that costs us all money. Postal inspectors are aware of these sorts of scams, and intercept some of the bogus offers.

But not all of them.

When victims fall prey, prosecution is often difficult, because the con artists are often overseas. Scammers prefer gift cards because they are harder to track and trace than things like checks and electronic transfers.

So as the holidays approach and you think you can make a quick buck, think again, if someone sends you a check and wants something in exchange.

Here are links to the authorities for further proof and explanation.

https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/fake-check-scams-infographic

https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/taxonomy/term/870

https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2019/07/mystery-shop-til-you-drop-not-so-fast

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https://www.uspis.gov/news/scam-article/mystery-shopper-scams/

Tim McNicholas