During tough economic times, con artists usually do a booming business, taking advantage of people who are down on their luck.
It starts with a letter in the mail, offering you a job as a mystery shopper to evaluate customer service at various stores. Enclosed is a handsome check with your name and address.
Dyvonna Miller doesn't usually have time to water her flowers. She works long hours - sometimes six days a week - to support her son and her mother.
Recently, an "opportunity" arrived in the mail - a letter offering Miller a job along with a check for $3,825 made out in her name.
"I thought this was a company because I had put in for it on the Internet, to do mystery shopping and thought this was a way to make some more money," Miller said.
Three days after cashing the check, her bank called to say it was a fake and totally worthless. Miller had to repay the bank nearly $4,000, causing her to miss a car payment and making it difficult to cover the bills.
"It put a dent in my pocketbook when I had to pay the funds back," she said.
She is not alone. The Federal Trade Commission says check swindlers from Canada are fleecing thousands of customers in the U.S.
"When the economy is bad, when people are out of work, mystery shopping, this type of mailing is attractive to people," said Todd Kossow, FTC.
The envelope is post-marked Canada. The scammers use more than a dozen different company names but all use the same bogus, nonexistent P.O. Box in Trenton, New Jersey. The phone numbers are from Ontario.
No one ever returned ABC7's calls.
These mystery shopper job offers give detailed instructions on what to do with the money from the nearly $4,000 check.
"Those funds can be picked up by the recipient or the scammer at any Money Gram or Western Union location in Canada, usually using a fake I.D. to pick it up. And it's virtually untraceable," said Kossow.
Dozens of American companies are also being pulled into this scam. Their names and account numbers are printed on the counterfeit checks.
"The checks are so well done that banks will often not catch them until a couple of weeks later," said Kossow.
"The check looks very much like our checks other than the background color," said Pat Martin, D Magazine.
And there were hundreds of thousands of dollars in fake D Magazine checks. Had the Dallas company not been alerted, they would've lost a fortune.
"We got a call from an alert consumer. Basically, they had received the letter from the marketing company and they were suspicious," said Martin.
The I-Team first told you about these Canadian scams in April of 2001. A Toronto police video shows one takedown of a telemarketing fraud operation. Despite years of joint investigations by U.S. and Canadian law enforcement, the scheming continues. The U.S. postal inspector says from January of 2007 to March of this year it has seized more than 600,000 fraudulent checks worth $2.5 billion. Many though, reach their intended targets.
"It's much more difficult for law enforcement to get at them if they're in Canada," said Kossow. "It's a very clever scheme."
It's a scheme that cost Miller two full paychecks.
"It's just really sad, and it hurts. It just hurts me as a consumer because I know if it happened to me, it can happen to anybody," said Miller.
The Better Business Bureau says this is one of the biggest scams going right now and there are numerous variations of the same scheme.
Advice from the FTC: before depositing a check, make sure you know who the check is from and never wire money to a stranger.
To report a fraudulent check:
US Postal Inspector Service
222 S. Riverside Plaza, Suite 1250, Chicago, IL 60606-6100
Better Business Bureau
330 N. Wabash Ave., Suite 2006
Chicago, IL 60611
If you receive a letter claiming that you have won something –an award, sweepstakes, or lottery- that you have never entered, please know that the letter and offer are not legitimate. Throw it away and don't waste your time.
If you receive an unsolicited check, even from a company that you think you recognize, and are asked to deposit it into your account and forward the funds somewhere else- beware. This is a scam that goes under many versions. The check is has no funds behind it and you will forward your own money from your account. If you don't have enough money, you account will go into a negative balance and you may be held responsible for check fraud by your financial institution.
Be very cautious when somebody asks you to become a Mystery Shopper or a Secret Shopper- many of these offers are fraudulent or ask you to pay in advance for information that is dubious, out of date, or illegitimate altogether.
Most of the check scams and fake lottery notifications come from Canada, Nigeria, and other foreign countries, and use fake or stolen US addresses to make it look as though they are local.
If you decide to take the risk and follow up on the offer you receive in the mail, please note that you are likely dealing with somebody who is in a different country, and the odds of getting your money back should you lose it are virtually nonexistent. Don't do it!
If you receive something in the mail or are contacted by a company you don't know, contact your local Better Business Bureau for help. The BBB will help you identify what you have been sent and will be able to assist you with what to do next.