PORTLAND – There’s a new twist in the “secret shopper” scam that has been around for years: money orders that look like they're from the United States Postal Service.
When Mary Cogdill got an email asking if she wanted to make some money as a secret shopper, she thought, “Why not?” She has summers off from her school job.
Within days of signing up, her mailbox began to fill up with shopping assignments, as well as checks and money orders.
She was asked to shop financial institutions and rate how employees did.
"They just wanted me to critique the bank,” she said.
Employees at IQ Credit Union did well; they deposited her money orders and allowed her to withdraw nearly $3,000 in cash.
An IQ representative said employees know they sometimes might encounter secret shoppers, but that management never hires the secret shoppers to actually cash checks or money orders.
The money orders Cogdill cashed looked legitimate, which may be why tellers gave her back cash.
Cogdill was instructed to take the cash to her second secret shopper assignment at a Fred Meyer Western Union.
But a week after wiring the cash, Cogdill got a call from her bank.
"The bank said we have a hold on your account for two United States postal money orders you cashed,” she said. And her first thought, she said, was, “Crap, I've been scammed."
Postal inspectors said her money orders were counterfeit.
Cogdill cashed nearly $3,000 worth of bogus money orders, for which she was suddenly responsible.
When she learned the checks were fakes, Cogdill immediately stopped secret shopping, but the emails did not stop coming. One warned that if she didn't cash the money orders she would be sued.
"They're threatening me,” she said. “They're threatening to take me to court for misappropriations of funds.”
When those threats didn't work, Cogdill got another package and another check, along with complimentary bottles of wine and a note claiming the scammers were sorry that a bad employee had sent out the bogus money orders.
Included with the wine was also another bogus check they wanted her to cash.
The best way to avoid getting such scams is to never send or wire money to someone who asks to have a check cashed.
And when looking for a job, keep in mind that no legitimate employer should ever ask for money.