RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The U.S. Postal Service is warning about a scam that’s making its way around the area by criminals who hoping victims will fall for it because they might get caught up in financial distress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

It’s a variation on the “mystery shopper” scam that previously used what appeared to be real checks. Now, the criminals use fake U.S. Postal Service Money Orders.

A victim would not expect to find cash just sitting in a mailbox for no apparent reason, but that’s exactly what criminals want their targets to think when they send a letter asking a person to accomplish a simple task for cash. 

Here’s how it works:

People are receiving a package in their mailboxes containing what appears to be U.S. Postal Service money orders for several thousand dollars.  

The package also contains a letter asking the would-be victim to deposit money orders and then buy gift cards as a “mystery shopper” with a part of the cash, while keeping the rest of the balance as a “payment.”

In the scam that’s hitting our area, people are asked to spend at least $1,600 on gift cards and then call a number to report those gift card numbers. 

Once the scammers are given those numbers, they’ve got the money. 

“A few days later you find out the check/money order is no good and you are left holding the bag,” said U.S. Postal Inspector Eric Wise. 

Because of the pandemic, the post office says it’s seeing lots of folks fall for this variation of the scam. 

“When we’re put into a position of trying to find employment or income it makes us more vulnerable to things,” said Wise. 

This particular scam appropriates the name and logo of Marketforce, which is  a real company

MarketForce is so upset by the scam that it place a warning of its website telling people not to fall for this scheme and explains in detail how it works.

Because this scheme uses postal money orders potential victims can check if the validity by going to a local post office. They can determine if the money order is legit. 

Authorities have told CBS 17 in the past that many of the criminal engaging in in the scheme operate from overseas. 

Wise says “it’s  pretty time consuming” to investigate those scams and these days  “we do see a lot of them.” 

To add to the confusion, there are real mystery shoppers who get paid to check on stores, but they are certified by the Mystery Shoppers Association.  If you want to become a member, you have to contact them, they don’t solicit new members out of the blue.

At one point, criminals used to target the elderly with scams like this, but these days Wise said the scammers are seeking out all demographics preying on anyone who is hurting financially.