Savvy student recognizes mystery shopper scam

Kansas University freshman Luke Hothan, Ozawkie, displays a fake check he received before taking part in what he believed to be a “mystery shopper scam.” Before Hothan attempted to deposit the check, he did some investigating and found that the bank account the check was drawn on did not exist.

Lucas Hothan thought he’d make a few easy dollars working as a mystery shopper.

So last month after receiving what appeared to be a legitimate e-mail from a “student research” organization offering an opportunity to be a mystery shopper, the Kansas University student signed up.

“I was pretty broke as it was, so I thought it would be a good idea,” said Hothan, an Ozawkie freshman. “I thought maybe I’d get $30.”

He was stunned when a package containing a check for $2,850 was delivered to him. He also received e-mailed instructions to evaluate two Lawrence businesses, Wal-Mart, 3300 Iowa, and Western Union, 1015 W. 23rd St. He was to deposit the check, spend $50 at Wal-Mart, keep $250 as his pay and wire the remainder of the money via Western Union to somebody in California.

“That was pretty ridiculous,” Hothan said.

Hothan became his own detective and started making some inquiries. He did an Internet search of the name on the check and came up with nothing. The check was on an account with a bank in California. He called it and was told that account was inactive.

Next he called a phone number he had for the man who signed the check. He got a business in San Francisco and was told nobody by that name worked there.

“They had never heard of him,” Hothan said. “They were as clueless as I was.”

Hothan was relieved that he didn’t try to cash or deposit the check in his Lawrence bank.

“I’m pretty sure that by the time the bank found out the check was bad it would have been on me,” Hothan said. “I’m short of money as it is. I don’t need to owe a bank $3,000.”

Mystery shopper scams are common, according the Kansas Attorney General’s Office. While there are legitimate organizations that employ “secret shoppers” there also are a number of phony advertisements trying to scam people out of money, according to Attorney General Steve Six.

This week is National Consumer Protection Week and Six’s office is holding nine events throughout the state to raise awareness on consumer issues. A consumer workshop for Kansas high school students is being conducted starting at 8:30 a.m. today in the KU Union’s Woodruff Auditorium.

On Thursday, a shred-a-thon will be held at Lawrence’s Wal-Mart from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Personal documents with sensitive information can be taken for shredding.