Moses Pennell, 22, of Anaheim, wanted to help with the expenses around the house that he shares with his mother, so he took a job as a secret shopper.
But when Pennell tried to cash the check, his attempt at a paying job landed him in jail.
“I was on Craigslist, and I kept seeing mystery shopper pop-up, so I called it and they asked me for my information,” Pennell said.
A month later, the company contacted Pennell and mailed him a check for nearly $2,000 and step-by-step instructions on what to do.
A legitimate secret-shopper gig pays the participants for shopping assignments in which they are asked to document and report their experience. The information gathered is generally used for market research.
But in secret shopper scams, the shopper is often given a fraudulent check which they are asked to deposit into their own bank account.
While the bank is waiting for the check to clear, the shopper unknowingly withdraws their own money to pay for the merchandise. The shoppers are then told to wire back any unused funds -- typically the bulk of the money.
Once the check bounces, shoppers are stuck with shopping bills and an overdrawn bank account and the money they wired stays with the scammers.
Before starting his first assignment, Pennell tried to cash his secret shopper check at a Walmart in Anaheim.
The transaction took longer than he expected, Pennell said, and he was eventually asked to step into a back office where he was informed that the check was a fraud.
Shortly thereafter, police arrived.
Moses’ mother, Kelly Horn, received a call from her son.
“Mom, I’ve been arrested,” he told her, “for the mystery shopper thing.”
Horn bailed out her son the next morning and was informed her son could be charged with fraud, forgery or other felony charges.
“It disturbs me a lot,” Horn said. “If it’s a felony, my son can never get a decent job and I don’t want that to happen.”
Last week, nearly two months after Moses had been arrested, the attorneys decided not to file charges against Pennell.
Pennell said he is happy to put the ordeal behind him, but still feels his good intentions were punished.
“I was just trying to get money, help out around the house, but I got arrested,” Pennell said.
Authorities warn that if a company sends you money before you do the work, it’s a red flag that the company is not legitimate.
In a statement, Walmart said their “associates are trained to detect potential scams or fraudulent activity,” and that they “cooperate with the local officials.”
If you have a problem you'd like Ana Garcia and her team to investigate, call them at (818) 520-TIPS or by email at GetGarcia@nbcuni.com.