Cat Andersen/Eyewitness News
Indianapolis - A new scam is conning even the most skeptical Hoosiers out of thousands of dollars by disguising itself as a legitimate way to make a few extra bucks.
Karen Hardy has a job and a steady income. But her car just got broken into. Someone bashed the windows in. She needed a few extra hundred bucks to put a down payment on a new car, and thought she found a solution.
Showing us a letter she received in the mail, Hardy explained, "It just says that I could be a secret shopper. That's something I did when I was in college years and years ago, but that was legitimate."
Many mystery shopper programs are legitimate. They pay you to go undercover as a customer to rate products and services for companies that are looking for feedback.
Hardy was told her assignment was to spend $150 at either Gap, Walmart, K-mart, Macy's, JC Penney or Target and fill out a survey, rating the store's customer service.
"Because they're legitimate stores that you're going into, there's a certain sense of validity," said Deputy Attorney General, David Paetzmann.
Hardy was also asked to evaluate a Money Gram agency and/or a Western Union by wiring a certain amount of money and reporting back how smoothly the transaction went. She was issued a check for $2,980, told to wire back $2,310, and keep $400 for herself as payment for her work.
"The check looked real. It's from Harris Bank in Chicago. It sounded like a legitimate bank, and when I called, an actual human answered the phone. The man told me to deposit it into my checking account, and I said, 'I'm not going to give you my checking account number.' He said, 'That's okay. We don't need it.' and I brought it to the bank," Hardy said.
The victim in this case got lucky. Her bank caught the fake check right at the time of deposit, but the attorney general's office says in most cases, it takes banks 7 to 10 days, sometimes two weeks, to realize the checks are counterfeit, and by that time, victims have spent most, if not all, of that money.
"The checks look very convincing, and, just like the victim, the bank staff may look at the check and feel like it's a legitimate check and give the victim a sense of security," Paetzmann said.
Once the bank finds out the check is counterfeit, the victim is responsible for getting the money back.
"The problem is, once the money has been wired, it's very difficult to track," said Paetzmann.
The Attorney General's office says they're getting reports every day from Hoosiers looking to boost their income, who now owe $3,000 to $4,000 to their banks.
"I think the advertising is very convincing," says Paetzmann.
One victim who responded to a newspaper ad was asked to evaluate Wal-mart and their Money Gram service. In the instructions, she was told to act "cool, calm and confident" so as "not to arouse any suspicion" that she was a secret shopper. There was also incentive to act quickly: "As soon as you get the transaction done, a second assignment will be sent to you ASAP, so that you can start earning more cash," the instructions read.
"Anytime you're asked to wire money from a company after receiving a check should be a warning to people to be cautious," advised Paetzmann.
Legitimate "secret" and "mystery" shopper programs will rarely give you more than $50 cash. Most offer $5 to $20 per assignment, or they just give you the services that you're evaluating for free, by reimbursing you after your shopping trip.
Keep in mind it could take a few months to receive the reimbursement and you do have to claim it as income on your taxes.
Here are some links to legitimate secret shopper programs: