NO BARGAINS HERE: You just LOVE to shop, right? Well, how’d you like to make money doing it? Yes, you too can join the ranks of the Mystery Shoppers.

Except that instead of earning the promised $20 to $30 per assignment and up to $50,000 a year, you’re very likely to find yourself conned by telemarketers.

Barney Brantingham

One of the perpetrators of this kind of scheme, as well as the “bartender training” scam, is Santa Ynez Valley resident Stevan Todorovic, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Following up on an earlier Federal Trade Commission civil action which banned him from telemarketing for life, a federal grand jury has filed a 22-count criminal indictment against Todorovic.

His boiler-room operation, involving ads placed around the country, defrauded up to 34,000 victims of around $6 million, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles claims. If convicted, he faces up to 440 years behind bars. He’s charged with wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering.

Santa Barbara Better Business Bureau president Rick Copelan testified against Todorovic in the federal criminal court in Los Angeles on Friday. As far as I know, it’s not common to file both civil and criminal actions in telemarketer cases, but one factor could be that he is a “repeat offender,” according to the FTC. It obtained a 2001 court order blocking what it described as his selling of deceptive auction guides.

As readers of this column know, for years now I’ve been writing about how Santa Barbara County has become a nest of telemarketing scammers and their scams — everything from the “mystery shopper” racket to lists of cars and homes supposedly being auctioned by Uncle Sam for pennies on the dollar, bogus bartender training for nonexistent jobs, and fake lotteries.

Why did sweet, innocent Santa Barbara become a hotbed of fraud? The best answer I ever got was, “Where would you like to work: here or, say, Bakersfield?”

And, according to those I’ve talked to over the years, the Santa Barbara area offers an endless supply of students and others needing a gig and not asking too many questions about the ethics involved. Often these scams will “double-up,” that is, charge you for two useless lists instead of the one you ordered. And while they offer your money back if you’re not satisfied, they make it almost impossible for you to get it.

When I challenged a young woman I know about why she was aiding and abetting the cheating of unwary people through the Goleta outfit she was temporarily working for a few years ago, she replied with an angry email to this effect: “If they’re stupid enough to order, they deserve it.”

The FTC cracks down on these operations and obtains court orders to shut them down, but too often the scamsters pop up again with a different dodge aimed at defrauding the public.

The mystery shopper and bartender training cons are among the oldest. True, legitimate companies do hire people to check the quality of the service in hotels, restaurants, and other businesses. But a free list of opportunities is available on the Internet, and one doesn’t have to pay a fee to apply for a job.

Scammers charge for so-called “certification” training materials and falsely imply that jobs are available through the program. “Todorovic well knew that the … certifications were not recognized in the bartending or mystery shopping industry, would not assist victims in obtaining jobs, and, therefore, were worthless,” the indictment alleged.

The FTC also cracked down on a U.S.-Canada cross-border wire-transfer company that aided telemarketers who tricked U.S. consumers out of more than $84 million between 2004 and 2008. Victims were falsely told that they’d won a lottery or been hired as mystery shoppers.

In April, the FTC began mailing more than 34,000 checks totaling almost $18 million to victims of fraud schemes involving payments via MoneyGram International, the second-largest U.S. wire transfer company. MoneyGram knew that its system was being used to defraud people “but did very little about it” and ignored warnings from law enforcement, the FTC said.

Many of the scams involved bilking people by sending them a cashier’s check larger than the amount involved in a transaction. They tell them to deposit it in their checking account and send most of the money back using a money transfer. By the time the counterfeit checks bounce, the cons have grabbed the transferred money and disappeared.

Con artists notify you that you’ve won millions in a lottery. All you have to do is pay a fee for “taxes” or “customs” or “insurance.” Victims paid the fees through MoneyGram but got nothing back.

People are told they can get a loan regardless of their credit score. All they have to do is pay for “insurance” or “paperwork” or “processing” fees. They send in the money using a money-transfer service, and in return get, in effect, a worthless check.

To avoid money-transfer scams, the FTC says the following: Don’t wire money to anyone you don’t know, to someone claiming to be a relative in the midst of a crisis and who wants to keep the request a secret (a common scam), or someone who asks you to deposit a check and send some of the money back.


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