After graduating with a degree in graphic design from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in May, Ashley Brown was searching for a job when she got an email offering an opportunity to make some quick cash.
"It came through my school email, saying job offer for the summer ... easy money as a secret shopper," Brown explained. "I was like, 'Oh, I need money, so this sounds like something I should look into.' I clicked on it and went to the website, and it looked pretty legitimate to me."
Brown decided to sign up for it.
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"About a week or two later, I received a check and instructions in the mail on how to go about the secret shopper program," Brown said. "Basically, they wanted me to go buy some gift cards, and I would get $350 for buying the gift cards and filling out the survey."
Brown was then sent a check for $2,370.
"I deposited it in my bank account, and waited until the next day for it to clear," Brown said. "They sent me a text message, asking me to follow through with my assignment."
With the funds available in her account, Brown purchased $2,000 in Walmart gift cards and then sent the card codes to the provided emails. The next day she got bad news.
"The next day I got a call from my bank, saying the check that I deposited had come back from a closed account, and they believed that I was scammed," Brown explained. "I was just devastated ... not expecting that. I thought I had just made an extra $350 to do something easy, and then I find out that all my savings, everything I had is wiped out, and now I owe the bank $2,000."
And Brown wasn't the only one, according to officials at UMass Lowell.
"Email scams are common in higher education around the country and the university regularly conducts outreach to the campus about being wary of suspicious emails. Unfortunately, four students were recently subject to such a scam. University police are investigating and the university has issued warnings to all students, faculty and staff," a statement from UMass Lowell read.
Legitimate mystery shopping opportunities are out there, but you have to be careful. Some retailers hire companies to evaluate the quality of service in their stores and use mystery shoppers to get the information.
But the Federal Trade Commission says consumers should avoid offers in which you are asked to pay a fee to sign up, or deposit a check into a personal bank account, and withdraw the money for a wire transfer, or, as in Brown's case, to buy gift cards.
Fake checks are being used in a growing number of fraudulent schemes, according to the FTC. By law, banks must make the funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks.
The FTC says you are responsible for checks that you deposit, even if you don't know they are fake.
"I just wish somebody informed people that a check could clear into your account, and then come back later, and just completely wreck your whole account," Brown said. "I didn’t know that was possible. Technology is so advanced, you'd think that was not possible."
Brown is trying to work out a re-payment plan with her bank and she's concerned about her credit standing.