Video: Just looking for honest work

By Chris Hansen Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 3/29/2009 6:38:08 PM ET 2009-03-29T22:38:08

The headlines seem to get worse every day. The economy in a nose dive. Unemployment at record highs. And in the middle of it all, Internet criminals are now targeting people desperate to find jobs. Officials warn the scam is spreading nationwide, often with devastating consequences for honest, hard-working families.

Carol Browning is a single mom raising a son, a daughter, and a granddaughter. She has a full-time job, a house in a nice neighborhood. But, now, she's at risk of losing it all.

Carol Browning: And I try not to let 'em see what I'm goin' through or see me cryin' or worrying about it.  But -- (fights tears)

Chris Hansen: That's got to be stressful.

Carol Browning: It is.

Carol got caught up in one of the biggest scams sweeping the county. As you listen to her story, step-by-step, ask yourself: Would you have done anything differently?? It all began just before Christmas, when Carol was searching online for ways to make some extra money. She spotted an ad for what sounded like a perfect part-time job -- as a mystery shopper. So Carol signed up online, and, before long, this letter with instructions.

It all looked legit: a company name, "Mystery Shoppers, PLC;" an address in New York City; even a toll-free number she had to call for training before she could start.

Her assignment: shop at a local Wal-mart to test how helpful the staff is, then evaluate the service at Western Union by wiring money to another mystery shopper in a different state. The amount to transfer?  Just over $3,000.

The company told Carol she didn't have to worry about the money -- they'd send a check. Enough to cover her shopping trip to Wal-mart, that big Western Union transfer, and her pay for doing the job. In all, a check for $3,850.

Carol got the check alright, but she was cautious. So, before she did anything else, she says she took the check to a teller at her local bank.

Carol Browning: She ran it, and she told me, "Yeah--

Chris Hansen: Good to go.

Carol Browning: It's good. You can get access to your money tomorrow."  And I said "You sure?" Not a seven-day hold on it?"  She said, "No, it's clear.  It's clear."

Thinking things were on the up and up, Carol followed the instructions.  She deposited the check, withdrew the money from her account, went to Western Union, and wired $3,100 to a company contact in Kansas.

Everything seemed fine until a week later, when she tried to get some money at an ATM.

Carol Browning: And it wouldn't go through.  It said "insufficient funds".  And this--

Chris Hansen: Insufficient funds?

Carol Browning: -- this was only for $20.

Chris Hansen: So you had nothing in your checking account.

Carol Browning: Nothing.

Turns out that big check was no good. Even though Carol thought she'd checked it out, even though her bank gave her the money. It turned out to be sophisticated counterfeit.

And you may be surprised to learn that in cases like that, a bank can still reverse the deposit - and hold you responsible. And that's exactly what was happening to Carol.

Carol Browning: Pulled the account up and told me that I was overdrawn $3,500 and some and I said, "What?"

In effect, Carol hadn't wired the company's money, she'd sent her own. Draining her bank account.

Carol Browning: My life just turned upside-down.  Because- I mean, I couldn't do nothing but cry.

Who's behind the job scams - cheating Americans looking for honest work? Join us as we go online and undercover, applying for jobs, and taking you inside the scams.

We're on the trail of thieves using legitimate Web sites to cheat Americans desperately searching for jobs in an ailing economy. With the help of volunteers, Dateline starts applying for fake "work-at-home" jobs. We go to well-known Web sites all across the country, including, MySpace Jobs, Simply Hired, and Job Planet.

And we discover the scammers placing fake ads - stealing the names real companies to look legitimate. Pretending to be companies like Genentech, a cutting edge bio-tech firm; Staples, the office supply powerhouse; even Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street giant.

Before long, we're hired by some of the fake companies, and the scammers start sending us money orders and checks. But phone calls to the real companies confirm the checks are counterfeit.

So, where are the counterfeits coming from? Dateline discovered the scammers actually recruit innocent people like Debbie Perry to do their dirty work by hiring them as so-called "payroll clerks." The jobs may sound legit, but they're really part of the scam.

Debbie Perry (shows check): This is the reason you called me. This check.

Debbie is a single mom from Ohio. She says she met a man online who used this picture and called himself Jackson Rolland. Offered her a part-time job, and told her to buy a popular business check-writing program called "versa-check."

Every week, her "online" boss would send her a "payroll" list with the names of people who were supposed to get what she thought were legitimate checks.

Chris Hansen: So lemme get this straight. He would give you the routing numbers and the account numbers.

Debbie Perry: The routing number, the account number, the bank name.

Chris Hansen: And what about the signature?

Debbie Perry: He e-mailed it to me.

Debbie showed us how the check-writing program lets you take a copy of a signature, and insert it right on the check.

