Work-at-home scams: too good to be true

If it seems too good to be true...

This article is based on true stories of TwinStar members. The names and some details were changed or invented to protect member identities.

Look for these signs of a scam:

A advertisement to work at home as a payment processor, where you are asked to:

  • receive checks, money orders, cashier's checks, or traveler's checks from a buyer,
  • deposit the money,
  • keep a fee,
  • and send the rest to a seller,
  • especially if one or both of the parties are outside of the United States.

Looking for a job

Anna Smith was just idly checking the employment page on the newspaper's website, when she saw it: work from home.

Anna thought about being around for the kids, not having to pay for daycare, and being able to help out her husband Mike with the bills. 

She glanced up at the ceiling and thought about all those loose tiles on the roof. 

When Anna clicked on the link, she read that all she had to do was process payments between a buyer and seller. No prior experience was necessary, the job was easy and she would earn good pay. What a find!

It was so easy

Anna completed the application, and then received an e-mail from her new employer. He explained that Anna would be processing payments between buyers and sellers for a textile company. The buyer would send her checks to hold for further instructions.

Her first package came via FedEx a few days later. It contained 6 American Express Traveler's Cheques for $500 each. Then she got the instructions by e-mail: cash the checks, keep 10% for her processing fee, and immediately send the remainder to the seller in West Africa via Western Union.

She cashed the check at her credit union branch while she was out dropping off dry cleaning, then stopped by the Western Union office at the grocery store. When she got home, Anna sent her new boss an e-mail with the Western Union pick-up instructions.

Over the next few days, she got more packages of checks, deposited them, and sent 90% to the contact in West Africa. She had deposited $20,000, and kept $2000 for her fee. It seemed so easy, and she would be able to afford to replace the roof much sooner than they'd planned!

Not so fast...

Anna was just getting ready to find a roofer when she got a call from her credit union. All of the traveler's checks had been counterfeit.

They'd looked genuine to Anna, and even to the tellers at the credit union. But American Express had returned the counterfeits to the credit union.

Then the credit union took all $20,000 out of Anna's account. Not only had she lost her fee, she owed way more than she and Mike could afford to repay.

After a tough conversation with Mike, Anna went to the police. They told her that there wasn't anything her town's police -- or even the FBI -- could do to help her.

Even if the criminals could be found, the country where she'd sent all the money doesn't even have an extradition treaty with the United States. There was no way that the people who scammed all that money could ever be brought to justice.

Anna and Mike are repaying their debts and living a little tighter. Anna is still looking for a job -- to help repay the credit union instead of to get a new roof. But she'll be looking for a local employer, even if the kids have to take care of themselves in the afternoons.

Don't be like Anna!

Work-at-home scams are popping up all over, offering a fee for processing business payment transactions.

You will lose the entire amount of the counterfeit check when it's returned to your credit union or bank. And by acting as an unlicensed financial service provider, you are breaking federal law. The real criminals lose nothing, and usually can't even be caught.

It's easy to be fooled, too. The advertisements may appear on job websites that you trust, or even in the employment section of your newspaper. The checks or money orders often look just like the real thing, even to the people at your credit union.

You won't find out that you've been scammed until the checks come back as fakes. By then you could owe thousands of dollars.

If you have the tiniest suspicion that something is wrong, then don't do it! Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.