Mystery shopper, fake job offers target people stretched for cash during pandemic

Tosha Waggoner, 33, would love to land a job, but she wasn’t sure that depositing a $6,000 check that arrived out of the blue was the right way to get one.



a stack of brochures on a wooden table: Scammers told Tracy Taschereau to put money on Best Buy gift cards after they deposited fake checks into her account to make it seem like she had money and could qualify for a loan. She read off the numbers on the phone, enabling scammers to have quick access to the cash.


© Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press
Scammers told Tracy Taschereau to put money on Best Buy gift cards after they deposited fake checks into her account to make it seem like she had money and could qualify for a loan. She read off the numbers on the phone, enabling scammers to have quick access to the cash.

Admittedly, her job hunting prospects have been bleak after she gave birth to a daughter in April, when many businesses had closed their doors during the pandemic. Her fiancé isn’t working either, but he’s going to a union trade school for masonry. 

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They could use the money, like most people during the economic downturn. 

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“It was a straight up check,” Waggoner said.

The instructions, sent in August by a supervisor named Michael, indicated that she’d need to deposit the $6,000 check to buy gift cards, take photos of the numbers on the gift cards and send them to Michael.  There was something involving a Bitcoin account, too. 

After all was said and done, Waggoner was told she would get to keep about $330 of the $6,000 for her pay. 

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More than a few things about that check made her think twice: Who, after all, sends $6,000 checks out of the blue? And who needs a Bitcoin account to hold a job? 

Fake job offers are flooding email accounts and mailboxes, according to consumers looking for work. Many typically involve better-than-expected pay, gift cards, a quick online interview – and yes, a check out of the blue.

One hot scam asks mystery shoppers to see whether COVID-19 safety procedures are being practiced at Walmart and elsewhere.

Consumers report being sent checks of $1,475 and being told they’ll make $425 for shopping at two Walmart stores and a bank. The checks look like they’ve cleared the bank in a couple of days – but weeks later, they’re discovered to be fakes, long after the consumer has lost hundreds of dollars to the scam.  

No legitimate business is going to pay in advance, then ask you to return some of the money or buy gift cards or pay for supplies. 

“These kind of job scams have always been popular, but criminals are doubling down when they know millions of people have lost their jobs during the pandemic,” said Amy Nofziger, director of the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

Fake jobs look like a perfect fit

Someone looking for a job shouldn’t overlook the possibility that a con artist can create the perfect job, based on a target’s education and skill set before sending a text or email. 

“A lot of time when people are looking for jobs, they will publicly post their resumés,” Nofziger said. 

The fraudsters know if a person just graduated with an arts degree or is interested in the social services field.

“When they target you with a tighter arrow, you’re more likely to think they really want me because they did their research on me,” Nofziger said.  

Some offers sound like they’re from real nonprofit organizations, government agencies or actual businesses. The con artists are only impersonating the real deal.

Students report getting an email that looks like it’s from their college’s Job Placement and Student Services office. 

People might be offered a chance to work remotely or take advantage of flexible hours, something that can sound quite tempting if they’re short on cash and must play hall monitor for school-age children taking online classes at home. 

Many lose big money after phony promises

The employment scam can be one of the riskiest for students, young consumers, military spouses and others, given the level of monetary losses and percentage of reports that involve victims, according to the Better Business Bureau.

The median loss was $1,500 for employment scams, according to a BBB report in 2019. The losses are about half of those for romance scams but often far greater than those for online shopping scams, tech support scams, and scams involving advance fees for loans. 

The employment scam made up 9.3% of all scams reported to BBB Scam Tracker in 2019. 

Beware of the Google Hangouts job interview

Julie Graham, a graduate of the University of Michigan-Flint with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, said she thought she had a possible interview on Google Hangouts with a man who claimed to be Samuel Galvan, hiring manager for the GEA Group.

He emailed her, claiming he found her resumé on Indeed.

“The whole interview seemed wonky from the start, and I was getting a gut feeling things were not right,” said Graham, 44, from Flint. 

A promise of $45 an hour for an entry-level graphic designer job seemed too good to be true. 

The interviewer made unusual statements in a two-hour, text-only interview process, such as: “GEA Group is establishing a branch office in your area in the next couple of months. Hence, we are recruiting via online potential employees who would eventually have an office space.”

“For now,” the interviewer said, “this is going to be an online and work from home job. The working hours are flexible where you could choose to work from anywhere of your choice.” 

Graham, who lost her hearing as an adult, said she appreciated a chance to interview initially by text but found the conversation extremely odd. 

“Because of my hearing disability,” she said, “I never really believe what people say.” 

The interviewer wanted her to hand over personal information so a check could be sent to get programs up and running so she could work from home.

She told him she needed more proof that the job was real, and that seemed to be the end of that. She never got a response from him. 

“I am convinced they were aiming to scam,” Graham said. She admitted she has no real proof she was about to be ripped off, but all the signs of a scam were there – including that scammers often do interviews chatting via Google Hangouts. 

When she emailed the company named, she received a response telling her that this was a scam and she shouldn’t pay any money or share personal information. 

Another college-age job hunter in New York received an e-letter out of the blue, promising a work-from-home opportunity at the Center for Disability Services in Albany, New York. The salary range was $400 to $600 a week.

The center notes on its website, “The Center for Disability Services does not send unsolicited offers of employment nor does it request candidates to advance or cover expenses on the Center’s behalf.”

As part of the scam, the applicant was asked to buy special paper at an office supply store that could be used to print checks. The applicant was supposed to fill out and deposit one electronically into his account.

The job applicant thought something wasn’t right, talked with family members and didn’t print any checks.  

Don’t cash a check – or give bank account information

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office said it’s gotten reports that scammers ask for bank account information as part of a job offer. 

“The obvious concern there is scammers then have access to your finances and can steal your money or potentially use your account for other purposes,” said Ryan Jarvi, press secretary for the attorney general.

In an old scam, the target is sent a check that looks authentic but is fake. Scammers bank on how the check clearing system works, tricking the target that a check is real because the money is available in a few days.

Some scammers say, “As soon as the funds are made available by your bank, withdraw the money” to do a job as a mystery shopper, cover an “accidental overpayment,” buy gift cards or follow other steps. 

The fake check will bounce, but it may be weeks before that sad fact is discovered.  And the victim is out whatever money was wired, spent or put on gift cards. 

Michigan consumers can file complaints with the office’s consumer protection team at mi.gov/agcomplaints.

People can file complaints about job scams with the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov or the Better Business Bureau’s scam tracker at BBB.org/scamtracker. 

Given all the pressures many people face, some might believe they’ve got a real job prospect. 

Waggoner spotted another red flag before she could be taken for big money. 

Why, she wondered, did this job offer involve a Bitcoin account? Her fiancé lost money after getting hit by a scam involving Bitcoin – so both of them were hesitant. 

Good thing she didn’t fall for it – or else she could have lost up to $6,000 when she deposited that check and it bounced weeks later, leaving her on the hook for the money used to buy gift cards. The scammers could have accessed the cash when she handed over the numbers on the gift cards. 

“As soon as I saw Bitcoin, I just ripped it up and threw a million pieces into the garbage can,” Waggoner said. 

Waggoner said she gets texts every day about some kind of odd job. 

“I’ve been getting these messages ever since this stupid pandemic has been going on,” Waggoner said. 

Contact Susan Tompor via [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @tompor. To subscribe, please go to freep.com/specialoffer. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mystery shopper, fake job offers target people stretched for cash during pandemic

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