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How to spot the red flags in mystery shopping schemes

The secret in secret shopping schemes is you do not really earn any money, instead you end up paying. How to spot this scam.

SAN ANTONIO — Trina Forcey of San Antonio got an email asking her to take a survey at Walmart, so she applied.

“It’s not a lot of work for me to do something that I would love to do because I love shopping,” said Forcey.

Soon after, an official-looking envelope arrived.

“It looks important,” Forcey said as she picked up the priority mail envelope.

Inside was a letter with instructions.

“Really, the paper looked like a legal document,” Forcey said.

There was also a check for $4,700 dollars. The instructions said to cash the check and buy $4,000 worth of gift cards, the other $700 is payment. Then, the shopper was to text pictures of the gift card numbers.

“They said the problem was people were getting gift cards and there was nothing on them,” Forcey said. “That’s happened to me before.”

Yet, there were little clues Forcey noticed that something was not quite right. The logo looked a bit off.

“It had a logo, but it was in black and white and it was cut off at the top,” Forcey said.

The instructions also said to text two numbers after purchasing the gift cards.

“So I started texting those phone numbers and they were giving me more instructions,” Forcey said. “I said is it possible we can talk on the phone rather than text? Then I get the question ‘why?’ I said because this just seems like something Walmart would do, have a phone number for you to contact someone to be able to make sure the information is accurate or am I following the instructions correctly. I got crickets.”

Plus, the check made out to her did not have her last name.

“The check had my first name, but my last name initial, which was kind of odd,” she said.

She decided to do some digging by calling the bank that issued the check. She found out the branch number on the check did not exist. She knew then the check was not real. Had she moved forward, she could have been out $4,000.

“That would have put me in a bind, a real bind,” Forcey said.

Federal rules require banks to make deposited funds available quickly, but the fake check never clears. Instead, shoppers end up spending their own money on the gift cards.

“The banks, it usually takes them a couple of weeks to decipher if it’s actually fake and by that time, it’s already too late,” said Michael Skiba, a fraud expert known as Doctor Fraud.

Meanwhile, the schemers drain the money off the gift cards once they get the pictures.

Walmart said in a statement:  “Unfortunately, bad actors occasionally take advantage of Walmart’s reputation to carry out these kinds of scams. Walmart never solicits mystery, or ‘secret’ shoppers via e-mail, mail, or any other public means.”

In these schemes, both the job and check are fake.

“I just want to make sure that people are aware that these people have gotten really savvy and high-tech on sending out things to get you to open them, to get you to follow through because it all looked legit,” Forcey said.

Skiba said a red flag is secret, mystery, or survey shopping jobs should never involve testing any sort of financial transaction such as wiring money or buying gift cards. If it does, it is a scheme.

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