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Scam victim mistakenly jailed
Other inmates have similar stories, authorities say

LAWRENCEVILLE - Authorities on Thursday said a Sugar Hill woman was mistakenly jailed this week after she fell victim to a money-wiring scam.

Duluth police arrested Charletta Key on charges of first-degree forgery Monday when she tried to cash a bogus check at her personal bank, said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais.

Jail authorities released Key two days later when evidence showed she was preyed upon by international swindlers purporting themselves as a legitimate Secret Shopper enterprise.

Upon her incarceration, "(Key's) daughter started e-mailing (Sheriff Butch Conway) and telling him the details," Bourbonnais said. "It appears she is more than likely going to be the victim of a scam."

Maj. Don Woodruff, spokesman for Duluth police, the agency that brought charges against Key, wasn't aware of Key's case, but said if erroneous information prompted her arrest, charges will be dropped.

"If this person is in fact a victim, that certainly will be sorted out," Woodruff said.

Key did not return a message left on her cell phone Thursday afternoon.

Online blogs suggest the scam - which has surfaced elsewhere in Gwinnett in recent months - is a widespread operation based in Canada.

In Key's case, she was sent a letter by a supposed statistics firm called I.F.P. Management Survey and Services containing instructions on how to spend an accompanying $1,590 check. The letter instructs her to cash the check at her bank, spend several hundred dollars at national retailers such as Sears and TJ Maxx, then wire $940 to an individual in London, Canada.

For her toils, Key was to keep $400. The purpose of the expenditures was to evaluate the customer service at each store, the letter claims.

Banks have become attuned to the scam and will often alert consumers that checks aren't real, Fred Elsberry, president of the Better Business Bureau of metro Atlanta, said last year.

Elsberry said scammers insist the money be wired, as opposed to sent by mail, to avoid postal inspectors' regulations - and possible federal prosecution.

In Key's letter, the writer claims the Secret Shopper firm obtained her personal information through a job search databank.

Bourbonnais said Key told authorities of other female inmates who claimed to have been victimized in a similar fashion.

"We're trying to verify that information and track those (inmates) down," she said.

Woodruff said times of economic hardship bring scam artists out of the woodwork. They often prey on unemployed and oftentimes desperate job seekers who can afford to lose the least.

"These scam artists that do this kind of stuff are criminals," he said. "They don't pull out guns and rob people, but they're just as bad."