Chris Hansen: And when you'd print these checks, did they look real?

Debbie Perry: Yes, they do.  I have one in your name.  Would you like to see it?

Chris Hansen: I would.  In my name?

Debbie Perry: Yes, I printed one for you.  (laughter)

Chris Hansen: Chris Hansen, $5,000. (chuckle) These look really-- real.

Debbie Perry: They look like a real check - and they even have a watermark on them.

Chris Hansen: That's amazing.  And in the beginning, you thought this was legitimate.

Debbie Perry: Oh, yeah.  I thought it was legitimate because he had the signature and everything.

Looking back, Debbie says she feels guilty she didn't figure it out earlier. But she finally got suspicious - and quit.

But not before the scammer who calls himself "Jackson Roland" had tricked her into sending out the same sort of counterfeit checks that fooled Carol Browning - and thousands of other people looking for jobs. And where is the scammer?

Dateline showed Debbie how to trace his e-mails.

Nigeria, a place where scams are so common, there's even a music video mocking gullible Americans. Turns out, thieves from Nigeria, likely operating out of an Internet cafe like this one, had turned Debbie Perry into an unwitting puppet.

We don't know how many people fell for the scam - but, in all, $795,300. Debbie sent out more than three-quarters of a million dollars in counterfeit checks. And she's not alone.

Shawn Henry: That is a typical scenario.

The nation's top cyber-cop, Shawn Henry at the FBI, says the troubled economy makes it that much easier for thieves to trick people desperate for work.

Shawn Henry: And that's where innocent people can be victimized.  Where they believe that they're moving money for a legitimate company.  And in fact, they're part of-- an unknowing part of a conspiracy.

The question: Can Dateline beat the scammers at their own game? Can we follow the money, and stop it before it gets into the thieves' hands?

College student Michael Montgomery was looking for a part-time job. So he posted his resume on Yahoo hot Jobs in Phoenix. Before long, he got this e-mail offering what sounded like a perfect job he could do from home with a big-time outfit: Compaq computers.

After an online interview with the personnel manager - a man named Scott Nash - Michael was hired as kind of an online accountant. But instead of sending him one of those counterfeit checks - the scammers had an even more ingenious plan.

They were telling Michael they were transferring $1,900 directly into his bank account. He was supposed to use some of it for expenses. But he was told to forward most of money by Western Union to a supposed computer supplier who'd send him equipment he'd need for the job. 

Sure enough, when Michael goes to the bank, the money's there, just like the company promised.

So, he withdraws it, goes to Western Union, and wires away more than $1,700 cash. Turns out, Michael had just fallen for a frightening new version of the job scam.  He just helped Rob someone else's bank account. The thieves had hacked into another account at the same bank -they'd transferred the stolen money electronically into Michael's account.

And, to get their hands on the cash, they'd tricked him into sending it to them by Western Union.

But it gets worse. When the bank discovered the fraudulent transfer, they reversed it.  And demanded that Michael pay the money back - just like they would with a counterfeit check.

Chris Hansen: So as we sit here now, how much money do you owe to the bank?

Michael Montgomery: I personally owe probably around 1900.

What Michael didn't know was that Dateline had been working for months, trying to track down where money like his was going.

In fact, when we answered online ads, we ended up with the same fake job, even the same fake boss, as Michael did. The scammer told us to wire the money to a woman in north Carolina. Her name is Linda Meredith.

She thought she'd just landed a real job as a so-called "transfer agent" for a big company.

But Dateline told Linda we thought it was a scam. And when we spotted the name of her online boss - the same Scott Nash - we knew we were on the right trail.

We were watching as the scammer gave Linda one of her first assignments: pick up money, then forward it overseas, to an address in (well, you guessed it): Nigeria.

But you'll never guess who the money was coming from: Michael Montgomery.

That's right: Dateline had been there, behind the scenes with Linda. The day the scammers originally tricked college student Michael Montgomery into wiring money.

Now, the same scammers were sending Linda to Western Union to pick up it up.

But when Linda refuses to forward it, there's a flurry of angry e-mails, and phone calls, from the thieves.

"Make sure you send the money today, or else I'll have the cops over you."

"I go chop your dollar ..."

But, this time, it's the scammers who have been scammed.

Linda is giving the money to Dateline to return to Michael.

Video: Protect yourself from being scammed

Chris Hansen: Here you go.

Michael Montgomery: Thank you. All the money I owe the bank?

This will definitely come in handy.

But with the sagging economy creating new targets for the job scam every day, the FBI says everyone should be on guard.

FBI Agent Shawn Henry: We've seen people who are highly educated victimized by these types of scams. There's nobody who's immune from it.

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