There’s a scam out there that uses a legitimate business to confuse its victims. 

Those schemes are especially prevalent this time of the year. Crooks are ramping up efforts to get victims’ money with shopping scams — like one offering a job as a mystery shopper.

Billions of letters pass through the postal service every day. Included in them are a certain number of shady schemes.

When one of those letters found its way to Wilson, Larry Collie first thought he’d had a windfall.

“I had a letter that asked me to be a mystery shopper for Walmart,” Collie said. “In the letter was a check for $1,950.49. It looked legitimate.”

The instructions in the letter were very specific: Alert the letter’s author by text that you’d received it. Deposit the check, withdraw the $1,700 immediately, and go shopping.

“They wanted me to buy $900 of iTunes gift cards at one Walmart and go to a second Walmart and buy $800 more,” Collie said.

The letter warned Collie he should only buy iTunes gift cards and something about the whole thing raised a red flag with him.

“I called the Better Business Bureau and they said it was a scam,” Collie said. “The lady at the BBB said to shred the check, dispose of it, and by all means don’t cash it.”

In Larry’s case, he fears would have been out more than the $1,900 dollars if he had deposited the fake check.

“They would have had access to my banking information and probably would have drained my bank account and everything in there,” Collie said.

Collie said he reported the incident to the attorney general’s office.

“These are terrible crimes,” said Attorney General Josh Stein. He also said investigating the fake check scam can be problematic for his investigators.

“The problem is, almost all these criminals live in other countries, so we don’t have the reach of the law to get them,” Stein said.

What makes it worse is that there are legitimate mystery shopping companies out there.

The Mystery Shoppers Professional Association said there are 1.5 million real mystery shoppers out there in an industry that generates $1.5 billion annually.

The Federal Trade Commission said the Mystery Shopping Professional Association is legit and has a database of mystery shopper assignments. It also tells people how to apply for those jobs.

The association warns people to be wary of companies that:

  • Advertise for mystery shoppers in a newspaper, social media or by email
  • Require that people pay for “certification”
  • Guarantee a job as a mystery shopper
  • Charge a fee for access to mystery shopping opportunities
  • Sell directories of companies that hire mystery shoppers
  • Ask for a check to be deposited and wire some or all of the money to someone

Healthy suspicion and a bit of research will ward off most would-be schemes.

“Protect yourself because it’s hard to get your money back,” Stein said.