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Scammers target woman with mystery shopping con

LAWRENCEVILLE - Familial strife led Hattie Brice to uproot from Maryland this autumn and move to Lawrenceville. Here she's found trouble of a different, more conniving sort.

Brice says she nearly plummeted into financial ruin when a group posing as legitimate consumer watchdogs Shadow Shopper tried to scam her into cashing a phony check. The ploy is part of an international scheme, though Brice's experience could mark its first appearance in Gwinnett, officials said.

The alleged con went like this:

While Brice was searching for jobs in the area recently, she was elated to find a letter in the mail informing her of a possible gig - as "Research Personnel" in a paid "Customer Research Program" supposedly put on by Shadow Shopper. Also included was a check, apparently issued by Provident Bank, for $2,990.

After depositing the check in her account, Brice was to spend the money at five businesses - Wal-Mart, Sears, McDonald's and two money transfer companies - while pocketing $300 for herself. The purpose of her expenditures, according to the letter, was to "evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of the customer service provided."

After the purchases, the letter instructs Brice to wire more than $2,400 using Western Union and Money Gram to a company representative.

Luckily, says Brice, she never got that far. Bank employees cried foul when Brice inquired about the check's validity. Should she have deposited the check, officials said, it would have likely bounced days later - long after the majority of the cash had been wired away.

The letter claimed Brice was selected randomly from a pool of 48,000 who responded to an online survey. Not so, she says.

"I never applied for any of this," she said. "I have an e-mail address, and I did apply to some home-based businesses, but I don't know how they got my home address."

While not the oldest trick in the book, the scam has been around a while. Banks have become "pretty attuned" to it and are alerting consumers, said Fred Elsberry, president of the Better Business Bureau of metro Atlanta.

Elsberry said scammers insist the money be wired, as opposed to sent via mail, to avoid postal inspectors' regulations.

"Having someone wire money against (a check) is how they try to avoid some of that (federal) prosecution," he said. "The postal service is the nation's oldest law enforcement agency, and they aggressively pursue these situations when it involves the mail."

Officials with the Shadow Shopper company did not return requests for comment.

Brice's letter instructed her to call a "research associate" by the name of Tim Water, at an area code listed in Ontario, Canada. Repeated attempts by the Gwinnett Daily Post to reach Water were unsuccessful. A recorded message says his voice-mail box is full.

If the scam has existed locally, it hasn't been reported to the county's largest police agency.

Gwinnett police Cpl. Illana Spellman said she queried local detectives with expertise in fraud, but none have seen anything like it.

Online blogs suggest the scam is a national operation.

"Wish I had seen this earlier - they took my pregnant daughter for almost $5,000," wrote a commentator named Robert from Salem, Va., on a topics Web site. "They are in Canada, so prosecution is extremely unlikely."

Bloggers from Texas, Indiana, Tennessee and South Carolina also rant elsewhere online against the scheme.