Locals tangled up in work-at-home schemes

Monday, July 27, 2009 at 12:00am

In hard economic times, everyone seems to be counting their cash and looking for new ways to make a buck. In order to stay ahead of the repo man or to stay on top of mortgage payments, Middle Tennesseans are constantly on the lookout for ways to augment their incomes with second jobs.

However, one person’s opportunity can be another person’s scam, according to officials of the Better Business Bureau and U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Everyone has seen advertisements enticing for you to earn a lot of money from the comfort of your own home. The ads can be found in newspapers, on Web sites such as Craigslist.com, on bulletin boards and even on telephone poles.

The job listings boast that you can make big money from your own easy chair by working as a “mystery shopper,” mail/payment processor, interviewer or surveyor and many others. And if none of those jobs fit your fancy, then you can respond to advertisements that promise you’ll be sent a book or pamphlets where you will be given the secrets to how make working at home work for you.

Well, you can’t and you won’t, so don’t do it, officials say.

According to Kimberly Lynn of the Better Business Bureau and Jim Hayes of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service if you pursue these ads most likely you will become the victim of a scheme that could hurt you financially — anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands.

Worse, in many cases, they say, you can become the unwitting participant of a well-organized criminal operation.

Lynn says that the Better Business Bureau received more than a million phone calls nationwide last year from individuals asking about the legitimacy of “work at home” opportunities. Callers were inquiring about ads that promised to send information on how to start your own business and make thousands of dollars a week with no real effort on your part.

The basic catch: Just send a couple of hundred dollars and then you would be privy to the secrets of making money while you sleep.

The answer callers get to the question according to Lynn is: If it seems too good to be true, then it is.

Hard to investigate complaints

The BBB got more than 3,300 complaints about these programs last year from callers who either hadn’t heeded their advice or didn’t do their research before buying the “programs.” What they had received in the mail were manuals that were out of date and filled with platitudes, the only person who could possibly make money off the deal was the guy that sold the book in the first place.

Adding insult to injury, Lynn says that once you get on one mailing list after having been sent useless information the first time, your name is on a master list sold back and forth to others operating the same type of easy money scams. They figure if you bit once, you might take the bait again.

Hayes told The City Paper that he hears those types of complaints a lot but there is little that law enforcement can do in those situations. If people simply were promised information for their money, prosecuting the people who sent the information — only because it is of little use when it arrives — is difficult.

What Hayes can investigate within his jurisdiction are people who are lured by the promise of easy cash and end up becoming accomplices in an international criminal enterprise.

One example, according to Hayes, is the case of a Middle Tennessee woman. While he couldn’t give her name or where she lives because of an ongoing investigation, he did outline the scam that was discovered in the last few weeks.

The woman, a married college educated professional in a middle class household, decided she wanted to help her family by making some extra income. She responded to a work-at-home advertisement and was informed that she would be a “payment processor.”

According to the people she was working for, it was explained to her they were part of a company operating outside of the United States, and because of that they could not open a bank account. What the company needed her to do was receive checks in the mail that had been made out to her, keep 10 percent for herself, and then wire the rest back to the company. That was it.

Many people seem to be aware of these types of scams originating from Nigeria or other African countries as have been documented, however it is important to note that these “companies” with people asking you to process the checks could be in places like Jamaica or Canada — virtually anywhere.

What the Midstate woman was doing, according to Hayes, was processing checks and wiring money to a person who was using the online auction site eBay to sell items purchased with stolen credit cards.

The checks the woman was getting in the mail were from people who as high bidders had “won” items on eBay. The items they had “won” (purchased with stolen credit card numbers) were sent to them, but had to be paid with personal or cashier’s checks. When the high bidder sent the payment to the Midstate woman, she then took her cut and sent the rest (in cash) on to her “employer.”

Hayes said that the woman locally involved in the scheme won’t be prosecuted — as she was an unwitting participant.

This scheme was uncovered when a retired policeman in Kentucky was directly shipped an item from Wal-Mart that he had won in an eBay auction. The retail value of the item was $200. He had only paid $50 and became suspicious.

His attentiveness put an end to the easy job held by one woman, but other unsuspecting individuals are already in place to carry the scheme forward, Hayes said.

Everybody’s doing it

In the Middle Tennessee area alone, Hayes says that the U.S. Postal Inspection Service estimates more than 2,000 people are doing the same thing. If they knowingly participate in the crime they face up to five years in prison and a $200,000 fine for every count with which they are charged.

Another work-at-home scam comes with the alluring title of “mystery shopper.” In this, you are told you are working for a well-known retailer like a Best Buy, Target or Home Depot. “They” send you a money order for, let’s say $10,000, and ask you to order thousands of dollars worth of products from them to be delivered to your home.

Your job is to then fill out forms about the quality of the products, timeliness of delivery, customer service, etc… Then you are supposed to send the products on to another address. You get to keep the leftover money as they claim you were paid in advance (with the money order) for your work.

What “mystery shoppers” don’t know is that the money order sent was counterfeit. That means that the thousands of dollars worth of PlayStation3’s they just shipped off somewhere came out of their pocket.

The person who sets the job up usually uses a disposable phone with prepaid long distance minutes. With an area code, scammers can have callers believe they are in a “home office” when, with phone services like Skype or Vonage, they can be anywhere.

“This is just one way that people are taking advantage of your desire to make easy money,” Hayes said.

Every time he and other law enforcement officials shut down one scam another more creative one pops up. There is no set formula — the criminals are always one step ahead in these types of crimes.

The best way to stop the scams, according to Hayes, is raising the awareness of people looking at the easy money jobs.

“People in a bad economy,” Hayes said, “are desperate to make money on the side and aren’t paying attention to the clues. If it is too good to be true, then it is too good to be true.”

Verifying postal money orders

If you need to know whether a postal money order you have is legitimate or not, go straight to your local branch of the U.S. Post Office. They can tell you with all certainty and you eliminate the bad advice that some bank tellers or money transfer companies can provide.

You can also call the Money Order Verification System at (866) 459-7822. If you suspect fraud, call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at (877) 876-2455 (option 4).