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Frank Gray

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Money for nothing, and checks for free?

The holiday season is a busy time of year for everybody – scammers included.

After all, who wouldn’t like a little extra cash right now? That makes it the perfect time for crooks to scheme to fleece more than a few people here and there.

Paul Hughes of Fort Wayne was targeted this season. He didn’t fall for the scam, but what is interesting about his experience is that scammers are now randomly mailing checks to people, hoping to con them.

Last week Hughes got one of those letters in the mail. It was postmarked St. Louis, he said. The letter, supposedly from a place called Delta Market Research, said that Hughes had been identified as someone who might be interested in making some additional income. It offered him a job as something called an item evaluator. Essentially Hughes’ job would be to go to different stores and buy items and report on his level of satisfaction.

Somebody wanted him to be a secret shopper. We’ve all heard of secret shoppers, and now someone was offering that job to Hughes out of the blue. And Hughes was even going to be paid in advance. The letter included a check for $1,400.

There are companies called Delta Market Research and Delta Marketing Research, but none of them are in St. Louis. One is involved in solar power development. One surveys customer satisfaction at amusement parks, and one designs computer systems for corporations.

It was a clumsy scam, really. Hughes was supposed to cash the $1,400 check, call someone at an 866-number that traced back to a Massachusetts company that was out of business, and wire $870 to someone named Martin Taylor. The rest he could use to shop and keep what was left.

The levelheaded among us know that companies don’t mail checks to people unannounced – not unless the checks are counterfeit.

As we said, Hughes didn’t fall for it. He called the police, who just told him it was a scam and to ignore it.

What bothers Hughes is that if he got a check, so did a whole lot of other people in the area and around the country.

Times are still tight, and lots of people who are desperate for cash or the elderly who are easy to con might have fallen for this. Those who did get suckered would find themselves in hock for a lot of money to whoever cashed the check, and some might even run the risk of being arrested for passing a counterfeit check.

In other words, the victim would be charged and no one would bother to look for the true crook.

Hughes just wanted to get the word out.

The advice is simple. Nobody sends people checks in the mail unannounced, nobody is going to hire you out of the blue as a secret shopper, accountant or anything else, and anyone who wants you to wire them money is up to no good.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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