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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Woman Falls Prey to Mystery Shopper Scam

Gilroy - A shopping scam ensnared an unwitting Gilroy woman, who signed up to evaluate companies, and found herself wanted for forging checks.

The scam is likely rooted in Nigeria, said Sheriff's detective Sgt. Dennis Moser - and the Gilroy woman isn't its only victim. Similar check scams victimize thousands of people in the U.S. annually, said Kristine Kearney, spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

"This is a huge scam," said Moser, glancing at receipts. "She's no criminal - she's a victim, duped into a con."

Patricia Owen, 36, was sent a forged check along with a letter from Masters Research Inc. The letter, addressed from Minnesota, asked Owen to pose as a customer sending a $2,125 Money Gram payment to Dorian Hedquist in New Brunswick, Canada. In exchange for rating Money Gram at Wal-Mart, Owen would receive $300 in pay, the letter claimed. The check was supposed to cover the Money Gram charge and her pay, as a "secret shopper" evaluating the Wal-Mart service.

Owen stopped into Mama's Market in San Martin July 8 to cash the check before sending the payment at Wal-Mart, as instructed. The shop paid Owen $794 of the sum, and agreed to pay the rest when the check cleared. It didn't. Owen was surprised to hear the check had bounced, she said, but agreed to repay the store.

When Owen returned to Mama's Market, bearing a legitimate paycheck from her regular job, the store turned Owen away, and reported the case to the Sheriff's Office. Just before midnight, Aug. 30, Sheriff's deputies swarmed around Owen's home on rural Holsclaw Road in Gilroy, accusing her of felony forgery, she said.

Owen frantically combed her car, seeking the letter that would explain the scheme, as deputies searched her house for check manufacturing equipment. For an hour, she rustled through laundry piled into her trunk and rummaged through her home, she said. An hour later, she finally found it, tucked into the glove compartment of her car.

"I cried, I was just so happy to have found it," she said. "It was my golden ticket. If I didn't find that paper, I would have gone to jail."

The next day, Owen's name appeared in the Dispatch blotter - as a suspect for forging checks. The Sheriff's Office ultimately decided not to file charges against Owen, after investigating the scam, said Moser. But the Dispatch had already received information from the Sheriff's Office identifying Owen as a suspect Wednesday, before she was confronted by deputies.

Owen received the fake check after calling a number advertised in the Dispatch. The ad Owen answered was billed to a Maggie Stevens of Today's Stuff, a company located on Foudan Avenue in Palmdale, according to Dispatch advertising receipts. No Palmdale business is licensed under that name, nor Stevens' name, according to Palmdale city staff.

The letter Owen received lists an address in Bayport, Minn. Bayport police say the address used belongs to a legitimate window company, established there for more than 100 years, Moser said. Investigators believe the scammers stole the company's letterhead.

The Dispatch called the number listed as Today's Stuff and asked to speak with Stevens, and was told she was unavailable. When asked about scam claims, the person called abruptly hung up. Moser met with similar treatment when he called the number, posing as a victim.

"The check came back as not good, and now I'm stuck for all this money," Moser told the company representative, during a recorded conversation.

"You did not complete your assignment … So why are you calling me? Nobody can help you," the man replied, in a thick accent.

"You sent me a bad check," Moser said. "How am I supposed to complete an assignment on a bad check?"

"You're not making any sense," said the representative, and hung up.

The Dispatch ad Owens answered was pre-paid with a valid credit card, said David Marin, vice president of advertising for Mainstreet Media Group. It ran six days in South Valley printed classifieds, one day in the Pinnacle classifieds, and five days online.

"Our policy is to screen suspicious ads and follow up on all reader complaints," said Marin. "We are occasionally victimized, too, by bad credit card numbers from people pre-paying for ads."

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