9OYS Consumer Alert

Bogus online employment offer preys on job seekers

CREATED Feb 4, 2013 - UPDATED: Feb 5, 2013

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Reporter: Stephani Ruiz
Web Producer: Mekita Rivas

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Newlyweds Stephen and Cheryl Lyons thought they were finally starting to get on their feet. They rented a nice apartment and started looking forward to retirement. But then work dried up and Stephen got injured.

Cheryl turned to the Web and looked for a way to make a quick buck. She found what she thought was the perfect job at the perfect time.

"When this came along it was like the perfect time I thought, 'Oh financial freedom,'" Cheryl Lyons said.

The mystery shopper job offer was enticing, promising that she could earn a couple hundred bucks a week shopping with her husband.

"We thought it was going to be a great job for both of us to be able to do because it's limited walking and wherever we went my husband could always get into a cart," Cheryl said.

She got the job and her first assignment arrived in the mail. The instructions? Cash a check for nearly $1,800 and send back about $1,500. Keep the rest for secret shopping excursions.

"He gave us a lot of pressure about getting the funds in our hands right away," Cheryl said.

She wired back the money and then got another letter in the mail. This one was from the bank. Turns out that the secret shopper check was counterfeit. The cons now had her cash and the Lyons' financial picture had gone from bad to worse.
  
"We were thrilled when this started until we found out what it was and then we were devastated," Cheryl said.

Devastated and homeless. The Lyons' say one bad check ruined their finances.

Their bank account was overdrawn and they couldn't make rent. They had to move out of the apartment they worked so hard to afford.

Vicki Nattrass called 9 On Your Side with the same story.

Reporter Stephani Ruiz asked Vicki what she did when she realized it was all a big scam.

"First of all I got really scared because I thought, 'Hey what if this is money laundering, a drug cartel could come after me if I don't do this. How do I get out of it?" Nattrass said.

It turns out that cashing a bad check and wiring part of the money is fraud. Tucson Police tell 9 On Your Side that fraud unit investigators treat people who report this scam as victims and as potential suspects.

Fortunately for Nattrass, she says her son helped her figure out the check was bad before she took it to the bank.

"I think they're aiming at people who are retired, on fixed incomes and somebody might not be lucky and have a smart son," Nattrass said.

Search "Mystery Shopper Scam" online and the alerts pop up from the FBI, Walmart, the Arizona Attorney General's Office and the Better Business Bureau.

The Lyons' are just two of hundreds of people across the country falling for this vicious scam.
 
"I'm just outraged by people that take advantage of others that are less fortunate," Stephen Lyons said.

Experts say no legitimate mystery shopping job will ever pay thousands of dollars up front and it won't require you to send your earnings someplace else.

Another warning sign: this scam hides behind the idea of mystery shopping to keep it a secret and meet their deadline. The scammers want to rush you into heading straight to the bank to wire them the cash.

That way the con artists have your money before you or the bank can figure out it was all just a big scam.

The Lyons' are still trying to get back on their feet. They say if they could just go back, they never would have cashed that check.
 
"We have no money, we haven't had any money since all this happened," Cheryl said.

There are tips on how to spot a fake money order on the U.S. Postal Service website. Click here to see the warning signs.