John McDonald had never heard of Wynwood Brewery and, like a lot of people, couldn’t find the South Florida town of Medley on a map.
And so McDonald, who lives in Southern California, was scratching his head this week when he opened his mail and found a $4,900 check from Medley’s water and sewer department. The envelope’s return address listed its sender as Wynwood Brewery (falsely, as it turned out). McDonald hadn’t been to Miami in 30 years, much less Medley, an industrial suburb of 1,000 residents once known for keeping a roadkill museum in town hall.
It wasn’t raining free money. McDonald, like Miami’s first craft brewery and thousands of people around the country, had been sucked into an elaborate mail fraud scheme, sometimes called the “secret shopper scam,” through no fault of his own.
The scheme involves counterfeit checks, trips to Walmart MoneyGram kiosks and a loophole in the nation’s banking system. It preys on human psychology by offering up the promise of easy money, said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America.
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“It’s one of the riskier scams in terms of people’s likelihood to fall for it,” Grant said.
Here’s how this fraud works: The scammer doctors up a check — one that appears to be worth several thousand dollars and cut by a real company or municipality — and mails it to an unsuspecting person. The envelope includes instructions telling the mark they’ve been selected as a “secret shopper” to survey big-box stores.
They are instructed to deposit the check at their bank, withdrawing $350 on the spot. Then, they must go to Walmart to make a $50 purchase — keeping the remaining $300 as compensation for their time. Finally — and this is the key step — they are supposed to wire the rest of the check to the company doing the survey.
As part of the survey, the shopper sends an email evaluating how well the Walmart purchase and wire-transfer transactions were handled. (“Was the store clean?” the survey asks.)
The survey is a sham. And the check isn’t real.
But the scammers are still getting rich.
That’s because banks are often willing to accept checks without verifying them, while moving “provisional credit” into a customer’s account, which can be withdrawn immediately. By the time the check bounces days or even weeks later, the victim has already wired thousands of dollars — his or her own money — to the scammers. And the stolen funds can’t be traced.
To cover their tracks, the scammers put fake return addresses on the envelopes.
In this case, they used the address of Wynwood Brewery, the hip beer maker in Miami’s arts district that specializes in micro-brews like Magic City Ale and an IPA creatively named Hoppy Chulo. The award-winning company has generated publicity in beer circles, particularly after a national brewery bought a substantial stake last year.
Down the rabbit hole
The unsolicited checks are often sent back to Wynwood Brewery. They first started appearing last September.
“We have no idea why this is happening,” said Benito Rodriguez, the brewery’s finance manager. “It’s so weird.”
Rodriguez has a foot-high stack of checks, including one for $2,450 purportedly written on the account of an Oklahoma trucking company and issued to the estate of a dead man in Washington state.
When the checks do reach their intended recipients, it sometimes leaves Rodriguez — whose business card reads “Lord of the Ledger” — fielding baffled calls from people like McDonald.
Authorities don’t seem too interested.
Determined to be a good citizen, Rodriguez called the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, a federal law enforcement agency, to report what he believed was mail fraud.
Contact Miami police, he was told.
A Miami detective said there was nothing the department could do, since the brewery wasn’t the victim of the crime, according to Rodriguez.
He doesn’t even bother opening the envelopes anymore. When a reporter dropped by Thursday morning — regretfully turning down a free beer — Rodriguez began riffling through the rest of the envelopes. In doing so, he unearthed a clue.
While most of the envelopes contained only a single fake check, two were stuffed with instructions and a congratulatory note.
Those who follow the instructions precisely end up wiring money to men at two addresses outside Atlanta. But the names, like everything else about the scam, appear to be fake. They do not appear in Georgia public records.
If the scammers “have to show any identification to pick up the money, they may be using phony IDs,” said Grant, of the Consumer Federation of America. “A lot of these scammers are overseas, but there are fraudsters in the U.S. as well. They may be in cahoots with scammers overseas, it’s certainly hard to know. But they do not want to be traced.”
Ivan Ramirez, a spokesperson for the postal inspection agency, said it was possible a miscommunication had occurred with the brewery and that his agents would now seek to investigate the case.
“It’s a clear mail fraud from all angles,” he said. (A spokeswoman for Miami police did not respond to a request for comment.)
The Federal Trade Commission reported receiving more than 26,000 complaints nationwide about counterfeit check and money-order scams in 2016. That was up 23 percent over two years.
Ultimately, McDonald wasn’t fooled and called the Miami Herald. An assistant at Medley’s town hall confirmed the check was fake and said the finance department and town attorney are investigating.
“I don’t understand why nobody is really paying attention,” said Luis “Pops” Brignoni, the brewery’s co-founder. “We want this to stop.”