Last week I became the victim of an Internet scam to the tune of $2,887.80.
To make some extra cash, I responded to an e-mail advertising a part-time job as a mystery shopper. The position sounded perfect for me: It paid $200 per two-part assignment. I would get to keep the merchandise (worth $50) from every shopping task. It would only take a couple of hours of my time per week. And I could perform it at my leisure, even with my kids in tow. In addition to stores, I could be sent to restaurants where my boys and I could eat delicious food I hadn't paid for or other business establishments.
Being a writer and natural critic (I am a Virgo!), I was genuinely excited about the opportunity to "evaluate" businesses. I make a paltry living teaching memoir-writing to adults, thus far through a park and rec department and a nonprofit community center. You can only imagine the big bucks I am bringing in! Not. My goal is to gain experience -- it's my first time teaching anything other than a sport -- while also making connections that can be later used as references. Within the next year or less, I plan to step it up by applying for a real position at an area college. (My Master of Fine Arts degree enables me to teach writing and literature at the college level. Heck, I am qualified to become a tenured professor! I just need to get there. Baby steps, starting with baby steps.) I have a completed book manuscript for which I need representation, but I have put my search for a literary agent on hold since the fall in favor of "building a platform." I came very close to landing the most incredible New York agent yet was rejected in the end largely due to my lack of same. Taking her words to heart, I am racking up teaching credentials, blogging, and have applied to lead a parenting-preparation workshop for adults with a single mother friend of mine. Overall, I am happy with the way this hodge podge of activities has proceeded for the past seven months, though they are by no means lucrative. My blog brings in no money; it is not that kind. (Actually, it costs me $3.71 each post to put the photos or other images I use on a CD. I have posted every five days since January 1, so you can do the math.) And the quarterly workshop, which my friend and I have been planning since last fall, will bring me no money until it starts running four months from now, provided we get accepted to run it!
Clearly, I am in a year of transition (and, boy, is that an understatement!) -- my first year working a job post-children (my oldest is eight and a half . . . years, not months), my first year working a job post-memoir (I worked on it seven-plus years, finishing almost one year ago), and my first year working post-graduate school (I graduated in December 2005).
It has been an exciting seven months. I have thoroughly enjoyed my students in the classes I have taught in two towns and been immensely inspired by their stories. Before the term "blog" was even coined, I wanted to do something similar: write a column. Tapping into my basic introverted nature in this creative way has been more than satisfying. But most of all, my blog has provided me with a voice -- one that has, thus far, otherwise been squelched since my memoir and another I wrote earlier about growing up a Christian Scientist in a dysfunctional home remain unpublished. The workshop we have planned goes hand in hand with my single-mother memoir and blog: all three seek to educate would-be parents (while the "Mad Mom" memoir/blog combo pack also strives to entertain and connect with actual parents) to better prepare them for the shock that is bringing Junior into the world.
I am proud of my ventures but, alas, they don't cover my mortgage, health insurance, utilities, groceries, or other seemingly countless bills that come due each month. That is, needless to say, a big problem. So when I saw the e-mail advertising the attractive mystery shopper job, I thought it looked very good, indeed.
How could I not pursue it?
As a single mother by choice, I am the sole breadwinner of my family. I have received no divorce settlement, and no child payments are made on my behalf. Does my situation make me more vulnerable than other people to fraud? I say yes. SMCs are not, by nature, more foolish than other women. To the contrary, I would argue that they tend to be smarter cookies than your next average woman because they have had to achieve a certain level of career success and financial stability to be even able to contemplate raising a child on their own. However, their aloneness -- in terms of perhaps not having anyone to bounce every decision they make off of -- coupled with their lack of a salary-contributing spouse make their financial situation more tenuous. In general, losing a job or being taken for a ride via fraud can have a much greater negative impact on the SMC than on the married mother.
Now don't get me wrong: I did not jump at this chance to earn more money. I was very hesitant to sign up for a job online because I know there are scams out there. I am almost always an extremely careful person. I have a policy not to give or even pledge to give any money to anyone over the phone, no matter how worthy the cause. I am tight-fisted about donating money, period. Granted, that has more to do with my financial state than anything else. I lock all my doors; have an unlisted phone number; carry identity-theft protection; cut off boyfriends and friends the moment they become abusive, manipulative, or deceptive toward me; have refused to advertise on Craigslist, eBay, or the like; and follow safe procedures when dating online.
