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Investigators: Fake check and employment scams continue to target Memphis-area workers

Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 5:01 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Mid-Southerners who have been laid off or had their hours cut during the COVID-19 pandemic are trying to find work.

According to the Tennessee Department of Labor, there are more than 250,000 job openings across the state and scammers are taking advantage of people looking for legitimate employment.

Joe Fazio had just been laid off from his sales job when he got an email advertising an open secret shopper position.

“It looked very credible from Kroger, or a research firm on behalf of Kroger, that was interested in hiring secret shoppers,” Fazio told the WMC Action News 5 Investigators.

Sometimes companies hire secret or mystery shoppers to evaluate the quality of service in their stores, so Fazio said the pitch seemed legit.

“I was between jobs, so it looked extra appealing to me to supplement my income, and I love to grocery shop,” said Fazio.

He clicked a link inside the email, which took him to a landing page, asking him to provide some basic information.

“Nothing too invasive, no financial information or anything like that. In a week I got another email saying that I had been ‘approved,” said Fazio.

A welcome packet arrived in the mail and Fazio immediately recognized red flags, including a check for more than $1,800.

“There’s something fishy about this because people don’t just send you that much money. You could just run off and do nothing,” he said.

The instructions with the check also looked suspect.

Fazio was to go on three separate shopping trips and buy eBay gift cards to then send back to his new “employer.”

Fazio says he played along for awhile, but his “employer” grew frustrated.

“He just said ‘did you get the instructions? Please do the assignments within 48 hours.’ Not personable at all. Not ‘Joe welcome to the family of secret shoppers.’ It was very, very cold and short,” he said.

After spending years in the business world, Fazio didn’t purchase the gift cards or cash the check.

“That’s just not the way business is done,” said Daniel Irwin, who does research and investigations for the Mid-South Better Business Bureau.

Irwin answers scam victims’ calls and then puts their reports into the BBB’s Scam Tracker tool, where consumers can search by region or scam type to find what scammers are trying to pull in their area.

“No legitimate business is going to send you a large amount of money, thousands of dollars, without filling out lots and lots of paperwork. New hire paperwork or being a legitimate employee,” said Irwin.

According to Irwin, the Memphis BBB has received 24 reports of employment-fake check scams so far this year, which is more than one report filed per week.

“Why do the scammers send you a check?” asked the Investigators.

“You cash that check and then you use that money to ‘shop,’ said Irwin. “It’s a way for them to get that money.”

When the check bounces, you’ve already withdrawn the cash and are then on the hook for it.

One woman reported that she answered an online ad to be a secret shopper for MSPA, which recently put a scam warning on its website.

She was told to cash the check they sent her, keep $540 and then use the rest to buy Kroger gift cards.

The woman didn’t fall for the scam and didn’t lose any money.

Fazio didn’t fall for it either but sees how someone could.

“Somebody’s going to get hurt,” he said. “This has got to be happening to somebody. They will have cashed that check and then they’re going to be in worse financial position after participating in this program.”

To avoid falling victim to fake check or employment scams, the BBB urges you to not cash a check from someone you haven’t met.

Pressure to accept a position is nearly always a red flag. Certain positions are more likely to be scams including mystery or secret shoppers, work-from-home positions, and package reshipment.

You can find more information on this scam here.

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