HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - If you've ever wanted to be a secret shopper, or if you need a part-time job paying an extra $500 or more a week, this is not your chance.
Unfortunately, authorities say hundreds of people have fallen victim to a scam in which they think they're signing up to be "mystery shoppers" - regular folks who are paid to evaluate retailers. Some have lost thousands of dollars after cashing counterfeit checks and wiring money back to scammers, usually in Canada or another foreign country.
The Pennsylvania attorney general's office said it began receiving complaints late last year about such schemes, and the pace of the complaints has picked up since. It issued a warning to consumers last month to be wary of the offers.
The letters or advertisements look official, containing telephone contact numbers and more. The names of the fake companies vary - scam letters have borne "Express Shoppers" and "Mystery Shopper" company logos - and may even mirror the name of a real company.
Victims who received checks were told to cash them and then wire money as part of a training mission to evaluate a Western Union or check-cashing outlet at a Wal-Mart. But the checks have bounced, leaving the victims on the hook for the amount of the cashed checks.
"It would be a financial education for most people who fall for it, but it's not the kind of education that people want," said spokesman Nils Frederiksen of the attorney general's office.
Harold Cameron, a Scranton man who runs a consumer help Web site, said he has been contacted in recent weeks by people from at least a half-dozen states, from Nevada to Michigan, who were scammed by or saw advertisements by a company called "Master Research Inc."
In October, the Mobile, Ala., police department reported it was investigating an alleged secret shopper scam involving fraudulent checks sent out by Master Research that were cashed at a pawn shop.
No one answered a call from The Associated Press on Thursday to one of the company's advertised telephone lines in Alberta, Canada.
At another number, also in Alberta, a woman answered and said the number was for Master Research. Told the company was being connected to a scam involving fraudulent checks, she hung up. A second call went unanswered.
The checks may look authentic and may even bear the name of an actual bank or credit union and a telephone number where the person answering supposedly verifies that the check is valid.
One credit union whose name has been used, Countryside Federal Credit Union in Syracuse, N.Y., returned four checks Thursday morning as fraudulent, said president and chief executive officer Gerd Henjes.
"The question is, did the financial institution on the other end put the appropriate financial holds on it?" Henjes said.
An industry group, The Mystery Shopping Providers Association, says real companies do not pay anyone before they do actual work, and that mystery shopping is not a way to make a large sum of money quickly.
The Dallas-based organization also provides information on how to become a mystery shopper on its Web site, www.mysteryshop.org, and a list of its members. Master Research is not among them.
Authorities have made some inroads.
On Feb. 21, Canadian authorities announced the arrests of two scam operators, but estimated that hundreds of U.S. residents lost at least $150,000 to the scammers.
Doug Bem, a U.S. Postal Inspection Service spokesman, said the secret shopper scams are a variation of a more widely used scheme that victimizes a person who receives a counterfeit check from an unknown person, cashes it and wires back a portion of the cash.
In October, the agency announced an international crackdown that seized more than 540,000 fake checks with a face value of $2.1 billion. Dozens of arrests were made, mostly in the Netherlands and Nigeria.
"What we're trying to do is to get people to stop and ask themselves, 'Why would any business or employer or promoter ... ask you to accept their check and then turn around and wire money back to them?"' Bem said. --- On the Net: National Consumers League site on fake check scams: http://www.fakechecks.org Mystery Shopping Providers Association: http://www.mysteryshop.org
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)