Bree Doepner decided to venture into the world of mystery shopping to earn money for her daily State Fair excursions. Then she lost $4,700 of her savings to someone named Andy Gibson, who quit responding to her messages and disappeared.
Vowing that she won't be intimidated, Doepner of St. Paul has a message for the thousands of Minnesotans who soon will fall victim to consumer scams: "Don't trust anybody. There are people overseas who are living lavishly on our money."
Criminals increasingly are targeting Minnesotans, using technology and threatening story lines to entice people into parting with their money. In just eight years, reported scams of all types in the state have doubled.
"I think it's getting worse by the day," said Dan Hendrickson, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota.
The agency operates www.bbb.org/scamtracker/us, one of the best-known sources of fraud data, which offers an interactive state-by-state map and testimonials from people who lost money.
Losses in the United States now reach $50 billion a year, the BBB said in its 2016 risk report. In Minnesota, estimated losses cost tens of millions of dollars annually.
It's unknown how many total scams are attempted in Minnesota because the state lacks a comprehensive database to track them. Some victims report scams to local police, others to state agencies and the BBB, and still others to the Federal Trade Commission and online consumer sites.
Many victims, embarrassed by what friends and family may think, stay silent.
In Minnesota, as nationally, phony debt collections and "impostor" frauds rank at the top of a long list of scams. Criminals often succeed in fooling their victims with the same fundamental deceit that has persisted for centuries.
"They get people to suspend their disbelief," said Ben Wogsland, a spokesman for the Minnesota attorney general's office.
Doepner, a nursing assistant, was new to mystery shopping, which involves secret reviews of customer service at various businesses and restaurants. Many companies pay customers a fee to inspect their local operations, but Doepner fell victim to a ploy that she was dealing with a trusted "Mystery Shoppers" site.
Corresponding with the alleged Gibson by text message, she was instructed to evaluate an office supply store. She received an official-looking check for $2,350, told to cash it at her bank and to keep $300 as her personal income. To measure store efficiency, she would buy four "reloadit" cards and put $500 on each one, using money presumably covered by the check.
The checks bounced
She graded the store on a series of questions provided her and then sent the reloadit cards and her findings to an e-mail address included in the instructions.
A few days later she received a second check for $2,350, deposited it and did the same thing. When she received a third check just after the first one bounced. When Gibson didn't return her messages, she investigated — and found the check came from a printing business in Atlanta.
Then the second check bounced. Because she had cashed two checks, she owed the bank $4,700.
"My rent money, my savings for the fair, was gone," Doepner said. "I felt dumb, I felt stupid, I felt gullible. I have bills, I have credit cards, and both my husband and I live paycheck to paycheck."
Doepner's experience is all too common in Minnesota, where recent court cases show residents have lost money in schemes related to pyramids, loans, unclaimed property, game tickets, telemarketing, rare coins, insurance, utilities, sweepstakes and so-called computer viruses where people pay to eliminate a problem that doesn't exist.
Law enforcement agencies say that as soon as they tackle one scam, another pops up.
In Oakdale and Woodbury recently, 74 private day care providers heard from "parents" alleging sexual abuse of a girl in their care. The extortion letter demanded money in exchange for silence, but police say none of the providers fell for the ruse.
Research shows criminals still snare most victims over the phone. In a debt collection scam, people are told they owe money for a past debt and must wire money or risk arrest and prosecution. In an impostor scam, callers impersonate the IRS, the FBI or local police.
"They certainly aren't afraid to use threats to get what they need," said Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry, whose office receives dozens of complaints a month. "What I would tell people is, ask questions. That's when they get nervous and hang up, or give more information to help us find them."
Hendrickson said that because of advanced technology, scams are now "a numbers game" where criminals exploit increased access to personal information.
"They send out thousands of e-mails, make thousands of robocalls, they never really stop. Like sharks, they're always circling," he said.
State lacks data on scams
The Minnesota attorney general's office has joined 44 other states in an effort to persuade five national telecommunications companies to implement stronger call-blocking technology. "The better solution is to stop intrusive calls before they ever reach the consumer," the attorneys general wrote.
Wogsland said there's concern that phone companies haven't stopped thieves. Robocalls and "spoofing" — faking a local phone number — render caller ID and do-not-call lists useless, he said.
Attorney General Lori Swanson sued Global Gateway, a Florida debt collection company that wasn't licensed to operate in Minnesota. Using various names and making threats, the company scammed a 42-year-old Brooklyn Park resident out of $366.95 she didn't owe and badgered a 53-year-old Lauderdale man at work while telling his mother, 73, that it was her responsibility to make him pay. The suit documents other attempts to defraud Minnesotans.
Phony debt collection scams sometimes succeed because "people aren't sure whether they owe a debt," Wogsland said.
Stacie Bosley, a Hamline University behavioral economics professor, said too little is known in Minnesota about why victims fall for scams and what should be done to help them avoid deception.
"Pitfalls about investments, about health, about decisionmaking when confronted with a tempting offer — those are things I think we haven't done a good enough job with," she said.
Moreover, Minnesotans are at greater risk because the state lacks a comprehensive database of scam complaints, said Bosley, whose research specialty is Ponzi and pyramid schemes.
"It is too difficult to get information," she said. "We're not getting a clear picture of what's happening in Minnesota. It hits like wildfire."
Another economist, Prentiss Cox of the University of Minnesota, said a federal task force is needed to prosecute scams originating overseas. Each of the 50 states independently filing lawsuits won't stop criminals, said Cox, who formerly managed the consumer enforcement division in the Minnesota attorney general's office.
Cox said it's nearly impossible to teach people how to avoid scams because criminals quickly adapt to detection and skillfully prey on people.
"Different scams approach different emotions," he said. "Greed and fear is mostly what it is."