COVINGTON - Desperate times call for desperate measures, or so the saying goes, but Covington Police Department Detective D.J. Seals warns residents not to let their financial desperation override common sense and drown out warnings from that "little voice" inside their head.
Scam artists have gone high-tech, but their game is the same it has always been - convince someone they're getting something for nothing while taking what they've already got. They accomplish this by sending unsolicited checks through the mail promising a job, sending e-mails promising large sums of money from persecuted citizens of foreign countries or even by snapping photos with a cell phone while unsuspecting people write checks or give other personal information at retail establishments.
"The person on the street has to be diligent with common sense and common sense safety procedures," Seals said.
Seals said tax time is a specially lucrative time for scam artists and in the last several weeks, law enforcement has seen an influx of people attempting to cash counterfeit checks who have been told that they have a job as a "mystery shopper" at Wal-Mart. In one particular case, a woman was sent a letter from Continental Staffing Group that advised her to make a $40 purchase from Wal-Mart, which fulfilled the requirements of her "job."
She was then to take the enclosed $990 check (which strangely enough was not from Continental Staffing, but from another company located in California) and go to the Wal-Mart check-cashing line and cash the check, purchase a moneygram for $830 to send to Continental Staffing and keep the balance for herself.
Seals said it's easy for people who are not pressured by financial straits to look at this scenario and say, "Well, this just doesn't make sense. Why would one company ask me to cash a check from another company and then send them the money?" but for the person who has been praying for their ship to come in, it seems like an answer to prayer.
"The reason people go for these types of scams is desperation. People are losing jobs, houses are being foreclosed on, cars are being repo'd ... it's rough out there for a lot of people. Then all of a sudden, this godsend comes in the mail. They see the job. They do not see the details that are there that will tell them something is wrong," he said.
To make matters more complicated, Seals said there are legitimate jobs offered over the Internet that require a person to shop anonymously.
"Secret shopper jobs are real," he said. "Usually what they do is send you to a fast food restaurant and there's points you have to check off like timeliness, type of service, that kind of stuff. If it's retail, you're rating the retailer, not the product. They usually reimburse you for the product cost and that's about it."
But hidden among the legitimate shopping surveys are the scams. Seals said one way to tell the difference is that the scammers don't require any information from their new "employee." They just send a large check and trust them with it - usually because it's forged and the scammer is shielding himself from the law by using someone else to do his dirty work of uttering a bad check.
His operation costs him only a letter and postage. He then sits back and waits to see who'll take the bait. If someone cashes the check and keeps all the money, he's not out anything because the money wasn't his in the first place. If the person is caught and charged with passing a bad check, it's not a problem to the scammer because he often is actually in a foreign country. But if the letter lands in someone's mailbox who successfully cashes the check and sends him the money, it's a free payday.
"If he sends out 5,000 letters and 50 people fall for it ... well, really. How many does he need to make it worthwhile?" Seals asked rhetorically.
Seals recommends that if you receive a proposal, search the Internet for secret shopping scams.
"You'll probably find the one that is in your hand. If all else fails, just call us. We've probably seen most of them, and I will guarantee you the one you're telling us about has the same parts with a different paint job," he said.
And, Seals warns, there is a point where the victim of such a scam can be charged with forgery.
"There's a threshold, and when you pass that common sense, known or should have known threshold, law enforcement will get involved," he said.
He told of one woman who admitted to him that she had been to several other banks before approaching one in Covington, trying to cash a counterfeit check she'd received in the mail with instructions to send most of the money back to a post office box.
"What it finally boiled down to was that she just wanted the money and she told me she never intended to send the so-called company any money. She was just going to cash the check and keep it all herself," Seals said. "She was a good person for all intents and purposes with no criminal record, but the dollar signs were blinding. I had no choice at that point but to charge her with a felony."
Seals said banks and retail establishments can usually spot these checks, but there's even a surer test.
"If there's that little thing in the back of your head that's saying, 'This is too easy,' and all of a sudden you're having to fight yourself, but go ahead and do it anyway, then you know it's wrong," he said.
Barbara Knowles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.