05/15/2014 04:08 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

Don't Get Scammed by Phony Job Offers

It can sound like a great deal -- a job you can easily do at a time when many jobs are contracting or going overseas, unless you are in the tech sector. You just have to work an hour or two for each assignment and make $200 to $300, averaging $150 an hour. But the catch is that you get paid with a check that's too much, and after you deposit it, you have to send off the balance to someone else. However, the check will turn out to be phony after about two weeks of processing. Then not only are you out of the pay for the job, but the money you paid from your own funds to the scam artists. Plus the bank may even investigate you for bank fraud. Meanwhile, the scam artists are far away -- very far, even in another country, so they are almost impossible to track down or prosecute.

A typical arrangement is that you are hired as a mystery shopper and your assignment is to go to a selected location, such as a Western Union or Walmart, to note how well the person at the counter performs. But whatever the task, it's really busy work, so you think you have a real job, when in reality, your job is to take the check to the bank and send the balance to the indicated address, sometimes via a Western Union wire transfer which is untraceable. And you aren't supposed to tell anyone about what you are doing, because you're a mystery shopper writing a secret report.

Or maybe there is some another scenario with a different type of job or task. But the key to the fraud is the phony check, money order, or cashier's check which looks real, because the quality of printing today is so good it can fool the average person. But if you call the bank or show the check or money to a bank officer, they can tell right away that it's a scam, though the average teller might be fooled and put your deposit through. Then, by the next day you think it has cleared, so you send off a check for the difference to the addressee as instructed. Meanwhile, it takes about two weeks in the system for the deposit to be identified as a phony, and things could be even worse if you have accepted several assignments and made several phony deposits, so you look like a scam artist yourself.

Now I should make it clear there is nothing wrong with being a real mystery shopper. I even did that myself for a local private investigator many years ago. He gave me some money to go to several stores, buy a few products, and watch the cashier ring up the purchase, since the owner believed the cashier was ringing up less than the actual price and pocketing the balance. But I got paid with a real check for the exact amount I was due.

But when I got my mystery shopper invitation I was already suspicious, since when I was in LA looking for a roommate, I got an email from a woman who claimed to be seeking a roommate, though since she was coming from another country, she couldn't see the place in advance. But she said the place sounded great and sent me a deposit, which was a little higher than the amount requested, so I should pay the extra amount to her traveler adviser. But after I decided not to stay in LAand advised her in an email, I still got a check for $3,000, which was drawn on a bank that was recently been taken over by the Bank of the West. So I never cashed the check, and when I took the check to the bank, the banker said it was phony, and it would take about two weeks to clear if I put it through.

Thus, when I suddenly got a $975 money order in a priority envelope without a return address, I instantly thought this was a likely scam, especially when the two line all-caps message with the check said to "EMAIL PAYOFFICER****@GMAIL.COM AND TEXT (714)***.**** AS SOON AS YOU RECIEVE THIS PACKAGE FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS," with "receive" spelled incorrectly.

My suspicions were confirmed when I called the community bank the money order was drawn on -- the Woodforest National Bank. The banker asked me to fax in the check and a few minutes later called back to confirm it was a phony check and several other people had already called about it. When I called the FBI for my city, they advised me it was a scam, too, and referred me to the U.S. Postal Service inspector to file a complaint, since I had received the check from the U.S. mail, and a few days I received a complaint form in the mail.

Then, still curious about what would happen if I emailed the pay officer as instructed, I quickly got back instructions to deposit the payment for clearance and then "go ahead with the Walmart Evaluation and then the Western Union Evaluation." To this end, I should purchase goods of my choice for $50; take out my pre-assigned payment of $300, and send the balance "to another mystery shopper to carry out her own assignment," since supposedly the goal was to "confirm the differences between local transfer and international transfers." Plus I was supposed to create a report with various details about the service I received. But that was all window dressing for sending the balance to a receiver in Richmond, Va. I could even get a $100 bonus for completing the task within 24 hours, and when I didn't do any of this, I got several follow-up emails to say they were waiting for their report.

In short, be suspicious -- be very suspicious -- if you get a job offer where you will receive your payment through a check or money order and have to send the balance to someone else. To check if this is a scam, contact the bank on which the check is drawn on, so they can assess if this is a phony check or not. Either scan it into a PDF and email it or fax it to the bank's number. Then, report the scam to your local FBI office or file a complaint with the postal inspector. Individually, there is not much you can do. But you can add your experience to the complaints on file, including providing the recipient's address to help the authorities crack down on the scammers. At the same time, you can feel good knowing you weren't a victim and you alerted the authorities to help protect others from becoming victims.