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Big response to On Your Side Investigation into recent Secret Shopper scams hitting Northeast Ohio

Posted at 6:10 AM, Feb 14, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-14 06:10:32-05

Response has been huge to an On Your Side investigation, breaking the story of recent Secret Shopper scams hitting our area. One local woman will never forget the day she was contacted.

"Oh my gosh! I was hysterical.  I didn't understand it,” said Gina Wright. She didn't know what hit her last November. All she did was go online and sign up to be a Secret Shopper.

"I had done this two-and-a-half decades ago, (and) of course technology wasn't as advanced back then,” said Wright.

And just like Terri Jones from Cleveland who we told you about last week, Wright got a big check in the mail totaling nearly $2,400. She was asked to test the money wiring operations at retail stores.

The difference is, Wright showed us it appeared First Merit Bank put the money in her account.  She said she then wired the money.  "But I didn't understand how a bank could clear a check that was fictitious."

Wright is on disability, on a fixed income and so, in order to recover from the bad check, she took her car title and got a loan. "The money crunch was incredible,” said Wright.

The Secret Shopper letter came with a real logo from a legitimate secret shopper organization, but it wasn't them.

A supposed representative told Wright he would send a new check to help cover her out-of-pocket losses from the first check.  "And so, I was excited,” Wright told News 5. “He recognized they sent me a fictitious check. He was taking care of it. I was going to be okay. I was going to be able to get my vehicle out of hock."

Unfortunately, that second check was fake, too. Reps for First Merit bank told News 5, even though it looked like the money was in her account, nothing is final until the transaction goes through. It's all on the customer.

Wright told us it's not fair and she wants to warn you. "There's a lack of responsibility. There's a lack of accountability. There is no recovery."

Best advice: don't wire money to anyone you don't know.

Response from Huntington Bank (parent company for First Merit Bank):

Jonathan: Thank you for contacting Huntington. To answer your question - There are certain deposited items that present less risk to financial institutions and thus are subject to expedited availability under the stipulations of Regulation CC. The following items, by regulation, are to be made available to the customer on the first business day following the date of deposit:

  • Cashier's checks, certified checks, or teller's checks;
  • Postal money orders;
  • U.S. Treasury checks;
  • Checks drawn on a Federal Reserve Bank or Federal Home Loan Bank;
  • Any check issued by a state, city, county, or other municipality;
  • Any check drawn from another account at the depository institution.

 A customer is responsible for any returned deposited items. The time that it takes for a check to be returned can be days, weeks or months in some cases,  but when that happens the customer’s account will be debited.  A customer’s responsibility for returned deposited items is disclosed to the customer when they open their account.

Because we protect customer confidentiality, we will not comment on this particular case. Please emphasize to your viewers it is their responsibility to ensure that a check is legitimate before cashing or depositing.

To help your reporting - An advance fee scheme occurs when the victim pays money to someone in anticipation of receiving something of greater value—such as a loan, contract, investment, or gift—and then receives little or nothing in return. 

The variety of advance fee schemes is limited only by the imagination of the con artists who offer them. They may involve the sale of products or services, the offering of investments, lottery winnings, “found money,” or many other “opportunities.” Clever con artists will offer to find financing arrangements for their clients who pay a “finder’s fee” in advance. They require their clients to sign contracts in which they agree to pay the fee when they are introduced to the financing source. Victims often learn that they are ineligible for financing only after they have paid the “finder” according to the contract.

Tips for Avoiding Advanced Fee Schemes:

  • If the offer of an “opportunity” appears too good to be true, it probably is. Follow common business practice. For example, legitimate business is rarely conducted in cash on a street corner.
  • Know who you are dealing with. If you have not heard of a person or company that you intend to do business with, learn more about them. Depending on the amount of money that you plan on spending, you may want to visit the business location, check with the Better Business Bureau, or consult with your bank, an attorney, or the police.
  • Make sure you fully understand any business agreement that you enter into. If the terms are complex, have them reviewed by a competent attorney.
  • Be wary of businesses that operate out of post office boxes or mail drops and do not have a street address. Also be suspicious when dealing with persons who do not have a direct telephone line and who are never in when you call, but always return your call later.
  • Be wary of business deals that require you to sign nondisclosure or non-circumvention agreements that are designed to prevent you from independently verifying the bona fides of the people with whom you intend to do business. Con artists often use non-circumvention agreements to threaten their victims with civil suit if they report their losses to law enforcement.

This web site from the FBI includes numerous other scams and tips to avoid them -

https://www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/common-fraud-schemes

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Response from Market Force (the Secret Shopper company whose logo was used in scam):

Hi Jonathan,

We’re terribly sorry to learn that someone in your area was victimized in this manner. Unfortunately, there are people out there who will go to great and underhanded lengths to scam others, and legitimate companies like Market Force Information get caught in the middle of them.  

Market Force Information routinely and legitimately utilizes mystery shoppers in its standard course of business. However, we are often notified of situations whereby Market Force’s trade name and/or trademark are used by other groups or individuals, without the company’s authorization, to entice unsuspecting individuals into a deceptive mystery shopping scheme. We have heard of instances such as these where scammers use our corporate logo on letters, as well as named executives and other employees in our company, to contact unsuspecting people. Using our logo and the name of a real employee lends authenticity to the emails or letters they are sending out which makes the scams even harder to detect.

If people are given a check to deposit in advance of doing a shop, the check may not clear the bank and you may be held responsible for the total amount by the financial institution.

We do our best to educate the public on avoiding these types of scams, and have a warning on our website, along with a list of clues to identify scams: http://www.marketforce.com/mystery-shopping-scams

Additionally, Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) has developed the following tips for those interested in becoming a mystery shopper:

Prospective shoppers should never have to pay a fee to become a mystery shopper. Shoppers should be extremely wary of any mystery shopping offer that requests a fee. Visit the MSPA website (http://www.mspa-na.org/contractor (http://www.mspa-na.org/contractor)) for a list of reputable mystery shopping companies and opportunities.

If a fraudulent mystery shop company gets in touch with you, we suggest you make contact with one or all of the following:

Your local police department. Ask for the Cyber Crimes department or an investigator. FBI. Go to http://www.ic3.gov/complaint/default.aspx (http://www.ic3.gov/complaint/default.aspx). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which handles complaints about deceptive or unfair business practices. To file a complaint, visit http://www.ftc.gov/ftc/contact.shtm (http://www.ftc.gov/ftc/contact.shtm), call 1-877-FTC-HELP, or write to Federal Trade Commission, CRC-240, Washington, DC 20580. E-mail service provider such as AOL, Google, Yahoo, MSN. Go to the “Contact Us” page to file a complaint. Remember to provide accurate information about the person or persons perpetuating the fraud so that the authorities can assist you in stopping this activity.

Another important tip is to never pay to become a mystery shopper. This includes never accepting a cashier’s check in exchange for you wiring or sending money to a person or company. Again, it never costs money to get assignments or become a shopper. Also, keep in mind that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it usually is. If people wish to become a shopper with us, they can fill out an application on our online application website: www.applymarketforce.com

Best, Rebecca