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Counterfeit check scams are on the rise
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Kathleen Brennan of Gillsville received a fraudulent check for $4,775 in the mail recently. Better Bureau Business officials in Georgia say they have received many calls concerning the so-called "Mystery Shopper" scam, which asks the recipient to cash the check and wire $3,800 to an address in Canada. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

There may be a sucker born every minute, but Kathleen Brennan isn’t one of them.

Brennan got a letter in the mail at her Gillsville home this week that contained a very real-looking cashier’s check for $4,700, one that could easily be cashed at a local bank.

It would end up bouncing after the intended victim followed the letter’s instructions to wire $3,800 of the money to Canada as part of a "secret shopper" program.

"And I thought Canadians were supposed to be nice," joked Brennan, who followed the old adage of "if it looks too good to be true, it probably is."

Brennan is worried that other folks who receive the check might end up duped, and on the hook for $4,700.

"There are some people out there who are not real bright, and times are hard," she said. "People could really be hurt."

The "Secret Shopper" or "Mystery Shopper" scam is common, said Fred Elsberry, president of the Better Business Bureau for metro Atlanta and Northeast Georgia. A typical letter asks the recipient to cash the check, then wire the money either via MoneyGram or Western Union to a person in Canada, so that the "mystery shopper" can evaluate the performance of the financial services company. A survey form is enclosed with questions about the effectiveness and efficiency of the customer service.

The amount of the bogus check is always below $5,000 so as to not qualify for prosecution by the attorney general’s office, Elsberry said.

The scammers ask that the money be wired, not mailed, to avoid prosecution from U.S. Postal Service inspectors, he said.

And the letter almost always comes from another country so that local law enforcement doesn’t have jurisdiction, Elsberry said.

"We hear about this every week," he said. "We will get at least one or two calls a week."

The Federal Trade Commission says counterfeit check schemes are increasing with the advent of high-quality printers and scanners that can lead bank tellers to be fooled. Sometimes routing numbers on the checks are legitimate but are stolen from other accounts.

Capt. Woodrow Tripp, head of criminal investigations for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, said his office sees more scams coming in over the Internet than by mail. Nigerian flim-flams are the most prevalent, Tripp said.

If someone in Hall County loses money in a scam, it can be "very difficult" for local law enforcement to investigate a fraudster in another country, Tripp said. Most often, investigators will refer the cases to the U.S. Secret Service or FBI, agencies that already are dealing with huge volumes of fraud cases, Tripp said.

"(The scammers) really thrive on this," Tripp said. "They’re out of the country, and they know there’s not a lot local law enforcement agencies can do."

Tripp, a former Atlanta police commander, said he isn’t aware of anyone in Hall County being taken for a large amount in a foreign Internet or mail scam during his four years at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.

"I really do think people up here are a little wiser," he said. "The people up here have got a lot of good common sense."

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