WILKES-BARRE – Maureen Ward thought she was getting a great deal when a secret shopper company contacted her via mail in May to evaluate customer service at several area stores.
All she had to do was make some purchases and fill out a survey, the letter said, and she'd earn $300 for her trouble.
The offer seemed too good to be true.
She quickly found out: It was.
Instead of earning $300, Ward says she is on the hook for $1,995 to Choice One Community Credit Union in Wilkes-Barre after a check the secret shopper company sent her bounced. She's also facing criminal charges of writing a bad check and theft by deception.
The bank said the check was no good, and I said, ‘Oh God,'  said Ward. It was the beginning of a total nightmare. The bank is out the money and now they're going after me.
Ward, 60, of Monroe Street, believes she was victimized by a scam that takes advantage of the time gap between when money from a check becomes available and when the check actually clears.
Secret, or mystery shopper, scams were among the top 10 most common frauds perpetrated against consumers in 2012, according to the Better Business Bureau.
The fraud typically works this way:
• A consumer receives a check and is advised to deposit it into a bank account. He or she uses the money to make purchases from various stores and keeps a portion as their pay.
• The consumer will be advised to withdraw a large portion of the check as cash and wire the money to a location. This is purportedly to test the service of the money transfer company.
• The consumer does as told, only to discover that the check he or she received was fraudulent and was returned to the bank, leaving the individual responsible for the funds.
The scammers are able to perpetrate the fraud in part because banking regulations require banks to make funds from checks and money orders available within one to five days, even if the check has not yet cleared the issuing bank.
Ward was unaware of that regulation, she said. She assumed when the bank made the money available, it meant the check had cleared. Nobody is aware that when the bank puts a hold on it, it does not mean it's cleared, Ward said. That's how a lot of people are being victimized. If I had known that, I would never have taken the funds out.
Officials with area agencies that assist the elderly and crime victims say this type of fraud is on the rise in the region.
We are getting more and more people, particularly older people, who are victims of various types of fraud, said Pat Rushton of the Victims Resource Center in Wilkes-Barre. It's really sad. There are people out there who have lost tens of thousands of dollars.
Brian McAdarra, protective service supervisor for the Area Agency on Aging for Luzerne/Wyoming Counties, said another common scam involves companies that contact people, advising them they have won a lottery in a foreign country.
The catch: They need to send in money to cover taxes, or handling fees. The victim does so but never sees the lottery winnings.
McAdarra frequently visits area nursing homes, senior centers and crime watch meetings to alert residents of possible scams. A telltale sign that an offer is a scam, he said, is if you are asked to send money in advance. If anyone says you've won something or are being given something, there should never be a fee attached to that, McAdarra said.
In Ward's case, she said she got a check from GRT Net Services Inc., of Gorsham, Ore. She deposited the check and made the purchases as requested.
When she called the company to ask a question about the survey, she was told she had not done it properly. A man demanded she return the balance of the check or there would be trouble. Fearful she'd be sued, she withdrew approximately $1,600 that remained and mailed the cash to the firm. A day or two later, she learned the check was returned because the account it was drawn on was closed.
Ward said she was initially leery of the offer, but her initial contact with the company went well. She also had taken part in other, legitimate secret shopper surveys in the past, so she felt comfortable. He didn't ask me any personal information, she said. That's the first thing I would have thought if it's a scam. I had done this before so I didn't think anything of it.
Frank Sorick, president of the Wilkes-Barre Taxpayer's Association, learned about Ward's case. He conducted an Internet search and found a report of another person who claimed they had received a fraudulent check from GRT.
The Office of Attorney General in Oregon has one complaint against GRT in 2005, but it was a dispute over a refund and not related to any scam, according a copy of the report.
Contacted last week, Richard Fletcher, president of GRT Net Services, said he has nothing to do with secret shopping and that he, too, was a victim of scammers. GRT fulfills mail orders for various other companies, Fletcher said. Criminals got hold of his account number earlier this year and began issuing checks, he said.
Someone started doing scams with secret shoppers and selling stuff on Craig's List, Fletcher said. There are various scams I've been able to uncover, but I was never able to get to the bottom of who was doing it.
Fletcher closed his bank account after learning it had been compromised, he said, but the scammers have continued to send letters and checks with his account number.
Ward recently filed a complaint against GRT with Wilkes-Barre police. Police Chief Gerry Dessoye said a detective has been assigned to look into Ward's complaint, but that doesn't mean the charges pending against her will be dropped.
She may very well have been a victim, but unfortunately so is the credit union, said Dessoye. Just because you are scammed does not relieve you from criminal obligation. … She has to show she had no knowledge of what she was doing.
Tom Smith, president of Choice One Community Credit Union, said the bank is sympathetic to Ward's predicament, but it had no other choice but to seek reimbursement from her.
We are going after the person we lost to money to, Smith said. She is the one who made the deposit. She takes responsibility for it.
The credit union has said it is willing to drop the charges if Ward makes arrangements to pay back the money.
Ward is trying to do that, she said, but it's difficult because she is disabled and receives only $740 a month from disability payments.
She recently contacted the Victims Resource Center to see if she qualifies for any money from a Victims Compensation Fund run by the state. The fund reimburses crime victims up to the total amount of their monthly Social Security check or disability check, Rushton said.
Ward also is seeking help from the Commission on Economic Opportunity. The Wilkes-Barre Crime Coalition is planning to hold a fundraiser for her.
As she works to resolve her legal problems, Ward said, she hopes her case serves as a warning to others to be wary.
I'm embarrassed this happened to me, she said. I should have been smarter.
Legitimate secret shopper opportunities are out there, but there are also many scams. The Federal Trade Commission offers the following tips to avoid being victimized.
• Don't pay to be a secret shopper. Scammers often create websites on which you can register to become a secret shopper, but you first must pay a fee. Legitimate companies do not require to you pay anything up front.
• Don't wire money. Scammers often will have a person wire money under the premise of evaluating the money transfer company. Once you wire money, it's gone.
• Don't do business with any company that advertises for secret shoppers in the newspaper, by mail or email or one that requires you to pay a certification fee.
• Research the names of secret shopper companies. A simple Internet search often can reveal if any fraud claims have been made against the firm.
• The Mystery Shopping Providers Association's website, at www.mysteryshop.org, provides a database of mystery shopper assignments and how to apply for them.