But my system is not perfect. I have faltered at times and been taken for it. I had $350 lifted out of my purse in my SUV in broad daylight one morning when I failed to lock the door because I expected to be away from the vehicle only a couple of minutes. My then-three year old's beach toys were grabbed out of the SUV one night I forgot to swing the bike rack back into the upright locked position. An entire summer was stolen from me developing an online romantic relationship with a man from Match.com who turned out to be a Nigerian fraud. My travelers' checks and a sentimental bracelet I was making consisting of eight charms carefully chosen from the eight Asian countries I had thus far visited was taken in Thailand when I left a backpack on a bus during the driver's break. My brand new downhill skis were ripped off at Sugarbush North when I was in college. A rolled-up Chinese painting was removed from my backpack without my knowing it while I asked for directions in China. And when I was a child, my Snurfer -- the first snowboard on the market and the best Christmas present my parents ever gave me -- was snatched at a golf course in my hometown the first time I ever used it. I still have not gotten over that one, nor the fact that my parents refused to buy me a replacement.
This may seem like a lot of thefts (and I'm sure there are more), but I am fifty years old. That's half a century I am talking about. The biggest ticket items were the cash out of my wallet and the skis -- each worth in the low hundreds of dollars.
But the Internet theft? Close to $3,000. A whole 'nother level monetarily, and a whole 'nother level criminally. The loss of the money really hurts, particularly in my low-paying year of career building. So what went wrong? I made two errors that led to a third: A. I wrongfully believed that cashier's checks are bombproof. B. I wrongfully believed that a check "clearing" the bank means it's valid. And C. I wrongfully believed it was okay to send someone I didn't know (another mystery shopper, a.k.a. fellow employee) money via Western Union per part two of my assignment because cashier's checks clearing the bank = nothing fishy here.
My bad. My bad, bad, BAD!
Cashier's checks are the checks people ask for when I want to buy a big ticket item. I have bought many a new and used car with them, for example. The dealership doesn't want a personal check; it wants a bank-issued check. The cashier's checks sent to me certainly looked legit. They had a bank name on them, and they didn't raise any red flags among the bank employees who saw them. (I was scammed out of all but roughly $100 of the first of two checks I received. By the time the first check was deemed counterfeit, I was attempting to withdraw cash from the second. It was at that point that the bank employees informed me the first was invalid, making the second suspect and thereby preventing me from removing the cash per my assignment. The $100, incidentally, was spent on items purchased at two different Walmarts as part of the two assignments I nearly completed. I was entitled to keep the purchased merchandise, and as it turns out it was my own money anyway!)
"Clearing" the bank. Yeah, right! Clearing, I have come to learn, is a misnomer. When a cashier's check has cleared, its funds have only just become available. It has not yet been determined to be a good check. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? I think it does, and I believe the misleading terminology provides a giant loophole when it comes to banks protecting their customers. I waited until each of the two checks cleared before withdrawing the funds in the first case and attempting to in the second case. Had I been informed at the bank that "clearing" isn't what I or any other regular person would think of as clearing, I most certainly would not have pursued withdrawing cash at that time! I would have said: "Huh?" And that would have led to an explanation that I needed to wait several more days to be safe.
Perhaps I should have stopped what I was doing when I saw the name of the country I was sending the money to for the next mystery shopper: the Philippines. It did make me wonder just a little bit. But then again one of my mailing envelopes had a return address of Canada on it. It was an international business I was working for (or so I believed), so the international nature of using Western Union in and of itself didn't prevent me from continuing.
And that's the definition of a scam, folks! The criminals fly just enough inside the perimeter of believability to fool people into trusting their motives.
I have reported the fraud to my local police department, providing all of the e-mail and hard-copy correspondence along with my Western Union receipt. I have no protection from my bank in case of fraud, and I am awaiting a reply from my home insurance company about whether or not I can file a claim for theft by fraud. I conducted my communication with the mystery-shopper company while at home.
This is only the beginning. You can bank on that! Today I am almost $3,000 poorer yet unquestionably wiser. I feel violated, and I feel like an idiot. But I am grateful it wasn't more money, and I soothe myself -- misery loves company -- by reminding myself that I'm not alone. I don't wish this on anyone else. I just want to nail those sons of bitches and get my money back.